It all started innocently enough. I spotted a budget Ultraman DVD set at our local Target, and thought my eight-year old son Will might enjoy it. He's crazy about dinosaurs, and I figured most of the kaiju (Japanese monsters, or "strange beasts") that Ultraman tangled with were kind of like dinosaurs, only cooler. But, I wondered, would a post-millennial American kid familiar with today's CGI generated fantasy worlds be able to enjoy a 40+ year old Japanese TV show that featured a couple guys in rubber suits trying to wrestle with each other? Probably not, but the DVD was cheap and, if nothing else, I figured I would get a kick out of seeing my old pal Ultraman again.
For those readers unfamiliar with Ultraman, the basic premise is "giant alien melds with earthman to protect planet from a different monster each week." The show was created by Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects director responsible for Godzilla and most of Toho Studios' other kaiju. Even as a child I noticed that many of the monsters featured in Ultraman bore more than a passing resemblance to those featured in Godzilla films (this was no coincidence, beyond sharing a common creator, some of costumes were recycled and adapted from the films).
Thanks to our local, budget-conscious, independent UHF station (WDCA 20), I grew up hooked on Ultraman and lots of other Japanese kiddie shows (Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, Kimba The White Lion, Marine Boy, Speed Racer, etc.) during the 1970s. The steady diet of violent, non-educational Japanese children's programs that WDCA pumped into the ether almost cost the station its FCC license, but I loved it. Although my parents were not responsible for the official complaints, I don't remember them particularly sharing my enthusiasm for all things kaiju. I can remember a lot of snarky comments from my Dad ("Congratulations son, your IQ just dropped 10 points in half an hour"). It may be for this reason (or perhaps because we were the only family in my neighborhood that didn't own a color TV) that most of my memories of watching Ultraman are from times I was hanging out at other kids' houses.
So can today's American kids dig Ultraman? If my children are any indication, the answer is a resounding "YES!" Will is now on a mission to get his hands on every possible Ultraman show he can (there have been over 20 series in Japan since 1966). He also wants to watch every Godzilla and Gamera movie every made. My three-year-old daughter Amelia is nearly as obsessed, with a special love for "Pigmon," the small, friendly monster who tragically dies in two separate Ultraman episodes (and if you have to ask how such a thing is possible, consider the possibility that kaiju is not for you). Amelia is apparently not alone in her Pigmon obsession, as there is an entire (awesome) blog dedicated to him and his more destructive alter-ego, Garamon.
Although we are bit more careful about how much of this stuff we let a three-year-old watch, most of the violence in these shows seems relatively benign. I believe this is a happy byproduct of having to use suit actors to portray the monsters and heroes. There is only so violent and graphic a show can be when the actors are constrained by 200 pound rubber suits. By contrast, King Kong from 1933, a film that utilized stop motion and robotics for its special effects, is far more graphic and disturbing in its depictions of violence.
One of the things my kids' current kaiju obsession drives home to me is the extent to which today's youth are growing up in an information saturated culture. Yesterday at the bus stop Will shared his opinion that "The Ultraman series that were made during Eiji Tsuburaya's lifetime (Ultraman and Ultraseven) are better than the ones that came later." He has also been known to opine on such topics as who composed the best scores for Godzilla movies (Akira Ifukube is by far his favorite). He can tell you which monsters are from films released by Toho Studios and which ones are from films released by Daiei. I could go on. Will loves to know all the details about anything he becomes interested in, and he was born at the right time.
By contrast, when I was a kid I was vaguely aware that there was more than one Ultraman. This was in large part because I had an Aunt who lived in Hawaii, and she would send us some of the cool Japanese toys that were available there, but virtually impossible to find on the mainland. I knew about Ultraman and Ultraseven, and another really weird looking Ultraman called "Kikaida" (who I only recently discovered was not an Ultraman at all, but an android from an unrelated Japanese show that was extremely popular in Hawaii during the 70s, but never shown in the other 49 states). But that was pretty much all I knew, and I have no idea how I could have found out more at the time. Granted, I knew about something called a "library," but I seriously doubt the guardians of information known as "librarians" would have agreed with me that kaiju was an important topic for me to learn about.
Unfortunately, beyond the original Ultraman, most Ultra series are still very hard to find in the United States. I believe this is in part due to a lawsuit that has been resolved in favor of Tsuburaya Productions. Episodes of Ultraman Tiga, a mid-90s Ultrahero, can still be found on DVD in the U.S., although they are out-of-print. The complete original series is available from budget DVD company Mill Creek. Beyond that, there is a scattering of region free DVDs from Hong Kong that can be found on eBay. I recently acquired a set of Ultraseven DVDs this way. Unfortunately, these discs only feature Cantonese subtitles. The lack English subtitles or dubbing does not seem to bother the kids in the least, as Ultraseven is their favorite Ultraman of all. I hope some enterprising U.S. video company will acquire the U.S. rights to some of Tsuburaya Productions' more intriguing shows, including Ultraseven and Ultra Q.