Column: Is Time Running Out for the Ultraman Franchise?

ultraman

© TSUBURAYA PRODUCTIONS

Well-loved by children and adults from all over the world, the adventures of the various Ultramen have proved to be timeless ones, entertaining generation after generation. Despite Kamen Rider claiming the No.1 spot over it in recent years, Ultraman, along with Godzilla, have enjoyed continued cultural recognition in Japanese pop culture.

The Ultraman franchise will enter its Golden Jubilee calendar year in about six months’ time, but it may not be that much of a celebratory affair.

Fans who have been following the scene for some time now would know that the light of the Plasma Spark Tower has not been shining as brightly as before, with Tsuburaya Productions embroiled in a nearly two decade-long legal ding-dong with Chaiyo Studios, a Thai film production company, over the distribution & ownership rights to the Ultraman franchise, which was based on an agreement in Sompote Saengduenchai’s (founder of Chaiyo) possession, allegedly endorsed by Tsuburaya Noboru (the son of the late Tsuburaya Eiji) in 1976.

The latest twist to the tale comes from a late-May article from the Hollywood Reporter writing that UM Corporation, a Japanese company who alleges to have held ownership of Chaiyo’s 1976 agreement since 2008, is now suing Tsuburaya Productions for infringing their rights by posting Ultraman episodes on YouTube (which could be streamed in 256 countries worldwide). No new developments to the saga have been reported since.

I have strong emotional ties to the Ultraman franchise, having practically grew up on a diet of McDonald’s, Command & Conquer and Ultraman, and I am extremely saddened by the state of affairs that the franchise is in. I was in my early teens when I first learned about the whole Chaiyo dispute, and even as I approach my late twenties, there continues to be no positive outcome to the matter.

While I will personally endeavour to promote Ultraman through writing about it and sharing related stuff on social media, as a business owner myself I sometimes do wonder about the viability of the franchise, and if it still exists now only because it is held together by its sheer cultural identity.

There was a slight resurgence of the genre in the mid-2000s with the Ultra N Project leading up to Ultraman Mebius and its related movies after a minor legal victory, but the decision was bafflingly reversed quickly once again, leaving Tsuburaya unable to build on the momentum. And if matters could not be worse, the Tsuburaya family was forced to sell off the company to advertising agency TYO Inc, which in turn sold a portion of its shares to Bandai. The only link to the family now remains in Eiji’s grandson, Kazuo, a solitary representative in the company’s Board of Directors.

In the last few years, Tsuburaya Productions has sadly been reduced to producing mini-series within Ultraman Retsuden (a clip show), remastering old series on Blu-Ray and a single theatrical feature every 2-3 years. Consider the fact that the last proper Ultra Series was the 13-episode Neo Ultra Q in 2013–A show that obviously did not utilise a single Ultraman character at all.

That being said, TYO and Bandai have indeed done a decent job with the franchise with what they had to work with. The decision to move on from the mishandled Ultraman Zero and bring forth a new Ultraman character was the correct one. Mildly popular characters from the Ultraman Ginga universe have held the fort for sometime and will be passing the baton over to Ultraman X in a few weeks. If the official English subtitling on YouTube for Ultra Fight Victory is anything to go by, X should receive the same treatment, which opens up doors for Tsuburaya to the international audiences they’ve been neglecting (not on purpose I believe).

Though X looks promising from what we’ve seen in the trailer, it still remains a tough ask if Tsuburaya Productions is actually raking in profits, if any at all, from their current programming. Even UltramanLand, the franchise’s very own theme park in Kumamoto, had to close down due to financial trouble and lack of popularity.

With all the money spent on lawsuits, fines and legal fees spent on the copyright war, it is also a question of how long more will TYO and Bandai be willing to stick their necks out for the integrity of the franchise. Just sit back, close your eyes and imagine if all that money was spent on producing proper, original Ultraman material, such as the new series all Ultraman fans have been wanting for a while. Now how upsetting does that feel?

