The very first Ultraman TV show was broadcast on July 17th 1966, making today the fiftieth birthday of this iconic hero.
Originally made by Tsuburaya productions in its studios in Soshigaya Okura, which still celebrates its connection to the franchise with themed streetlights and statues, the company was sold in October 2007 to Japanese advertising agency TYO Inc.
Bandai, the main licensor of merchandise for the Ultra Series later acquired a 49.9% stake in the the company and now produces the shows and movies as well as a plethora of toys and souvenirs old and young alike can buy.
Before I came to Japan I had not heard of Ultraman. His popularity was centred much more in Japan and Asia or with a certain minority of determined fans in the US. Having two sons though quickly made me an expert on his various incarnations.
I first got to know Ultraman Max who as the main character on TV as my eldest son began his interest in the series and we went through his various annual changes together. Each Christmas it was easy to get a new plastic figure or a new monster. and though most did look vaguely similar to me, even I managed to distinguish a few of the types. I remember best the likes of Ultraman Mebius and Zero though who became the Ultramen we saw most frequently in the last flurry of youthful pleasure my kids took in this fantasy before their developing maturity forced them away from it.
Not that they have completely given up on Ultramen, they may no longer play with the toys but neither have they been able yet to sell or give away their collections. Both are still increasingly passive members of the Ultraman fan club and have even had the chance to meet their heroes on various occasions. Highlights have included running out on the field with the famous Yomuiri Giants, who use the characters of Ultraman as a another mascot, going to an Ultra monster-themes restaurant in Kawasaki and appearing as extras in the TV show and movies with Ultraman X. Even I did that; pretending to run from monsters in the shopping streets and malls of suburban Kanagawa. And it was great fun too.
As I have said before there is something to to said for studying the genre and understanding its greater sociao-political or cultural abstractions so while I still have the excuse of my children’s interest I am going to continue shooting this very important part of Japanese popular culture.
Meanwhile. happy 50th birthday Ultraman