If you think about it, superheroes have been a part of Japanese pop-culture ever since the post-war period, and in particular the 60s and 70s. Astro Boy is Pinocchio with Super-Powers. Characters like Shotaro Ishinomori’s Android Kikaider and Kamen Rider featured protagonists fighting a supervillain organizations and their superpowered minions, and so on. And, of course, there is the tokusatsu classic – Ultraman from Tsuburaya Productions.
Ultraman – Protecting the Peace of the World
In all of these works, there isn’t necessarily much done to integrate the monster of the week into the world – that’s kind of the point. They are outsiders – their very presence exists to disrupt the peace of the world. However, with the start of the MCU, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of anime and manga with characters who are closer to western superheroes, as opposed to a character fighting big rubber monsters.
These are stories where the enemies have a larger presence within the world. While they want to disrupt the peace of society, they also generally live within it. Recent anime and manga with this concept have included Tiger & Bunny, One Punch Man, and My Hero Academia. Thus, it is kind of logical for one of the oldest and most established Japanese superhero franchises to be somewhat re-imagined as a Western-style superhero – Ultraman.
25… Years Later
Well, Ultraman isn’t just a re-imagining, it’s also something of a sequel to the original. Everything that happened in the original series happened. Shin Hayama still became the Giant of Light and fought alien kaiju while trying to retain a secret identity from the SSSP (or Science Patrol), before it ultimately came out. We even have several characters from the original TV series return in that show here.
However, this manga takes the universe of the TV series and moves the timeline forward to the present day. The protagonist of the series is Shinjiro Hayama, the son of Shin Hayama. He’s entering high school… and his powers have just begun to manifest. Thankfully, his powers aren’t manifesting into growing 10 stories tall, but instead into a power-set that is closer to that of Superman.
With Shinjiro developing his powers, Shin comes clean to his son about his own background as a superhero. Even more than that, there are aliens living on Earth, in secret. The Science Patrol serves as an intermediary between Human society and Alien society, both in terms of the government and law enforcement. Shin wants his son to join him in the Science Patrol, as the new Ultraman.
Ultraman for the 21st century
This combination of factors is one of the things that makes Ultraman more of a western style superhero story then the original series was. In Ultraman, there are the aliens who come to wreck shop, and occasionally some who come to help Ultraman. There are no alien bystanders. This changes everything. They don’t take this to the logical conclusion (at least in the first 4 volumes) and use this as a metaphor for commentary. The aliens aren’t shown as trying to integrate with society – either openly or covertly.
However, it adds baggage to the usual way these fights go in Ultraman. In the show and its sequels – Ultraman fights kaiju to the death. Here, there’s a reason not to. Consequently, Shinjiro starts out unwilling to kill. By the start of Volume 4, we’re introduced to the manga’s version Dan Moroboshi – UltraSeven. Dan isn’t an alien, he’s an ordinary human in power armor, and he also has no problems with just killing aliens outright.
Hopefully, over the course of the series, this ideological conflict goes somewhere. It’s got potential, and gives the the actual conflict here a degree of narrative complexity that I don’t think of when I think Ultraman.
Put On The Suit
Aside from the narrative, visually the characters are also a lot more complex. If you look at the costumes for Ultraman, he’s a guy in a giant smooth rubber suit. Even if you look at other Tokusatsu characters – Kamen Rider is a guy in motorcycle leathers and some extra armor. Kikaider is a two-tone fabric jumpsuit. Power Rangers costumes are also fabric.
On the other hand, Shinjiro’s and Moroboshi’s costumes in the manga are designed less like the costume’s from the original show, and more like something Tony Stark would design. It’s very clearly meant to be armor – while still evoking classic Ultraman designs (such as with the head fin). It’s not something you have to do on the page in a manga. Indeed, that design is a lot more work to draw. However, it evokes an idea of what this version of Ultraman is.
I’m definitely into this version of the character, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the manga, and watching the Netflix series.
If you’re interested in reading the manga as well, it is available from Amazon.com in Print & Kindle/Comixology editions. It’s also available from RightStuf.com from the below link. Buying anything through those links helps to support the site.