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The following article appeared in G-Fan #77, edited and produced by J.D. Lees (Daikaiju Enterprises Ltd, 2006). Many thanks to J.D. Lees for providing the opportunity and Brett Homenick for suggesting it in the first place.

A Giant Against Giants:
Ultraman for the New Millennium

Robert Hood


Episode 29 of the recent Ultraman Max TV series asks the pertinent question "Why Do Monsters Keep Appearing?" That monsters will appear is always taken for granted. One by one (or even in groups) they stomp into view: gigantic mutant reptiles of all kinds, sky-filling venomous blobs, huge deformed snails that shoot laser beams from their eye-stalks, multi-headed insectivorous freaks, gargantuan bovine thingamajigs, vast eye-monsters on thin wobbly legs (with cat-tails and a malicious meow, would you believe?), elephantine chimaeras, malformed mega-scorpions with death rays in their stingers -- the parade of monstrous absurdities is endless.

But why do they keep appearing?

Over the total span of the Ultra series and movies, various approaches to answering this question have been offered. Some are much what we'd expect, harkening back to themes common from other daikaiju eiga, such as nuclear mutation, environmental pollution and alien invasion. After reaching an advanced level of development (so one argument goes), humanity must face trial by monsters, where the monsters are metaphors for the problems caused by technology and an expanding population. Other answers are much more self-referential and even more metaphysical; an example of this from Ultraman Max neatly illustrates why this rather simple-seeming revisionist version of the hero is so interesting.

Episode 29 of the series begins with a TV panel discussion between three prominent (fictional) experts on the topic of why monsters keep appearing. Dr Yoshinaga, a scientist attached to DASH (the human combative taskforce assigned to deal with kaiju when they appear), offers Japan's unique geographical instability as a possibility. A sceptic scoffs at this and rather enigmatically takes what appears to be an existentialist view: the monsters simply exist and that's all there is to it. The third panellist -- a scifi author named Sahashi -- points to the fact that kaiju have been imagined since ancient times and have become a core component of the Japanese psyche. This idea is expanded upon later in the episode when he explains that kaiju appear because humans want them to. They are an image of great power and have fired the imaginations of so many people since childhood (where personal power is at a low point) that monsters have been manifested via the gestalt human imagination into (the show's) reality. Very postmodern.

On cue, in the midst of the discussion, a kaiju turns up and begins trashing the city, DASH takes to the air and the usual mayhem results. Suddenly, the episode takes a detour in black-and-white flashback to the making of a TV show several decades before. This TV show is called Ultra Q. It transpires that the author Sahashi and a bartender, Nanamaru, whom main characters Mizuki and Kaito meet just as the monster attacks, were involved in the making of Ultra Q -- and they recognise the kaiju. Its name is Ox Ghost Galenka and while they were filming back in their younger days Sahashi and Nanamaru had had to fight it off. Galenka had been smaller then; now it is huge.

Ultraman Max is summoned to wrestle with the monster and is being beaten until the bartender tells him that the monster's weakness lies in its tusk (as he had learned in the past by breaking one of them himself). Ultraman Max shatters the remaining tusk, but does not destroy the kaiju. Instead, when the monster begins to cry, Ultraman carries it off to a remote region where it can live in peace apart from humanity.

At the end of the episode the narrator repeats the question: "Why do monsters keep appearing?" and answers -- as the personnel from the early days of Ultra Q and current members of DASH come together to greet each other -- "There may not be only one answer."

This is of course self-evident, as the episode has illustrated. Yet while there are answers offered within the context of the show's central narrative, there is another answer suggested by assorted direct references to the history of Ultraman itself. The show mentioned in the story, Ultra Q, was the real-world precursor to the first Ultraman series in 1967, and the three main stars of that show play prominent roles in this episode of the new Ultraman incarnation -- Hiroko Sakurai as Dr Yoshinaga (who also played Fuji in the 1967 original Ultraman), Kenji Sahara as the author Sahashi and Yasuhiko Saijo as Nanamaru.

