One of the longest ongoing Tokusatu series in Japan
After an apprenticeship in special effects on films ranging from The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya (see Wartime Anime) through the original Godzilla to Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (for which he made the forest move), Eiji Tsuburaya started the famed "monster studio" that bears his name. The live-action Ultraman, one of the enduring icons of Japanese TV, evolved from Ultra Q (1966), an SF drama series in the X-Files mode featuring the investigation of mysterious beings and events. As Ultraman (also 1966), it was taken over by the monsters and became a battle between the heroic Ultrans, citizens of Nebula M78, and their human allies, against often absurd but compelling monster opponents. It is still one of the most popular toy lines in Japan, with legions of new plastic monsters released every year.
The Ultraman (1979), an animated series broadcast during the period that reruns of the live-action series prepared the audience for Ultraman 80, commences with glowing symbols appearing over major cities like Tokyo, Paris, and New York. A new tactical team, the Space Garrison, is set up by the Earth Defense Force and discovers they are signs of a higher civilization from another dimension, the Ultrans, who came to Earth in ancient times. To fight evil in our dimension, they need human help. Young pilot Hikari flies out into space to investigate and is transported by a beam of light into another dimension, where he meets an Ultran and agrees to the merging of their life forces. Hikari can now use the star-shaped "Beam Flasher" on his forehead to transform into Ultraman Joneas (aka Joe). He can fight the monsters and aliens that menace Earth, and thanks to the lower cost of animation, he has a much wider range of power-rays than any of his live-action brothers. Episodes from this series were edited into a feature-length video, The Adventures of Ultraman (1982), for the U.S. market only. It focuses on Hikari's journey and meeting with the Ultran, and the space warfare elements. A few translated episodes were also released in the U.S. video market on one tape as Ultraman II.
Ultraman Kids (1984) was more humorous, a short movie of cute kiddie versions of the Ultraman family and their monster rivals. In April 1986 they got their own series, Ultraman Kids Proverb Stories (U.K.: Kotowaza Monogatari), in which Ultraman Zoffy and friends reenact wise maxims for little ones. The two final episodes were not broadcast. A second kids' series moved from Ultraman's home on TBS to the NHK2 satellite channel-the From the Apennines to the Andes pastiche 30 Million Light Years in Search of Mother (1991, U.K.: Haha o Tazunete 3,000 Man Konen).
The serious movie Ultraman: The Adventure Begins (1987; retitled Ultraman USA in Japan) was a Japanese-American coproduction between Tsubaraya and Hanna-Barbera and based on a story by Noboru Tsubaraya. Three stunt pilots survive a fatal crash thanks to three aliens from M78, who have linked life forces with the pilots and made them part of the Ultra-Force. The aliens' mission is to destroy four evil Sorkin Monsters hatched from asteroids that have crashed onto New Orleans, San Francisco, Denver, and New York. Ultra-Scott, Ultra-Chuck, and token woman Ultra-Beth now have a secret base inside Mount Rushmore and another under a golf course, plus three robots to help them out.
The video series Ultraman Graffiti (1990) featured more cartoony adventures for mini-versions of the Ultra brothers-a style that continues to dominate the franchise, at least in its animated incarnation. It was followed by Tetsuro Amino's video release Ultra-Violent Battle-Comet War-God Tsuifun (1996, Chotoshi Gekiden-Suisei Senshin Tsuifun). In the late 1990s, the live-action Ultraman was influenced by the postmodern angst of Evangelion, resulting in the more serious Ultraman Gaia TV series, written in part by Serial Experiments Lain's Chiaki Konaka. The Sturm und Drang of the Gaia movies was balanced in theaters by new cartoon Ultrakids features, Mitsuo Hi-kabe's Ultraman Company (1996) and Hiroko Tokita's Ultraman: Love and Peace (1999), featuring animation by Triangle Staff. This is the most recent animated incarnation of the series to date, though the original is often referenced in shows including Birdy the Mighty, Project A-Ko, Urusei Yatsu-ra, Patlabor, Doctor Slump, and the feline parody Ultranyan (1997).