As I’ve mentioned before, the Silver Age was not limited just to comic books. Super-heroes made their way to television, as well. And this time around, we’re going to look at one of the more popular examples, one that travelled over six thousand miles to reach the homes of American viewers.
In earlier entries, I’ve discussed the phenomenal popularity of the Batman television programme, which debuted in January of 1966. Batmania was the mother lode of merchandising. Anything connected with Batman, or super-heroes in general, was snapped up by a voracious public. Comic-book publishers weren’t the only ones to capitalise on this fad. Hoping to snag a healthy share of the Batman-inspired profits, television producers turned their efforts to cranking out their own caped-and-cowled do-gooders.
In the summer of 1966, the television division of United Artists found a relatively inexpensive way to jump on board the gravy train. It purchased the international rights to a Japanese television show that had recently hit the air-waves---a series which was proving to be as big a hit in Japan as Batman was in America.
Ultraman was the brainchild of Eiji Tsuburaya, the head of the Visual Effects Department for Toho Tokyo Studios. Toho had been responsible for bringing Godzilla (1954) to the screen, giving birth to the Japanese monster craze, called kanjū.
By 1966, Tsuburaya had formed his own production company, and had created a series titled Urutora Kyū; in English, Ultra Q. It debuted on Japanese television in January, 1966. In its original concept, Ultra Q was a prototype of The X-Files. The main characters were a commercial pilot, his assistant, a news reporter, and a world-renowned scientist, who worked as an unofficial team investigating mysterious, supernatural phenomena.
Tsuburaya intended for the show to be moody and viscerally disturbing, in the style of The Twilight Zone. But kanjū was still riding high in Japan, and the sponsoring network, the Toyko Broadcasting Company, pressured Tsuburaya into turning the show in that direction. Thus, Ultra Q became a “giant-monster-of-the-week” series.
Technically, Ultraman was not a spin-off of Ultra Q; no characters or agencies carried over from the earlier show. However, the two shows were related in spirit.
Tsuburaya, aware that the axe was going to fall on Ultra Q, had started work on his next series early in the spring of ’66. He started by taking some unproduced scripts and modifying them to fit his new concept. Throughout development of the new series---which cycled through a number of the working titles: WoO, then to Bemular, and then to Redman---Tsuburaya maintained the idea of a team of specialists who fought the kanjū that menaced Japan. To this, he added the core concept of a giant alien who defended Earth from the frightful creatures.
The earliest versions of this alien ally were scrapped, for being too monstrous looking themselves. Out of concern that the audience would have difficulty telling the hero apart from the evil beings he battled.
Art designer Toru Narita remodeled the character’s appearance; the result was a silver-and-red humanoid with a finned, ovoid head and oversized almond-shaped eyes, reflecting the “Roswell alien” stereotype.
The specialised-team aspect was slightly altered, as well. Instead of a group of amateurs, it became a professional cadre attached to a governmental organisation. With that, the format was established.
Ultraman is set in the then-future of the early 1990’s (one episode, “My Home is Earth”, would establish the specific year of 1993) and depicts the adventures of the Japanese division of an international organisation called the Science Patrol. The Science Patrol is charged with the Earth’s defence against rampaging monsters, hostile aliens, and other bizarre threats to the safety of mankind. To support its efforts, the Patrol is equipped with high-tech weapons and sophisticated vehicles, as well as extensive scientific and engineering facilities. It is even capable of travelling into space, when necessary.
On one mission, Science Patrol member Hayata is sent to investigate reports of two U.F.O.’s that have entered Japanese air space. Taking to the air, Hayata locates the mysterious intruders---two spheres of light streaking through the skies, one seeming to pursue the other. Suddenly, the second of the two spheres collides with the Patrolman’s airship, causing it to plunge to the earth in a fiery crash. Hayata is killed.
Ultraman explains that he is a lawman from Nebula M78. He had come to Earth to recapture the evil monster Bemular. In his hot pursuit of Bemular’s ship---the other U.F.O.---he accidentally collided with Hayata’s jet. To atone for killing the Science Patrolman, Ultraman will merge his lifeforce into Hayata’s body, resurrecting him.
There’s more. Onto the unmoving form of Hayata, Ultraman drops a small, cylindrical device called a beta capsule. The alien from Nebula M78 informs him that, once restored to life, he will remain as Hayata. But, should the need arise, by pressing the button on the side of the beta capsule, Hayata will become Ultraman.
The revived Hayata resumes his place in the Science Patrol, which is fortunate because, soon after, Bemular begins to wreak havoc across the countryside. When the Patrol finds itself stymied by the monster, Hayata uses the beta capsule and is transformed into Ultraman! In a pitched battle, Ultraman establishes his credentials as a good guy by destroying Bemular.