The implication of this tribute to Ultraman's origins is obvious. The monsters keep appearing, it suggests, because that's what Ultraman is about: a big costumed hero from space, in league with a bunch of human defenders, fighting big multi-formed monsters from under the Earth, from outer space, from other dimensions -- or at any rate from somewhere. This show is a variant of daikaiju eiga, or giant monster sub-genre of Japanese fantasy cinema, and without the monsters (or, more correctly, kaiju) there is no Ultraman. So of course the monsters must appear. They don't have a choice.

But more than that, the monsters are what viewers want, and they've wanted them with undying (if occasionally fluctuating) enthusiasm for 40 years. What better time to dramatically illustrate this fact than during the 40th anniversary celebrations of Japan's most popular monster-fighting hero.

This self-referential quality suggests a sort of adult sensibility at odds with the show's main demographic -- children. But that's one of the appeals of Ultraman. As with shows such as the long-running British scifi/fantasy Dr Who, Ultraman appeals to children on a base level while maintaining enough story appeal and variable sophistication of concept to keep adults interested as well. As a generalisation, it seems to me that the Japanese are rather good at this; they've certainly mastered it in their anime. They expertly tap the child in the adult and are able to exploit that inner child's hunger for the incredible. This means the show rarely plumbs the very darkest depths of human nature (though it touches on it at times) and through most of its history has moderated violence with cartoon-like absurdity, yet nevertheless it succeeds in creating a metaphorical structure that is unique, energetic and thoroughly entertaining to all ages.

Since the millennium, there have been four main incarnations of Ultraman (as well as supporting variants), plus another currently airing on Japanese TV: Ultraman Cosmos, Ultraman the Next, Ultraman Nexus, Ultraman Max, with the newbie Ultraman Mebius.

At times, these millennial Ultramen have been extraordinarily experimental, though wide-ranging variations of tone are characteristic of the show generally. Some have taken an adult X-Files SF-horror approach (for example, Ultraseven: Evolution), some have stressed human drama, some (such as Ultraman Zearth) have emphasised slapstick comedy, while others have offered Ultraman and his race a greater role. Nevertheless, knowing how far they can push the formula is a skill the creators have struggled with on and off. For, along with continual kaiju, the giant hero himself, spaceships, ray-guns, city-destruction and intergalactic wrestling matches, formulaic plotting is an over-riding feature of the show.

Indeed, some folk criticise the Ultraman series for being repetitive – the same old thing week after week, series after series. And indeed to some degree they're right. But for the show's legions of fans, Ultraman is not so much repetitive as ritualistic. There's a big difference. Repetition merely recreates the same structures through lack of imagination on the part of creators, with little essential variation and no real commitment. Ritual follows archetypal base patterns in order to express meaning -- and to encourage meditation on that meaning -- through the performance of certain symbolic actions. It embraces the audience, makes them feel comfortable, while offering a foundation upon which the creative imagination of its creators can build a rich, entertaining structure of variations on the theme.

There is a transcendental quality about ritual. All sub-genres of the arts have this ritualistic aspect; it provides a sort of template so that creator and audience don't have to rebuild their relationship from scratch every time, but can forge ahead with new variations from a position of familiarity. Even when the rug is pulled out from under them, the audience still has a general idea where they can plant their feet to regain balance, if need be.

If we look at the essence of what makes Ultraman, we can see what variations are set in place to give it its continuity. The basic elements of the concept are these:

