From talking robots, the change of mecha now takes the form of not having any at all. Welcome to the realm of Tokusatsu; a realm in which I am almost a complete stranger too. I’ve only watched anime that are very influenced by Otaku instead of actual anime. In this realm, the role of robot changed into the form of an alien inhabiting a normal human who can transform into The Ultraman. A giant human being in a cool suit who punches kaiju. Yeah, this is a bit worse than a couple years ago when I just replaced mecha with cyborgs and said the same thing. Well, mecha and Tokusatsu are pretty adjacent to each other. Close enough.
Now, I do have some interesting reasons to watch this one too. Big thanks to some cool people from a Discord server that I am a part of to watch it. Produced by Studio Sunrise, The Ultraman literally aired at the same time or seasons as Mobile Suit Gundam. Yeah, while Gundam was being innovative and getting no TV ratings at all, The Ultraman was doing very well and yet isn’t as remembered in anime form these days. I mean, Ultraman is a very long running Tokusatsu franchise after all. Also, Yoshiyuki Tomino directed the last four episodes of The Ultraman after Gundam was canceled. Something which connects this show to Mecha March 2022 as well.
The Ultraman starts out with some classic cool superhero stuff. A meeting of a group of human beings as the nature of the world around them. In the 21st century where strange things are happening across the world from different kinds of kaiju, a group is formed together called the Science Defense Squad. Other characters like Mutsumi the nurse, Tobe the engineer, Marume the larger guy that somehow gets in for some reason despite being so annoying, the excellent captain Akiyama, and the one guy from space who gets merged with Ultraman Joneus from U-40 called Hikari. With their awesome ship the Super Maddock, the force is ready to handle these threats sort of.
So yeah, the first set up of this episode feels like some classic golden age superhero stuff. In a way that makes the comparison between Ultraman and superman pretty obvious. For a while the classic formula of this show is something bad happens in the form of a Kaiju as a piece of nature somewhere across the land, the Science Defense Squad is sent somewhere in their Super Maddock. They try to fight it and fail. Eventually, Hikarki comes up with some excuse to leave and transforms into the giant Ultraman and defeats it. So yeah, the fun comes from the interesting locations and the unique monster designs that are just a lot of fun to see happen even if the results are predictable.
Eventually the shifts start happening. Eventually the Kaiju themselves change and the story becomes more about moral lessons as they become more animals then monsters. Some are obviously either really evil on purpose and were sent to destroy the Earth because they are something the Kaiju are sent by another force to cause chaos to the Earth. Others are just completely innocent but end up dying in tragic ways anyway. Ultrman Joneus was sent to save the Earth from these things that were attacking. It adds such an interesting bit of intrigue or makes the battle feel a bit different for all the things there as well. A simple variation that adds a lot of things to it
Though, the real thing that gave me a lot more excitement was when the show included space opera elements to it. It also helps that Ultraman Joneus in Hikari actually died leading the story to go into U-40 and have the Ultramen fight against a threat that took the Ultramind. Hikari sees and then takes part in some cool space combat with Giant people versus space ships from another location. It’s a good mini arc that lets us all know the general stakes of the story and everything happening. The story sets up so many more things there. Space aliens, stolen Ultraman technology, the irresponsibility of this empire not keeping their technology themselves. It’s cool stuff.
I especially like how U-40 isn’t just a one off thing even when the story just goes back to Earth and the Science Defense Squad fighting against them. Ultramen from U-40 show up more often, aliens show up as well to fight Ultraman, and there is a good amount of ideas and other plots occurring and deepening there as well. The irresponsibility and mishandling of technologies of people who think they are pure. Everything in this show gets a lot more interesting for me even if I was still enjoying it enough. This show just becoming a big space opera show just made it appeal even more to me because it was just so cool. I love space operas and I feel like this show was designed even more for me. Especially the space prison that shows up.
That of course leads to the entire plot of the show much later on. Heller, a person who uses his Ultraman for immortality instead of transformation, attacks and takes over U-40 and then sends his minions or even random bits of technology to Earth to ruin it even more with giant kaiju. The threat grows to the point where the Super Maddock is replaced with a giant space battleship, the Ultria. I love the idea of all of that. The Science Defense Squad having a space battleship which is so much more technologically advanced compared to the rest of the Earth. Then the show goes 100% space opera at the end when the Ultra space force and the Ultria join forces together to fight against the Heller Empire. Yeah, the writing of the plot is very good.
Which brings me a lot to the weakest elements of The Ultraman. The characters are very simple and take it or leave it. Each one kind of fills a role that could be replaced with anyone. Hikari is a pretty stock and simple action hero whose only character trait is that he is the perfect selfless hero who was chosen by Joneus and he must keep that hidden for some reason. Tobe is just a mechanical genius that is either the pilot or the one who fixes the ships. Mutsumi eventually becomes the one who gets captured later in the story to carry the plot. Marume is just annoying and causes tension between him and Hikari. The captain himself gets replaced by Gondou who becomes the team’s big brother compared to Akiyama’s father figure. I think he is the most relatable character. The story is so good that it carries a lot of weight for the lackluster characters.
Visually, The Ultraman really does have a lot of the successes and failures of Mobile Suit Gundam. Lots of stock footage and off model shots of the Ultraman in out of proportion as a human being sometimes. The difference is that The Ultraman is more visually simple at the beginning and becomes a lot more complex and intricate later while Mobile Suit Gundam was always so super ambitious. The first episode has three of the same Kaiju attacking with some of the cheapest kind of animation there and eventually the fights get better animated and some very interesting and complex human wrestling moves and laser beams for all the great Kaiju designs.
I also love the mechanical designs of this show as well. The Super Maddock is one of the coolest spaceships that I’ve seen and the Ultria is a pretty stand mecha spaceship but is still great as well. Plus, I love how alien the Ultraman spaceship designs are from standard Earth designs. They also feel so much larger and differently somehow. Same with the designs of the planets and clothing from planet to planet. The Science Defense Squad has some great uniforms and the human veins have all the clothing designs that they need as well. The ancient Roman or Greek clothing of the Ultra people until they turn into their Ultraman forms go along with their ancient living style besides the advanced city below them.
In general, the show is very good. It had some not as interesting beginning but it got so much better story wise as it moved on. The lack of strong characters is something that kind of got annoying as well. Generally, it’s a well realized and excellently put together show that only gets strong and strong as time goes on. I’m pretty sad that it’s forgotten in the grand landscape of the anime world of classics itself. Especially since it is Mobile Suit Gundam’s contemporary that later became something when its original ratings were so terrible. Another hidden gem in anime history that is slowly getting more and more uncovered as time goes on. This show makes me want to check out some more Ultraman shows. Still haven’t done it yet, but I want to find some time to do it.