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Seven, Ace, X, and More: Ultraman’s Legacy

The new Netflix Ultraman anime series brings with it a brand-new take on the classic Japanese tokusatsu series. If you’ve seen any of the original Ultra Series shows, you already know that they involve gigantic monsters from outer space, a science-led Earth defense team, and beings from the Land of Light known as Ultra Warriors.

This new Ultraman does away with all of that. Instead of larger-than-life aliens battling it out amongst buildings that reach up to their chests, the Netflix anime instead focuses on keeping things small and personal. Based on the ULTRAMAN manga written by Eiichi Shimizu and drawn by Tomohiro Shimoguchi, the new Ultraman is no longer a being from Nebula M78. Instead, he is Shinjiro Hayata, the son of Shin Hayata, the original Ultraman host.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Due to his father’s time as Ultraman, Shinjiro was born with altered DNA, which gave both father and son super strength and other abilities. To fully utilize these abilities, Shinjiro eventually needed to wear an Ultra Suit to battle hostile aliens.

As the new Ultraman series ignores everything but the first show, you need nothing more than a cursory knowledge of the Ultra Series to enjoy it. But doing so robs you of the rich history of Ultraman and his successors, who have been on Japanese TV, movies, and manga for over 50 years.

Unlikely roots

The Ultra Series has its unlikely origins in 1966’s Ultra Q. Produced by Tsuburaya Productions, the series follows a group of paranormal investigators who solve mysteries of the alien persuasion.

Even though, on the surface, the show seemed like a fusion between X-Files and The Twilight Zone, the occasional Kaiju appearance led to the show’s massive popularity. Once Ultra Q ended its run, Tsuburaya quickly produced a show that cemented the series’ place in Japanese pop culture: Ultraman.

Leaning hard into the Kaiju and sci-fi elements that made the original series so popular, Ultraman featured Shin Hayata, a member of the Science Special Search-Party (also known as the Science Patrol). Science Patrol was an organization designated to seek out and investigate bizarre anomalies, and to protect the Earth from the occasional Kaiju attack. During one of his missions, Shin’s plane collided with a Travel Sphere containing Ultraman. Shin was mortally injured, but Ultraman bonded with him to resurrect him. As a result, Shin gained the power to summon Ultraman at will, utilizing the Giant of Light’s awesome powerset to fight the various Kaiju that attempt to wreak havoc on the planet.

Photo credit: Tsuburaya Productions

Ultraman was awe-inspiring: there were weekly battles between gigantic Kaiju and the Giant of Light, with actors wearing various monster costumes and spandex outfits fighting on a miniaturized Tokyo soundstage. Mind you, that was with 1960’s-era special effects: the mere fact that they managed to produce a different monster on a weekly basis was impressive.

Ultraman introduced many elements that are core to the Ultra Series, like Ultraman’s homeworld of Nebula M78. the three-minute limit before the lack of sunlight turned the Color Timer on his chest red, and the Ultra Warrior’s Ultra Beam finishing move. The final episode Farewell, Ultraman introduced another Ultra Warrior, Zoffy, who provided part of his life essence so Ultraman and Hayata could finally separate.

Ultraman proved to be widely popular, and after its initial run of 39 episodes the Ultra Series would return with its first official sequel, Ultraseven. Unlike the previous series, where Ultraman merged with a human counterpart, Ultraseven instead took on the human form of Dan Moroboshi. He was part of the Space Garrison, a security organization from the Land of Light.

Photo credit: Tsuburaya Productions

Ultraseven would be followed by The Return of Ultraman (featuring a different Ultraman, known as Ultraman Jack), Ultraman Ace, Ultraman Taro, Ultraman Leo, Ultraman 80, Ultraman Tiga, Ultraman Dyna, Ultraman Gaia, and Ultraman Cosmos. Ultraman 80 was intended as the last series in the original continuity, as Ultraman Tiga and Dyna introduced a new continuity. Gaia was set in yet another continuity, separate from the original timeline and Tiga’s. Cosmos in 2001 was, for a while, the last “traditional” Ultraman series, as Tsuburaya geared for a much darker reimagining with the Ultra N Project.

A reinvention

The 2004 Ultra N Project was Tsuburaya Productions’ attempt to revitalize the Ultra franchise. The reboot hinged on three key projects: Ultraman Noa, Ultraman the Next, and Ultraman Nexus.

Noa started out as a series of stage shows which led to Ultraman the Next, which was a feature film that detailed Noa devolving into Ultraman the Next and merging with the pilot Shunichi Maki. Ultraman the Next pursued and fought The First Beast, a reimagining of Bemular, the original Ultraman’s first enemy.

Photo credit: Tsuburaya Productions

The final phase of Ultra N Project was Ultraman Nexus, which was intended as a reboot of the original Ultraman series. There, Ultraman the Next changed form further into Nexus, fighting a wave of Space Beasts.

The Ultra N Project was characterized by a darker tone, as it was intended to appeal to a much more mature audience. This reimagining ditched the traditional ‘clean and shiny’ aesthetic of the original series, instead opting for a more insect-like body armor with organic tissue-like skin.

A more traditional-looking Ultraman debuted with 2005’s Ultraman Max, featuring a lighter tone, and a return to the monster of the week format. However, it was not a return to the original continuity: it was set in an alternate timeline.

The original continuity made a triumphant return in 2006 with Ultraman Meibus. Picking up 20 years after Ultraman 80, the series featured Meibus, a rookie Ultra Warrior, sent to protect the Earth. Meibus also introduced another Ultra Warrior named Ultraman Hikari. Ultraseven X in 2007 was yet another darker reimagining of Ultraman, situating the popular Ultraseven in an alternate dystopian universe, in an attempt to stop aliens from that universe from invading the main universe.

The (Ultra) big screen

Photo credit: Tsuburaya Productions

The Ultra Series continued producing more shows, but it’s worth noting that there have been a number of movies about the Giant of Light and its various successors as well. Most of the movies are spin-offs, prequels, or adaptations of the various incarnations of the show.

Notably, there is a Japanese-American OVA called Ultraman: The Adventure Begins. This movie features three different Ultras: Ultraman Scott, Ultraman Chuck, and Ultrawoman Beth.

There is also an Australian-produced Ultraman movie called Ultraman: Towards the Future, featuring Ultraman Great.

The latest “traditional” Ultraman show was Ultraman R/B, which aired in 2018. An upcoming show called Ultraman Taiga will feature Taiga, the son of Ultraman Taro.

And that brings us back to the Netflix anime.

A new generation

The Netflix reimagining is much darker than traditional Ultraman lore. Ignoring everything that came after the original Ultraman, the series presents the Giant of Light as the only Ultra Warrior to have ever visited the planet.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Instead of fighting off invaders and the Giant of Light offing the monster of the week with much fanfare, the new Ultraman, Shinjiro Hikari, has to operate in a more nuanced world where things aren’t as black-and-white as he would like. This time, the monsters are relatively human-sized alien refugees, and he has to struggle with his ideals and the responsibilities of being Ultraman.

It’s a very different take on the mythos, and despite this stark departure, it’s still full of delightful references to all the Ultra Series shows throughout the decades. The franchise has shown time and again that it’s not afraid to reinvent itself to ensure its relevance and to keep its legacy alive.

Who knows what the next Ultraman reimagining will bring?