  • It is tokusatsu, or a SFX-driven show.
  • It features giant monsters that turn up to attack humanity and its cities on a regular basis. The forms of these monsters are thoroughly fantastical, with little attempt made to justify them in naturalistic terms.
  • The main focus for the protagonists is an Earth Defence Force, which utilises advanced technology and other scientific expertise to combat not only the giant monsters but also any other invading alien menace.
  • The Defence Force is variously made up of men and women who fall into certain categories: the brave and good-natured hero (usually a pilot), the sensible (and senior) leader/captain, a competent and heroic vice captain, another pilot or two (often a good-humoured rival to the hero and a superb fighter), a nerdy technical expert (and comic relief), female clerical assistant/computer operator (who may play a combative role if necessary), and a young boy hanger-on. Variations on these stereotypes are usual. Sometimes a government official will have a recurring part to play.
  • The Defence Force headquarters is a high-tech base with a central control room full of viewing screens and computers, and a large, complex hanger bay from which the aircraft take off.
  • Of course, there is also the central superhero, one of a race of space giants from Nebula M-78, who bonds with a human host (usually the pilot protagonist of the Earth Defence Force) and manifests once it becomes clear that the Earth Defence Force can't handle the problem on their own. The human host must raise aloft some sort of talismanic device and call the name of the hero to bring him forth.
  • Ultraman inevitably fights -- World-Wide Wrestling style -- with the monster, until finally utilising his ability to focus and manifest a light beam or energy stream through hand movements. Generally he can only spend a limited time on Earth (3 minutes) before a crystal on his chest starts to change colour and blink, indicating that he has to wrap things up with haste or be exiled from the Earth forever. This gives the show an inbuilt urgency.
  • Each Ultraman has one or more alternative aspects or modes -- different sets of abilities that can be accessed depending on the need. These are represented by changes to his "uniform" (colour and helmet shape), so that he becomes, in effect, a different Ultraman.
  • Ultraman destroys the monster, often with the help of the Earth Defence Force. Ultraman and the Defence Force enter into a mutually supportive relationship to achieve their self-sacrificial ends.
  • The overriding message is one of optimism about mankind's future and a plea for humanity to recognise its responsibility in forging that future.

These elements appear in some form or other in every Ultraman series and every movie, though it is the often minimal variations to the formula that give each incarnation its distinctive quality. Over time, a degree of continuity has developed between series, but more typically each series represents an alternative reality and starts again from scratch, often referring to legends of the "ancient giant" who had appeared to help mankind in the past. I suspect that attempts to find a coherent chronological progression in the series as a whole are, however, doomed to failure.

The Millennial Ultramen

The new Millennium has brought with it a particularly self-conscious determination to experiment with Ultraman and evaluate the franchise -- at a practical level, driven by network dissatisfaction and perceived audience indifference. Tsuburaya Productions conceived a show called Ultraman Neos in the mid-1990s, intended to be an Ultraman for the new millennium, but it was not taken up as it was felt that there was little to differentiate it from the shows that came before. Elements of it fed into Ultraman Tiga, which was a somewhat different take and proved a great success, spawning several other Ultra shows and ultimately the extremely successful Ultraman Cosmos. Ultraman Neos/Seven21 did eventually see the light of day when it was resurrected in a direct-to-video format on 22 November 2000 on the tail of Cosmos' success. In a way, then, Neos is the first Millennial Ultraman. It is fair to say that attitudes toward the Ultraman concept as typified in the history of this show have led, post-2000, to a number of very distinctive Ultra shows and movies.

The Shows (and Associated Movies)

  • Ultraman Cosmos (Urutoraman Kosumosu -- series aired between 7 July 2001 and 20 July 2002: 65 episodes)
  • Ultraman Cosmos: First Contact (prequel feature film, released 20 July 2001)
  • Ultraman Cosmos 2: the Blue Planet (feature film, 2002)
  • Ultraman Cosmos vs Ultraman Justice: the Final Battle (feature film, 2003)
  • Ultraman Nexus (series aired between 2 October 2004 to 25 June 2005: 37 episodes)
  • Ultraman: The Next (Urutoraman -- theatrical film, released 18 December 2004)
  • Ultraman Max (series aired between 7 July 2005 and 25 March 2006: 39 episodes plus one special)
  • Ultraman Mebius (Urutoraman Mebiusu -- series aired from 8 April 2006 and still running as of this writing).

Ultraman Cosmos, the Pacifist

It is said that the central conceit of Ultraman Cosmos came from concerns over the effect of TV violence on children. There is an inherent violence in the Ultraman formula, even though it has been continually moderated by the cartoon-like absurdities of the presentation.