Ultraman, standing over one-hundred-thirty-feet tall, possessed incredible strength and durability. While he preferred to rely on his physical might and martial skills while combating his foes, he also had a wealth of powers at his command. These included flight, levitation, teleportation, and the ability to cast beams with a vast array of effects.
Late in the stages, Tsuburaya realised that making his hero too powerful would dilute any sense of drama from the stories. Something was needed to put the youngsters watching at home on the edge of their seats. So Ultraman was given a weakess.
It was established that Earth’s atmosphere was harmful to Ultraman. It depleted his energy at a much greater rate than normal. In combat, the giant hero could operate at peak power for about three minutes before it started to drain. As a cue to the viewing audience, Toru Narita added a “colour timer”---a small circular light---to Ultraman’s chest. The timer glowed blue when the hero was at full strength. When the timer turned red and began to blink audibly, he was in trouble. If he did not change back to Hayata before time ran out, he would die.
Giving Ultraman such a severe limitation also fixed an inherent lack of logic in the show’s basic formula. Virtually every episode followed the same outline: (1) some sort of monster or bizarre being from outer space menaces Japan; (2) the Science Patrol spends most of the half-hour fighting it and, usually, not making very much progress; (3) Hayata becomes Ultraman and spends the last five minutes of the episode giving the beastie a good thrashing before blowing him into monster pieces-parts with his specium ray.
With the atmosphere of the Earth potentially lethal to Ultraman, Hayata would not switch to his gigantic alter ego until there were no other options. It explained why he didn’t use the beta capsule the moment a monster first appeared.
There was a practical benefit, as well. Restricting Ultraman’s presence to only a few minutes of screen time reduced the cost of special effects. Particularly, in the expense of building and repairing scale miniature buildings and landscapes.
The man inside the Ultraman suit was stunt-performer Bin Furuya. He was chosen for the part because he had the right proportions, but he had no experience at suit-acting. Fortunately, Eiji Tsuburaya had hired Haruo Nakajima, the man who had portrayed Godzilla in the original film, to perform as most of the monsters appearing in Ultraman. Nakajima taught Furuya the tricks of working inside a costume, a skill even more necessary due to the fact that Ultraman almost never spoke, except for shouting kiais in battle.
Furuya quickly became adept at using body language to convey what the silent Ultraman was thinking behind his immobile mask of a face.
For the all-important rôle of Hayata, Tsubaraja turned to actor Susumu Kurobe. The twenty-six-year-old Kurobe was familiar with kanjū productions, having appeared in the film Ghidorha, the Three-Headed Monster and in an episode of Ultra Q.
The part of Hayata was key. While Ultraman was the titular hero of the series, the leading rôle belonged to Hayata, his human host, who would occupy most of the screen time. Kurobe’s good looks and self-assured mien were perfect for the human side of Ultraman. His Hayata was capable and decisive, just the sort of fellow you’d want around when trouble erupted.
At seven p.m., 10 July 1966---the same weekday and time slot formerly occupied by Ultra Q---Ultraman was unveiled to the Japanese public, in a televised special preview performed live before a studio audience of delighted children and their somewhat more reserved parents. In a skit, the actors playing the Science Patrol were introduced, and when Ultraman---without the benefit of camera tricks, a human-sized one---appeared, even the adults began to feel the excitement.
Exactly one week later, the first episode---“Urutora Sakusen Dai Ichigō” (“Ultra Operation Number One”)---aired. There would be thirty-eight more.
I don’t know if Eiji Tsurburaya meant to take advantage of the Batman craze, which was in full swing at the time Urutoraman debuted, but he certainly profited from it. Combining kanjū with the influence of Batmania proved to be a magic formula. The series took off like wildfire in Japan. Uruatoraman toys and merchandise flooded the shelves and were purchased just as quickly by parents dragged to the stores by their hero-struck children. The theme song, “Urutoraman no Uta” (“The Song of Ultraman”), was recorded on vinyl and blared constantly from radio stations.
In Japan, the popularity of Urutoraman eclipsed even Batmania, and that was saying something.
Even as the sales of Ultraman dolls and games and wrist watches were making money for the merchandisers, Tsuburaya Productions was experiencing the opposite problem. Eiji Tsuburaya was learning that a television budget could not accommodate the same level of special effects as a movie budget. Even with the hero’s screen time limited to only a few minutes, there was still a gargantuan monster smashing his way through Japan for most of the half-hour. The cost of constantly building scale miniature skyscrapers and warehouses and power-plants was staggering. Sometimes entire city blocks had to be constructed, only to have Ultraman and his foe reduce most of them to rubble during their battle.
That’s not to mention the optical effects, required whenever Ultraman used his specium ray or some other force beam, which was virtually every episode. Each one of those added another three-figure expense to the show’s growing tab.
Despite the show’s runaway success, Tsuburaya was losing money. There was only one thing to do.
