Who is Ultraman, you ask? Only the baddest mf’ing 130-foot-tall, 35,000-ton, red-and-silver metallic nonspeaking superhero with giant headlights for eyes ever to emerge from Japan, that’s all. Originally dreamed up by Eiji Tsuburaya for a 40-episode Japanese television series in 1966-67, Ultraman was a supersized savior from outer space who merged his life essence with a Japanese scientist named Shin Hayata to combat the parade of monstrous nasties that regularly arose to threaten Tokyo and Japan. Whenever danger appeared, which was pretty much weekly, Shin would step forward, raise the mysterious Beta Capsule, and be instantaneously transformed into a titanic amalgam of The Karate Kid, Iron Man, and the entire World Wrestling Federation.
When I was a kid in Charleston, with an insatiable appetite for low-budget escapism and a mind as impressionable as warm chocolate pudding, Ultraman was the absolute shit. It was my first introduction to Japanese culture, and it was a potent one. I vividly remember sprawling out on the floor after school, chin in hands, a pilfered pink can of my mother’s stash of Tab fizzing softly beside me, soaking up the ludicrous martial-arts-meets-sci-fi storylineline and fight scenes in late 1960s reruns. In them, Ultraman whooped the asses of every low-tech, skyscraper-tall creature the series’ producers’ twisted minds could throw at him. Terresdon, Kerronia, Mephilas, Z-Ton, Dada, Neronga, Keelar, Gomora, Chandrah, Bemular, Death-Kamura, and endless others – Ultraman mopped the ruined, trampled scale-model streets of Japan’s cities with them all. He used his classic crossed-hands Specium Ray, his Ultra Slash, his clairvoyance beam, the Ultra Chop and Ultra Swing, paralysis beams, and, of course, the ability to fly, without which no decent 130-foot-tall superhero is worth a damn. The series’ plots were laughable, the special-effects execrable, the English overdubbing deplorable. I loved every kitschy minute of it.
Forty years later, echoes of Ultraman are everywhere in Japan: films, videogames, reinventions of the original series, lunchboxes, masks and costumes, miniature action figures and giant origami models. For me, he’s the penultimate – make that penultramate – symbol of modern-day Japanese culture, the perfect ambassador for a blog about an American living, however temporarily and inexplicably, in Japan.