Nevertheless, Tsuburaya Productions decided to take a different tack with this show, and in Ultraman Cosmos they attempted to create a kinder, gentler Ultraman and to thus re-define in some sense the idea of strength. Not a bad aim to have, it seems to me, and a reasonably sophisticated one.

Cosmos and his human host (Musashi, played by Takayasu Sugiura) care about the monsters, which are seen as occupying a legitimate place in the scheme of things. The world is theirs as much as humanity's, and the struggle for the humans therefore becomes one of finding a way of avoiding the inevitable destruction the kaiju cause without actually killing or badly injuring them. This is not easy, as it both creates a degree of internal conflict and puts the Earth Defence Force -- in this case known as EYES -- at odds with members of the country's more traditional military forces. (EYES is apparently an Anglicised version of the Japanese term JI AIZU, which is a combination of two words meaning "love".) In the course of its lengthy run, the show managed to examine the many implications of this theme, including the ethical dilemma inherent in self-defence, that is, how do you resist violence without resorting to violence, and in what circumstances is it simply unavoidable?

In some ways the show recognises the difficulty of maintaining a workable level of narrative conflict under these strictures, especially over the long haul. So the creators introduce a series-spanning plot arch; the Earth comes under attack from an alien viral invader, known as Chaoshead, which can infect Earth-matter, especially the monsters, changing them into powerful, irrational menaces that are no longer susceptible to kindness. The infected kaiju actually morph into fiercer-looking, more dangerous versions of themselves -- mutant super-monsters of ordinary mutant monsters! This allows both DASH and Ultraman Cosmos to engage in some iconic fighting with the infected kaiju, usually until Ultraman weakens them sufficiently that he can use his special energy-draining or calming beams against them.

Another innovation that allows for narrative conflict is the fact that Ultraman Cosmos has several modes. His primary or base mode is called his Luna mode, a pacifist mode reflected in his appearance by a crescent-shape on his helmet and intended to indicate his nature: "like the tender light of the moon, a blue giant of gentleness". He does not injure or destroy the kaiju but attempts to corral them and keep them away from built-up areas. In this mode, Cosmos uses his various calming weapons and defensive capabilities.

However, should the need arise thanks to Chaoshead aggression or sheer unforgivable intractability on the part of the kaiju, he converts to Corona mode, which is a super-combative mode that includes access to more destructive beam weapons. Nevertheless, this mode is only a last resort and injury thus caused to the kaiju is to be regretted.

A final mode called Eclipse mode is revealed midway through the series. In this mode, which represents courage, Cosmos has access to some very deadly weaponry and it is these he must bring to bear when he finds himself unable to drive the Chaoshead virus from his opponent and is left with no alternative.

Apart from the pacifist agenda that underlies this particular series, Ultraman Cosmos remains a fairly orthodox version of the Ultraman paradigm. The Chaoshead plot develops toward the end and provides an overarching theme, but otherwise each episode has its own unity (with occasional ongoing episodes that provide a midway cliffhanger). Each episode generally brings its own plot and monster, albeit with a focus on the central pacifist dilemma. EYES is made up of standard types, the actors playing them giving the characters considerable individual appeal. Though some fans bemoan the "bleeding-heart" softening of Ultraman caused by the emphasis on the need to find peaceful solutions, the show proved to be very popular and its stars became celebrities (to the extent that the young male lead Takayasu Sugiura became involved in a national controversy that nearly destroyed the show midstream, when he was accused of bullying -- falsely, it was later revealed). Overall, despite inevitable low points, the show's much-improved production values (including some decent use of CGI) and appealing cast make it an entertaining series; and with its overarching themes it achieves a unity that some earlier shows did not have. It was, however, aimed squarely at a young audience, though as always it has sufficient sophistication and adult appeal to cross age boundaries, at least to some degree.