That is why I will never back any Chaiyo or UM Corporation production. Even if their character stands tall in the heart of Tokyo, in a rubber suit with a blue light on his chest and fires laser beams from his hands, it will never be Ultraman to me.

And as we edge closer and closer to Ultraman X and the 50th Anniversary of the Ultraman franchise, what does the future hold for our favourite rubber-suited giant hero?

Only time will tell.

And at least we’ll certainly have more than three minutes.


 

Do you think the Ultraman franchise is dying a slow death? How can it be saved? Let us know in the comments below.

5 replies
  1. Johnny Tin
    Johnny Tin says:

    To me I feel like the modern ultraman are ok, but they lack the rawness of the classic ultraman.
    I think they should do a whole reboot to capture a more mature audience.

    I don’t recall ultraman being very child friendly from the start, it had gore, the cinematography was pretty scary with the haunting sound effects.The story wasn’t very magical power style neither (afterall even ultraman can fell)

    Kamen rider somehow managed to transition into a total children friendly show.
    If ultraman cannot, they should rethink their strategy.

    The ultraman comic for example is what I think it should do more.

  2. jsbelfiore
    jsbelfiore says:

    Certainly if you only look at the television and film output, the franchise has definitely drifted in recent years. As a cultural movement, I think the franchise is still quite vital, much more so than just sheer identity. In Japan, there are frequent and strong callbacks to the Showa and Heisei series’ glory days. Take for example, the recent opening, closing, return and doubling of Kaiju Sakaba. Other examples are recent Ultraman / Ultraseven museum exhibits from Tokyo to Ibaraki to Aomori, often featuring original artifacts and special sessions with some of the original cast. WOWOW has been broadcasting remasters of Showa era series (although, Taro in remastered HD is..well…Taro in HD). Most recently, the JR East featured an Ultraman (Showa-era) stamp rally, with stations set up all over Tokyo to encourage riders to visit more of the city and collect ink stamps as part of a national contest. This is not a franchise in the end times.

    Admittedly, we’d all love to see a 21st century TDF in time for the 50th anniversary of the franchise. (The closest we’ve come of late to another Kiriyama is Space Pendragon’s Hiroshi Hyuga in Mega Monster Battles and MMB:NEO.) Despite the financial challenges and the depressing decades-long battle with Chaiyo, I think Ultraman will endure.

    Thank you for the thought-provoking article!

  3. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    If I may point out, Ultraman has gotten child-friendly for the past (at least) two decades, while also managing to be awe-inspiring.

    Should they do a reboot? Perhaps. There’s the upcoming Ultraman X, in which Kobayashi Yuji (GARO, Ultraseven X) is involved so perhaps your thought will be fulfilled.

    Personally, I’d just love to see Ultraman continue on being the hero every kid/fan should have, regardless of age group. It can be light-hearted, it can be mature, as long as it’s done well.

  4. Yee-Siang Lee
    Yee-Siang Lee says:

    Return of Ultraman aka Ultraman Jack was the first Ultra Series I watch during my childhood. I would like to say that Ultra Series is so far the best tokusatsu franchise has the solid plot, good timeline continuity and different universe setting between Showa Ultras and Heisei Ultras with less plotholes unlike Toei’s Kamen Rider and Super Sentai. Ultraman – 80 taught me about world peace, justice, friendship, teamwork, leadership and love. The Heisei trilogy – Tiga, Dyna and Gaia gives me much feels and hypes beside the same motivation, positive and moral values. Cosmos taught me to be kind as always, Nexus taught me to be never give up until the end at all times and believe in the bond between people. Max, Mebius, Ultra Galaxy, Zero, Ginga and Victory taught me to be a responsible upright person always. Chaiyo, pls go fxxk yourself, leave Ultra series alone now after years and years of lawsuit cases. If you are so determined why don’t create your own fascinated toku heroes rather than claiming people’s works as yours? Don’t you feel any shame?

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