Celebrate Ultraman's 50th birthday with 10 of its greatest episodes!
Happy Ultraman Day, everyone! July 10th is Tsuburaya Productions’ annual celebration of their long-running tokusatsu franchise, the Ultra Series. For a bit of background, Ultraman Day commemorates the first appearance of the giant monster-fighting superhero from Nebula M-78 on Japanese TV. However, this doesn’t pertain to the first actual episode of Ultraman, “Ultra Operation #1” as that aired on July 16th, 1966. Instead, it’s for the first chronological appearance that aired a week prior that pre-empted the finale of its predecessor, Ultra Q. The special, entitled “The Birth of Ultraman”, was an event that introduced audiences to the first wave of monsters, the Science Patrol, and Ultraman himself. Produced as a means of buying time for Tsuburaya Productions to cope with delays behind-the-scenes, this black-and-white special is considered to be Ultraman’s “Episode 0”.
For the past few years, Tsuburaya has since made July 10th as “Ultraman Day”. This year’s is made all the more momentous because of 2016 being the Ultra Series’ 50th anniversary. The weekend is filled to the brim with events and TV specials in Japan, along with the premiere of the latest series, Ultraman Orb. And with a growing Ultra Series collection available for online streaming, the question always arises: “Where do I start?” That’s where I come in! Here for you now are 10 episodes across the offerings on both Crunchyroll and Shout! Factory TV that will give you a sample of what’s out there, as well as provide all manner of monster-smashing goodness this weekend!
10.) “Prophecy of Baraj” - Ultraman Max, Episode 11 (CR)
One of the main selling points of Ultraman Max was the lineup of well-known directors brought in to helm specific episodes. Among them, fan-favorite Shunsuke Kaneko. Known to most Stateside anime fans for the live-action Death Note duology, monster movie fans remember him for directing the Heisei Gamera Trilogy, and Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: All Monsters All-Out Attack. Kaneko was tasked with directing several episodes of Ultraman Max, but the must-watch for Ultraman Day is his reimagining of the classic Ultraman story, The Blue Stone of Baraj. In this episode, Team DASH comes face-to-face with Antlar, an ancient monster that manages to disrupt all electronics and cripple their arsenal! Their only hope for defeating them lies in a mysterious blue stone from an ancient civilization. Can they get to it in time?
Like most of Ultraman Max, this is a light self-contained story. “Prophecy” features all sorts of easter eggs, including a special guest appearance by Ayako Fujitani from the Heisei Gamera Trilogy, a reference to the “The Blue Stone of Baraj” in Antlar’s origins, and a brief scene that gives us the closest thing we’ll ever get to Gamera VS Godzilla on-screen.
9.) “Showdown! The Leo Brothers VS The Ultra Brothers” & “The Leo Brothers, the Ultra Brothers, The Moment of Victory” - Ultraman Leo, Episodes 38-39 (CR)
I’m cheating a bit with this one but it’s worth it. If there was a gradient of seriousness to insanity for the early Ultra Series, it would start with Ultraseven at the utmost dramatic, and Ultraman Leo at the most bonkers. Broadcast in 1975, Leo revolves around the titular hot-shot hero, a survivor of Nebula L-77 mentored by Ultraseven. Utilizing martial arts and smoke-stack nunchaku, he fights a seemingly endless wave of monsters, ancient fairy tales, and the very alien race that destroyed his homeworld. The first two episodes of the series see Ultraseven crippled by two monsters, Tokyo getting flooded by tidal waves, and one of the most violent, amazing battles ever. You’d think there was no way that the show could ever top that opener, and then comes this two-parter.
The action begins with Ultraman, Jack, Ace, and Zoffy in hot pursuit of a thief who’s stolen the Ultra Key. Being an energy regulator for homeworld of the Ultra Family, the Ultra Key keeps the energy of the Land of Light (referred to in this episode as The Star of Ultra) in check. Without it, the Land of Light is now out of control and set to crash into the Earth in seven days! And Leo is thrown into the middle when he learns from his mentor that the thief’s identity is none other than his long-lost-now-recently-returned brother, Astra! Torn between protecting his only family and saving the planet, Leo does the reasonable thing...and takes on all four of his elder Ultras in one of the biggest throwdowns of the series! And all that takes place in just one episode! Watch the chaos unfold for yourself.