Three theatrical films appeared in association with this incarnation of Ultraman. The first, Ultraman Cosmos: First Contact, is a prequel in which the very young Musashi meets Ultraman Cosmos under dire circumstances that are eventually resolved by communal singing! The bond that grows between them carries over into the show itself, which is set some years later. The second film, Ultraman Cosmos: The Blue Planet, explores ideas of human evolution and responsibility in an effective and visually impressive way, and is perhaps the most impressive of the three. The third film, Ultraman Cosmos vs Ultraman Justice: The Final Battle, pits Cosmos against a female Ultra, who had appeared in the show as an ambiguous ally/rival and who here interprets some of Cosmos' less pacifistic behaviours as a violation of his mission code and seeks to dispense hard justice as a consequence. This is the most morally complex of the films and, in a way, a culmination of the theme.

Ultra N Project and Ultraman Nexus

The so-called Ultra N Project which followed was a deliberate experiment by Tsuburaya Productions to re-invent Ultraman, and brought on changes more radical than the thematic "reconciliation" overlay of Cosmos, even if they didn't stick.

The Project began in 2003 with a successful radio adaptation of Ultra Q, the original Ultra series. This led to plans for a new TV series. An Ultra character, Ultraman Noa, was developed in the first phase of the project, called Noa: Nostalgia. Noa appeared in stage shows and was set to have progressed to a planned TV show, though in the end it never eventuated. Instead the project moved on to a second phase -- Next: Evolution. This produced a theatrical film, Ultraman: The Next (2004), undoubtedly the best incarnation of Ultraman on the big screen and an excellent daikaiju eiga in its own right. This one is not classifiable as a children's film as such, but targets the sort of older general audience that other daikaiju eiga, such as Godzilla, Mothra, Mechagodzilla: Tokyo SOS (which was roughly contemporary with it), tend to draw on. It has excellent SFX and a sophisticated plot, full of well-constructed ethical dilemmas and thematic complications, as well as interesting human character interaction. It also features top-notch daikaiju spectacle. The show's theme mixes a positive Tsuburaya-esque optimism into the darker thriller elements and ends on the sort of sentimental note that Tsuburaya himself was fond of, without becoming overly saccharine about it.

Ultraman The Next himself sports a radical design: less superheroically colourful and more dark and edgy. There is a metallic quality to his appearance that previous Ultras have only had in the area of their headgear, and barely then. The sense of "body armor" is strong and "rubber-suit" absent. This is a super-cool Ultraman, less comicbook and more scifi. The design works well within the context of the narrative (which jettisoned the Earth Defence Force aspect of the template almost entirely), though in appearance he seems barely to be Ultraman at all.

The more mature nature of the film is reflected in the TV series that followed as Phase 3 of the Project -- Nexus: Trinity.

Ultraman Nexus is a totally unorthodox rendering of Ultraman, as far from the template as you could get without actually leaving it behind. Where Ultraman Cosmos clearly targeted children while keeping an eye on a general audience, this new series was consciously made for adults. That objective proved to be a big problem for the show, but in principle the ambition was an admirable one. It resulted in a series that is at times breathtakingly good, a radical reworking of the concept that takes it to places it has never gone before.

I don't plan to say much about the storyline as the show's various mysteries are so absorbing I wouldn't want to spoil it for the uninitiated. Who knows? One day, the show may be released officially in the West with decent subtitles -- we can only hope. In the meantime, I will settle for generalities that don't give too much away.

In contrast to previous Ultraman TV series, Ultraman Nexus is dark and gritty – a scifi noir form of the show, as it were; this one is no bright comicbook adventure. Much of it is filmed in shadows and at night, and violence can be sudden and deadly. In this Ultra incarnation, both monster and human aggression is discomforting and destructive – and in that context death and injury can and does come to the general public, the main characters and even Ultraman himself. We have seen such extremes in Ultraman before, but in this show there is rarely any going back. As in real-life, death tends to be terminal.

In addition, the Nexus universe spawns treachery and sinister conspiracies galore. Assorted government organisations are involved in monster defence, both official and covert (there is even a Men-In-Black style unit, the Memory Police, whose job it is to wipe the memory of any civilians who catch sight of a Space Beast). What some of these organisations are up to is what drives much of the plot. And it would be foolish to assume that normal Ultra certainties regarding the apparent transparency of comrades and allies apply. Hardly any of the characters are what they seem.