In a move that was unusual for the day, at least by Western television standards, the Urutoraman series came to a close by resolving the central premise. On 09 April 1967, the Tokyo Broadcasting Station aired the final episode, titled “Saraba Urutoraman”---“Farewell, Ultraman”.
In this last outing, the Science Patrol is targeted by an invading force of hostile aliens intent on conquering Earth. The Patrollers succeed in defeating the attacking spacecraft, but in retaliation, the invaders dispatch a giant creature called Z-Ton to destroy the Science Patrol headquarters. Hayata changes to Ultraman, only to find himself in the fight of his dual lives, as Z-Ton has been specially prepared to defeat the gigantic hero.
After an intense struggle, the threat which has hung over Ultraman’s head during his time on Earth finally comes to pass. His warning light extinguishes as the last of his energy expires. His amber eyes dim and he topples over, stiff as a board.
Amazingly, considering its track record, the Science Patrol manages to destroy Z-Ton on its own. At the same time, Ultraman’s superior from Nebula M78 arrives to retrieve the body of the fallen hero. The commander instils Ultraman’s body with a force which revives the spark of life left in him. Ultraman will be taken home, where he can fully recuperate. However, so that Hayata does not suffer, the commander uses the same force to restore the Earthman’s life, separate from Ultraman.
Hayata returns to his fellow members of the Science Patrol, with no memory of anything that took place after his ship was destroyed back in the first episode.
Eiji Tsuburaya was about to get a last-minute save of his own. The television division of the U.S. company United Artists was, like every other American TV producer, looking for a way to cash in on the Bat-craze. U.A.’s film division had already experienced success in backing foreign projects, such as Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli’s James Bond series and Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns”. Taking a tip from that, United Artists-TV, instead of producing its own super-hero television series, opted to see what was available internationally.
After seeing the ratings for Urutoraman, it was a no-brainer. U.A.-TV started negotiations with Tsuburaya Productions as early as the previous summer, but it took several months to work out the final terms and a few more months for the deal to go through. Ultimately, it was a win-win for both parties: the price U.A.-TV paid to purchase the American distribution rights to Urutoraman was cheaper than what it would have cost to produce its own series. And Tsuburaya received enough money to get out of the red.
Of course, some things had to be done, in order to make the Japanese series accessible to American viewers.
The most obvious change was to Anglicise the name of the series, and its hero, to Ultraman. The opening title sequence was preserved intact, except for the screen credits, which were presented in the standard Latin alphabet, instead of Japanese ideograms.
The brass-and-guitar theme composed by Kunio Miyauchi was given new English lyrics. The original lyrics extolled the virtues of the hero through metaphor. The English ones, true to conventional U.S. television wisdom, gave any first-time viewers a sixty-second explanation of who Ultraman was.
Last, but most crucial, was the dubbing. It was more than just replacing the Japanese dialogue with English sentences. One of the more cringeworthy aspects of the early Toho monster films, when dubbed for Western distribution, was the noticeable mismatching of the English words to the mouth-movements of the Japanese actors. Too often, a line of dialogue that was six or seven words long in Japanese was changed to a terse “Right!” or “Let’s go!” in English, leaving the actor’s mouth moving in silence, as if he had something stuck to the roof of his mouth.
Another consideration was that the dubbed voices fit the personalities of the characters.
For that, U.A.-TV went to a man who was probably the most knowledgeable professional at dubbing Japanese television---Peter Fernandez. At the time, Fernandez was already voice-acting on two other Japanese imports---Marine Boy and Speed Racer. His experience went back a few years, when he wrote English dialogue for the Japanese cartoon Astro Boy, which had entered U.S. syndication in 1963. He understood the need for synchronising the English words to the mouth-movements of the character on screen.
He wrote the dubbed dialogue for Ultraman to conform to the lips of the actors on screen and was generally successful. On occasion, though, plot requirements and the differences between the two languages forced a rapid delivery to squeeze it in, giving an unintended franticness to the actor’s words, like he was speaking while his pants were on fire.
As Ultraman’s dialogue director, Fernandez provided some of the voices himself, but for the lead, he assigned actor Earl Hammond. Hammond’s firm baritone fit the competent, all-business Hayata to a T.
However, the voice that became the most memorable to American fans of Ultraman was that of Jack Curtis, who provided the narration. With his deep, urgent delivery, some of Curtis’ lines became so imprinted in the minds of youthful viewers that they can quote them by heart to this day . . . .
“Using the beta capsule, Hayata becomes---Ultraman!”
“The tremendous energy Ultraman gets from the sun diminishes rapidly in Earth’s atmosphere. The warning light begins to blink! Should it stop completely, it will mean Ultraman will never rise again!”
By August of 1967, Ultraman was ready for American syndication. Next time out, we’ll take a closer look at that version, the one that most of us who were around at the time remember.