8.) “Teacher’s Memories” - Ultraman Mebius, Episode 41 (CR)
Ultraman 80 had a great premise. You had a lead hero, Takeshi Yamato, who had to juggle life as a middle-school teacher, a UGM member, and his secret identity of Ultraman 80. While this was largely done to mimic the trend of popular school dramas, the setup was actually refreshing. Never mind that it was actually attempting to explain the origins of Earth-based monsters by way of the emotion-based “Minus Energy”. Unfortunately, 80 succumbed to the Forgetful Disease that plagued many an early Ultra Series and promptly ditched its premise. By Episode 12, Yamato suddenly became a full-time UGM member, Minus Energy became a standard plot device, and the show was swiftly retooled. His school life was never referenced again and was left unresolved with no single mention in the final episode. It’s all the more reason to be thankful for the 2006 anniversary series, Ultraman Mebius. Because not only did it deliver a hell of a show, it retconned the “M-78 Universe” timeline and gave closure to several characters and stories that needed it. And sure enough, Ultraman 80 was on the hit list.
In Episode 41, time has passed and the school that Yamato once taught at has been scheduled for demolition. One of his former students, now a teacher, reconnects with some of his old classmates and they plan to have a reunion party. But the fact that Yamato was 80 became something of an urban legend to their class, and they never got to say goodbye. Hoping to see him again, they consult with Crew GUYS (Mebius’ support team) to try to discover their teacher’s whereabouts. But as the reunion party takes place, a Minus Energy monster appears for the first time in years! Will Ultraman 80 return to save his students one last time?
This is possibly one of the best stand-alone stories of the series. It doesn’t spoil the ending of 80 (which honestly, there’s not much to spoil apart from frozen zoo animals) but it pays homage to those great early episodes and gives fans the conclusion they always wanted.
7.) “City of Illusion” - Ultraman 80, Episode 5 (CR)
While we’re on the subject of Ultraman 80, try this episode. In it, Takeshi takes the late train home after school and ends up in a city completely devoid of life. In truth, he’s been absconded to another dimension by aliens from the planet Bam. They’ve learned his true identity and have isolated him from UGM to destroy him! Alone in this dark dimension, can Takeshi stop the Bam aliens and find his way out?
Set in the early episodes before the Forgetful Disease settled in, “City of Illusion” is Ultraman 80 at its best. There are also shades of the final episode of Ultra Q, “Open Up!” which also dealt with night trains whisking people off to other dimensions. While you get mere flashes of his UGM and school life, this story allows Takeshi to shine on his own and show just why he’s such a lovable guy. Even if his show can’t make up its mind.
6.) “Crash of Souls!” - Ultraman Gaia, Episode 34 (CR)
I was originally going to put down “Battling The Legend” on account of it taking place in Canada and it featuring Catherine Ryan, the second coming of Brenda Bakke’s character from Gunhed. But then I remembered that the episode after featured New Japan Pro Wrestling legend Shinya Hashimoto fighting fire werewolves and I kind of had to change gears.
Penned by Chiaki Konaka (writer of The Big O and Digimon Tamers), Ultraman Gaia was a larger-than-life series. Along with one of the biggest support team rosters to date via the various branches of XIG, Gaia had one of the Ultra Series’ first real long-form story arcs. Even its stand-alone “filler” stories all ultimately had some manner of long-term payoff. Such was the case with Episode 34, a follow-up to the werewolf attack from Episode 22. In this episode, Taigo, the cousin of Team Hercules’ Kuwabara, struggles to accomplish his dream of being a pro-wrestler. At the same time, the Wolf Gas aliens are back as Wolf Fire, attacking people at night to turn more people like them. And guess who ends up in their crosshairs?
Any episode involving Team Hercules is automatically amazing on account of them being the ultimate, lovable muscle bros. Though sadly absent in the climax, they are still involved by way of Taigo who gets a great arc in this episode. This gets amped ten-fold with the late, great Shinya Hashimoto throwing himself into the fray to fight a pack of Wolf Fires bare-handed! NJPW fans should also keep an eye out for the other wrestler cameos thrown into this episode.
5.) “Defeat Gomess!” - Ultra Q, Episode 1 (Shout!)
The Japanese answer to The Outer Limits, Ultra Q, boiled down, is a kaiju anthology series. Across 26 episodes of self-contained stories, Japan is plagued with all manner of strange events ranging from giant flowers growing out of Tokyo skyscrapers, aliens from the future, and of course, monster attacks. But the best place to start with Ultra Q is its first episode, “Defeat Gomess!”. In it, a construction site’s activity triggers the awakening of the ancient monster, Gomess. It begins to go on a rampage with no stop in sight. Japan’s only hope is for the arrival of the giant bird, Litra!
Fun fact: the suit used to make Gomess is actually based on a Godzilla costume. This would be one of two times Tsuburaya would borrow a Godzilla suit from Toho Studios. The other instance would be for Episode 10 of Ultraman, “The Mysterious Dinosaur Base”. Gomess was originally going to return for Episode 18 of Ultra Q, but wouldn’t be seen on screen again until decades later in Mega-Monster Battle: Ultra Galaxy.