The show's central focus is on Night Raider, the combat division of a secret international defence organisation (TLC), which is where the main protagonists are located. Night Raider is an elite corps of fighters and pilots who must deal not only with giant monsters, but with the hidden agendas of other secret organisations and the machinations of various alien powers, whose tentacles may or may not reach right into TLC itself.

In contrast to previous shows the point-of-view character, Komon Kazuki, is not the human channel (here known as a Dunamist) for the light-giant Ultraman. That honour, at least for a significant part of the series, goes to a freelance photojournalist named Himeya Jun, whose memories of past tragedies haunt him and drive him to self-sacrificial extremes. Being Ultraman's alter ego is no picnic in this series; wounds sustained in battle by Nexus have consequences for the Dunamist, for example, and uncertainty abounds. And the influence works both ways. The Nexus' creators go to some trouble to establish that the space warrior's fighting style, abilities and emotional state are tied to the personality of the Dunamist. There is no easy separation between human and Ultra. This is a significant complicating factor and drives much of the narrative.

Indeed, the show's narrative structure is quite different to that of the standard Ultraman series. The "monster of the week" mentality is nowhere in sight as the series weaves a cryptic course through a labyrinth of conspiracies, mysteries and personal odysseys, working its rather intense way toward the inevitable -- and narratively well-integrated -- apocalyptic climax. In the course of that journey, the Dunamist role changes several times, and we learn that not all of the human hosts are quite human. Some episodes feature neither kaiju nor Ultraman, who only occasionally gets to wrestle kaiju in the time-honoured fashion. More often the fights are fast, brutal and oddly realistic, given the fantastic context.

For the much of the series, the kaiju themselves are relatively "realistic", too; the usual colourful array of imaginative absurdities is largely absent. In fact there are only a few types of kaiju (or Space Beasts) and they prove harder to exterminate than is typically the case, turning up again and again according to a sinister plan that only time and much struggle is able to unravel. More outlandish types of kaiju do enter the scene eventually, such as one weird monstrosity whose form is based on Munch's "The Scream". But unlike earlier series, such extremes are not frequent and when they do turn up their underlying symbolism is fairly strong. Meanwhile the viewer is treated to personal crises, much soul-searching and angst, Dark Ultramen, Dark Spaces, spiritual possession, the mysterious Prometheus Project, cross-temporal battles and final, hard-earned redemption -- in the form of another Ultraman.

In short, Ultraman Nexus is to the original Ultraman what the new Battlestar Galactica is to the old series: a thorough, darkly sophisticated re-working of the basic concept, stressing an ongoing storyline, complex characterisation and mature dramatics.

This less "fun", more serious Ultraman did not go down well with many fans. Moreover, the network perversely aired the show at the usual children's timeslot of 7.30 on Saturday morning, despite its obvious adult orientation. The kids were understandably confused by it and its adult audience never connected with it, so ratings proved poor. It has developed a following on DVD since, as such left-field endeavours often do; but none of this encouraged Tsuburaya Productions to go ahead with a planned feature film version. As an experiment Ultraman Nexus may have proved a great artistic success, but it was a conceptual failure nevertheless.

Ultraman Max

After the ratings failure of Ultraman Nexus, Tsuburaya Productions decided to return Ultraman to its old formula – and they did so with a vengeance.

The new series, Ultraman Max, reinstated the single-episode structure that is most characteristic of the franchise. But more to the point, it brought back all those basic elements that I listed earlier. Once again the kaiju attacks became a cavalcade of extravagant absurdities -- a joyful celebration of monstrous diversity and imaginative indulgence. In fact, the design work is arguably even more "out there" than in earlier Ultra series, with monsters that defy logic on almost every level.

Moreover, the tone of Ultraman Max is light-dramatic, humorous, even at times slapstick and absurdist; the technology used by the Earth defence Force is wildly archetypal, with even the classic female computer-operator stereotype becoming a sexy and endearing android named Elly; the characters become less angst-ridden and conflicted (though some such elements remain) and display the sort of wholesome good-humour that existed in the early series. The plots -- mostly confined to a single episode -- are lively and adventurous, with lots of Ultraman vs kaiju action, a heap of comedy and an open, colourful atmosphere. No brooding emotional turmoil here.

