Now that we’ve covered both of the foreign Ultraman co-productions, you’d think this series would be over…but not so. There was one other western production co-created with Tsuburaya, and it was made a few years before Towards the Future: 1987’s Ultraman: The Adventure Begins (AKA Ultraman USA), an apparent attempt to create an animated spin-off of the franchise aimed at American audiences, co-produced with…Hanna-Barbera? Uh oh, I smell another cheap article series crossover—The Brother From Another Language vs. Cheaptoons, they might call it.
Now, as someone who enjoys both kaiju and animation, you’d think I’d be really into the idea of animated kaiju project—I mean, after all, you can do pretty much anything in that medium, and because of that it actually sidesteps many of the common pitfalls and criticisms of the live action monster movie. The thing is, though, the fact that animation can do giant monsters so easily kind of…lessens their impact, in a way—part of the fun of the genre is the physicality of it, the texture of the monster costumes giving them life and the visceral crunchiness of the miniatures sets lends every monstrous action real weight. That weight is something very difficult to emulate in the elastic and ephemeral world of animation, and because of that giant monsters have a tendency to be flattened, becoming more or less indistinguishable from any other fantastical thing. To boot, it really feels that much more impressive to see these creatures and sets be built, physically, by hand, and be real things that you could go and look at. This is all my own personal tastes and biases, it must be said—but it does mean that, for example, I don’t have a lot of interest in watching the Godzilla anime film that was recently released on Netflix, because it’s just not the same.
Despite that, I am willing to give The Adventure Begins a chance, at least in the name of science and completion and curiosity, to find out what an animated Ultraman co-produced by Hanna-goddamned-Barbera looks like.
E12, “Falling Stars Spell Trouble” (not really a remake of this episode)
E13, “The Final Showdown?” (remake of this episode)
Obviously, I come to Ultimate Hero with a knowledge of the original Ultraman, knowing what individual episodes are based on and how the featured monsters were previously portrayed; unlike the potential audience for this series when it was new, I have preconceived notions of what Ultraman was and is, which also means when I see a redone element I can say “Oh look, they changed X by doing Y!” I have a hard time believing the people working on this show were looking to invoke that response in anyone, so even if they did do something of a clever reinterpretation of a monster or whatever, they probably wouldn’t expect someone to “get” what they’re doing; as far they know, this would be the first and last time anyone would see this universe.
E10, “Deadly Starfish” (Remake of episode 13 from here)
E11, “Dino Might” (Remake of these episodes)
I decided to watch episode 10 of Ultimate Hero because the monster featured in it was one of the most distinctly weird ones from the original series—not just in its conception, but in its execution (as I mentioned in my old post, it was very clearly portrayed with two actors working side-by-side.) The plot of the episode itself was actually pretty good, too, but I kind of had a feeling that the disaster and character-based nature of it would not be inherited by its remake. I was correct, but there’s at least something there to talk about.
E4, “The Dark Past” (remake of this episode)
E5, “Monstrous Meltdown” (remake of this episode)
E6, “A Father’s Love” (remake of this episode)
Episode four of Ultimate Hero shares mostly broad similarities with the Ultraman episode it was based on—still, I was honestly surprised it even had those similarities. Both stories involved the host of Ultraman being kidnapped by a race of underground dwellers who control a monster they use to attack a city; the original was a creepy paranoid thriller, while this one is…a complete cartoon. That is not necessarily a criticism, mind you, because as silly as it is, having this cackling group of Omega Man mole people talking and chanting in the stereotypical wheezing wizard voice (I’m sure you can imagine a very close approximation of it just reading that description) is plenty entertaining as these things go. What’s also interesting is that all the scenes between the mole people and Kenichi Kai are shot in a completely dark set, a real obvious money-saver, but the actual masks worn by the actors (who are kept mostly in the dark, the kind of logical creative decision that is often ignored by these sorts of shows) are actually pretty well-made, with their gross gigantic eyes (not as gross as the eyeless mole people from the 1966 show, but still)—maybe they used those budget savings and invested in something for once.
E1, “On a Mission From M78” (remake of this episode)
E2, “Catch a Kemura by the Tail” (remake of this episode)
E3, “A Quartet of Creatures” (remake of this episode)
The Ultimate Hero, which was produced only a year or so after Towards the Future, offers a very different sort of experience—most importantly, it is a full on remake/reboot of the original Ultraman, using updated versions of the original monsters and story concepts rather than inventing new ones. So, where I had to compare TTF to the broader idea of Ultraman, this one instead gives me something specific to refer back to; having watched every episode of the original, I’m going to be constantly reminded of those when I watch this, silently comparing what was done in 1966 to what we have here in 1993. This is quite an interesting change of pace, really—I now get to see how early nineties Americans reinterpreted mid-sixties Japanese television, and specifically a show that has some iconic imagery (why bring it back if you didn’t think the ideas worked in the first place?)
Towards The Future really tries to go out with a bang: much as in the older Ultraman series, it has a definite conclusion, with an epic final story to go along with it, so big it must be told in two parts. The finale probably has some of the best-shot monster scenes I’ve seen in the series—maybe after thirteen episodes they finally had enough confidence to give the suit actors some space—but more importantly, they just go all out on the crazy plot, even if some of it hangs together so loosely you wonder if they just had an excess of ideas and no time to edit in some coherence. Ah, who needs it, anyway?
E5, “Blast From the Past”
Creatures Featured: Barrangas
E6, “The Showdown”
Creatures Featured: Gudis II
E8, “Bitter Harvest”
Creatures Featured: Majaba
Episode five of Towards the Future starts off with the monster—in extremely tight shots that prevent you from seeing it do much of anything—but really, this is a case of the ol’ switcheroo. See, UMA battles this new threat (which is apparently a gathering of Gudis cells trying to reconvene, translating it into a big floppy pretzel-dragon) for a few minutes, but then it disappears due to the efforts of…gasp!…Jack Shindo’s astronaut buddy, apparently alive and well! He wastes no time ingratiating himself with the rest of UMA, and while Jack seems initially happy to see his friend again, it doesn’t take long for him to figure out that something is amiss with his old buddy. Maybe he noticed that he was wearing an all-black get-up the entire time (Shindo, meanwhile, wears a white shirt the whole episode…symbolism!) Soon enough, astronaut buddy is shooting staff members, and when Jack confronts him, the rest of UMA decide to lock them both up as potential threats.