Created by Eiji Tsuburaya, the man responsible for bringing the original Godzilla to life, Ultraman has become a Japanese sci-fi staple after the first entry of the series, Ultraman, aired in Japan in 1966. The weekly monster show was a spin-off of the highly popular Ultra Q series, which featured average citizens encountering strange, paranormal happenings. While Ultra Q placed its emphasis on monsters, it was Ultraman that introduced a hero element to the story, featuring a 50-meter tall, silver giant as the protagonist who protects the Earth from otherworldly creatures threatening the existence of mankind.
The airing of Ultraman sparked an immediate “kaiju boom” throughout Japan, and the franchise has since spawned 27 distinctive series and countless other films and spinoffs. The current version of the franchise, Ultraman X, began airing in July 2015.
The 25th Ultraman Festival, an annual event celebrating all things Ultraman, kicked off at Sunshine City in Ikebukuro, Tokyo on July 24th. The festival runs until August 30th.
Ultraman Festival is a combination of exhibitions, attractions and a live stage to celebrate all things Ultraman. The centerpiece of this year’s festival is a giant city diorama, featuring fan favorites like Ultraman Taro, newer characters Ultraman Zero and Ultraman Ginga S, the Heisei trio of Ultraman Tiga, Dyna and Gaia, and the original 1966 Ultraman. The heroes are battling it out with foes such as Hyper Zetton and Jirass (which is a rehash of the 1964 Godzilla suit featured in Mothra vs. Godzilla) in a destroyed city, with miniature onlookers on the street as witnesses to the various battles.
The diorama evokes memories of 2012’s Tokusatsu – Special Effects Exhibition, a exhibition dedicated to the magic behind “tokusatsu,” or Japanese special effects curated by Studio Ghibli and Evangelion director/tokusatsu enthusiast Hideaki Anno. While the diorama is not as impressive or interactive as the one featured in the Tokusatsu Exhibition (visitors could walk through the city set in Anno’s version), the diorama is impressive nonetheless, showing meticulous attention to detail in the buildings and on the streets. The Ultraman Festival diorama shows off the enormous care put into the building of these sets, and gives a sense of what it would be like to be on the set of one of these shows.
The other draw of this year’s event is an enormous Ultraseven head crashing through the walls of the exhibition, providing a nice photo opportunity with the classic Ultra hero, and a giant Gomora statue, who in recent years has become retconned into a good monster, the polar opposite of the villainous creature he was when the character was first introduced in 1966.
Of course, the main event of the Ultraman Festival for its target audience (kids) is undoubtedly the Ultra Live Stage, a thirty-minute live show featuring a cast of monsters and Ultra heroes. Centering around the newest Ultra hero, Ultraman X, the show features a group of villains threatening a harmonious mixed group of humans and aliens, with X and other classic Ultra heroes showing up to defeat them.
While the main focus of the Ultraman Festival is to push the current incarnations of the franchise – namely, the just-started Ultraman X – but there’s plenty of material fans of older generations can enjoy. The brief exhibition features some of the models used in various TV shows, like the classic VTOL fighter jet from the original Ultraman. There’s also a booth devoted to the equipment and scripts used for the shows, including old 16mm film splicers and reels which were actually used in production back in the day.
Ultraman Festival is a wonderful way to experience and celebrate one of the most beloved franchises in Japanese history across multiple generations. With other children-friendly attractions and games, and an overwhelming gift shop with everything from toys, cups, and even sake, the event is designed for fans of every incarnation of Ultraman, from the classic, retro Showa series, the more sophisticated and modernized Heisei series, to the upbeat and light-hearted current incarnations.
Ultraman will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year. With a new series airing, along with a mysterious new YouTube clip of a realistic, full CGI Ultraman posted on Tsuburaya’s official channel, we can probably expect some exciting developments to come out of the land of Nebula M78 very soon.
Ryotaro Aoki is a musician and freelance writer. Born in Tokyo and raised in the United States, he came back to Japan in 2003 and has been based in Tokyo ever since. He writes mostly about music and pop culture for publications such as The Japan Times, The Guardian, and RedBull.com.
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