Not only does the series re-assert the franchise's essential elements, Ultraman Max harkens back to the original 1967 series in ways that make it nostalgically appealing to those now-grown-up kids who were its earliest fans. It is, in many ways, a celebration of Ultraman's beginnings. The opening credit sequence signals this by visually replicating elements from the first Ultraman's opening: silhouettes of both Ultraman and the kaiju against a colourful background.

Moreover, classic monsters from the debut series, such as Antlar, Red King, Gomora, Pigmon, Eleking and the infamous Baltans, are resurrected, benefiting from a bigger budget and enhanced technical expertise – re-designed for the new millennium. As in the already-mentioned Episode 29, original actors from Ultraman's past return, some of them in major ongoing roles: Susumu Kurobe (protagonist Hayata from the original Ultraman) plays General Kenzo Tomioka; Hiroko Sakurai (computer-gal Fuji in the original) plays Professor Yukari Yoshinaga; and Masanara Nihei (Mitsuhiro Ide, or "Ito") plays Professor Deta, a lesser but rather iconic role.

Another attraction of the series is the use of well-known auteur directors, Shusuke Kaneko (of the Heisei Gamera trilogy and Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack) and Takashi Miike (controversial director of the gruelling horror film Audition, as well as the ghost flick One Missed Call and Yokai Daisenso or The Great Yokai War). Whatever you think of their work, these two very individual directors are a distinct drawcard and bring a unique sensibility to the Ultraman Max episodes they helm. In particular, Kaneko's two-part finale benefits from the director's big-screen experience.

Max features the occasional experimental episode, such as the uniquely stylised "Butterfly's Dream" in which the episode's screenwriter dreams that he is Ultraman in an alternative reality; new monsters take on a life of their own, and fiction and reality crossover in bizarre ways. Miike's two episodes – "Who Am I?" and "Miracle of the Third Planet" – are similarly weird. In the first the world suffers an attack of amnesia, so that even Ultraman Max finds himself unable to remember who he is and how to fight the weird one-eyed cat-monsters that turn up to plague DASH. Miike's second episode is a very touching tale, with a hard edge, about a young blind girl whose musical ambitions are thwarted by a giant monster – and features one of the strangest and most poignant endings of the lot, as the girl's flute-playing changes the kaiju into a vast conglomeration of instruments producing gentle musical riffs.

All up, Ultraman Max is an excellent series that fully captures the fun aspects of the Ultraman franchise. It looks good, the monsters are beautifully constructed to maintain a connection with the past while improving their appearance technically, the scripts are varied in approach and tone, and the actors are engaging enough to make their fairly standardised characters memorable. There's a perfect balance maintained between sentimentality and suspense – and almost always the show is thoroughly entertaining.

Ultraman Max was a great success for the network and Tsuburaya Productions, and as such has probably sealed the fate of further attempts at the more challenging and sophisticated approach taken by Ultraman Nexus.

At the time of writing, the series that followed on from Ultraman Max -- Ultraman Mebius -- is currently airing on Japanese TV and very few episodes have been available for viewing. What is clear, however, is that the show has taken much the same route as Ultraman Max, without the same level of attention given to celebrating past shows. It does, however, boast a similar combination of adventure, comedy, light-drama and kaiju absurdity.

The titular Ultra is a "rookie" version of Ultraman – a mere novice who is sent to Earth by the Ultra father and mother in the first episode and must learn the ropes for himself as he goes. One major difference between this and previous shows is that his human aspect, Mirai Hibino, is not a "host" as such, but is actually Ultraman himself in human form. This doesn't seem to influence the plot much, though it does mean he more readily becomes a target for the ongoing villain of the piece – a powerful alien woman with a long, flicking tongue.

Whatever the final outcome for this particular series, it is clear that Ultraman remains a viable franchise that has taken up the challenges of genre repetition and has managed to survive well into the new Millennium.





copyright©Robert Hood 2006

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