4.) “To Meet You” - Ultraman Ginga S, Episode 12 (CR)
While Ultraman Ginga is divisive amongst fans, it’s agreed that its second season, Ultraman Ginga S, was a more than stellar improvement. Episode 12 is proof positive of this with a story involving Chigusa, a supporting cast member from Ginga, now on the road to becoming the idol she’s always dreamed of being. But as her concert falls under attack by series villain Exceller, her number one fan rushes in to protect her, revealing his massive secret: he’s an alien from the planet Metron!
This episode was one of the few helmed by Ultraman X director Kiyotaka Taguchi, and it brings his unique sense of humor to the forefront. Not to mention this episode has one of the best battles of the series, a one-take three-on-one rumble. It’s basically a parody of Metron’s first appearance in Ultraseven, “The Targeted Town”, right down to the sunset final battle and an evil plot involving rage-inducing glowsticks. Speaking of X...
3.) “Feature Report! 24 Hours Inside Xio” - Ultraman X, Episode 16 (CR)
Ultraman X was the first Tokusatsu show to get an English-subtitled simulcast, and also managed to be one of the best shows of the year. While it was very back-to-basics with the Xio support team headlining the main cast, it brought with it some welcome spins on the formula. The biggest of these was Episode 16, where Ultraman X suddenly turned into a Cops-esque ride-along documentary with the Xio team in the spotlight. A news crew follows a day in the life of Xio, complete with monster battles, alien interrogations, and intimate interviews.
As X tends to lean more towards the dramatic, this episode allows the Xio team to show a more comical side for once and it’s absolutely hilarious to watch. Special props go to Yu Kamio (Dr. Maki in Kamen Rider OOO) as Captain Kamiki who completely steals the show during the aforementioned alien interrogation scene.
2.) “Dark Zone” - Ultraseven, Episode 6 (Shout!)
While Ultraman has the main foothold in Japanese pop culture, it’s the successor series, Ultraseven, that ends up with arguably more popularity as a show. With beautiful cinematography, an amazing orchestral score, and some amazing writing, Ultraseven remains to be a one-of-a-kind TV series. And the best summation of this is within “Dark Zone”, the quintessential episode that distils the running theme for the series. The story sees Anne, a member of the Ultra Garrison come into contact with a being made of pure darkness. It wishes no harm to mankind, hailing from the beautiful space-faring city of Pegassa...which is currently on a collision course with the Earth. But that’s totally not a problem! All Earth has to do is shift its gravity to help move it out of the way in time. But it can’t. And that discovery may result in the destruction of either Pegassa or the Earth!
This is one of many episodes throughout the series where mankind’s boldness has our hero even questioning why he protects them. In this case, miscommunication on both sides results in one of the most bittersweet climaxes. Should the Ultra Garrison try to make contact with Pegassa amidst their lack of response, or do they commit genocide to keep the Earth safe? It’s an episode that keeps you guessing all the way to the bitter end and demonstrates just how powerful of a show this is.
1.) “Shoot The Invader” - Ultraman, Episode 2 (Shout!)
Probably my favorite Ultraman story next to “The Terrifying Cosmic Rays”, “Shoot the Invader” is the second episode of the original 1966 TV series. In this story, Science Patrol member Ide relates the tale of how he ended up with a black eye. Oh, and that one night when a race of evil aliens kinda sorta attempted to take over the Earth.
“Shoot the Invader” is an important landmark for the Ultra Series: It was the first produced episode of Ultraman, the first chronological episode being “Ultra Operation #1”. Also, this episode is the first canon appearance of the Baltans, the lobster-like humanoids who would reappear in the series twice, and go on to become the Ultra Family’s arch-rival in subsequent shows. Finally, this episode gave us the name of Ultraman’s signature attack, the Spacium Ray. This comes after Science Patrol captain Muramatsu realizing that the Baltans are weak against Spacium, a key compound in a Mars’ atmosphere that obstructed their first takeover plans. And it just so happens to be the key component in Ultraman’s finisher.
But even without the significance in canon, “Shoot the Invader” is one of the most iconic episodes. The creepy afterimage shot of the Baltans multiplying has been homaged time and time again. And the climactic night battle between Ultraman and an enlarged Baltan is one of the best-executed sequences of the series, being one of the few nighttime set-pieces for Ultraman. Years later, it still looks as amazing.
There’s plenty of great stories across the franchise to choose from, and hopefully, this list will start you on the path of discovering the Ultra Series for yourself!
Mike Dent is a hot-blooded freelancer, filmmaker, writer for Otaku USA Magazine, and swears he’s not secretly from Nebula M-78. He curates the blog Vintage Henshin on Tumblr. Follow him on Twitter @Mach_Dent.