The first episode of “Ultraman” debuted on television at 7 p.m. on July 17, 1966, exactly 50 years ago today. When the dust cleared at 7:30 p.m., Japanese entertainment would never be the same.
As the show opens, audiences are treated to the spectacle of a high-speed alien chase that results in the inadvertent death of ace “Science Patrol” pilot Shin Hayata, his resurrection at the hands of a mysterious being and the sudden appearance of a gargantuan, laser-breathing sea creature.
All this in just the first 10 minutes. Then things really ramp up.
Lakes boil! Forests burn! Death rays sizzle! Submarines submerge! Fighter jets attack! Missiles launch! Buildings crumble!
Finally, just when things seem hopeless for the outmatched Science Patrol, Hayata transforms into a titan clad in space-age silver and red: Ultraman! — human enough to fight on our side, huge enough to give rampaging monsters a taste of their own medicine. What’s more, he can fly and shoot death rays from his forearms. Only for three minutes, however, until the solar energy powering his chest-mounted “color timer” runs out. This was hands down the coolest thing a kid had ever seen in 1966. It’s still pretty cool even now in 2016.
“One of the secrets to the popularity of the “Ultra” series is that the kaijū and aliens, who you’d think would be the enemies, are actually the stars,” Ooka says. “Developing the stories of the kaijū and aliens actually serves to make the hero look better. If they weren’t (developed), it wouldn’t matter how strong the hero was — there wouldn’t be any catharsis to the battles.”
The English word “monster” is, almost by definition, an epithet. Not so “kaijū,” which is written with the characters for “strange” and “beast,” making it a far broader term.
“They certainly aren’t all ‘bad,’” Ooka says.
“Some of them are actually quite tragic, such as Jamila,” he adds, referring to a fan-favorite episode involving a kaijū born from a brave astronaut mutated by extraterrestrial contact. After Ultraman defeats the rampaging creature, the Science Patrol begs Jamila’s forgiveness, solemnly unveiling a plaque in the astronaut’s memory.
“Children often don’t notice the subtext when they first watch the shows,” Ooka says. “But then as they get older, and see them again as high school students or even as parents watching alongside their own children, they pick up on the messages we put in. And it rekindles their love for the series, which they can then watch in its latest incarnation with their kids.”