It’s no secret that, now more than ever, Ultraman is becoming part of the American cultural canon. This year alone Ultraman even made his first live appearance in the States at Los Angeles Anime Expo!
With the international release of series that were previously only available in Japan, the live shows that you’re able to stream almost anywhere, the influx of licensed Ultraman products in the US, and the recent series of Ultraman miniseries from Marvel Comics, it’s clear that Ultraman’s sphere of influence is growing exponentially. Still, I was curious to explore the origin place of the Ultraman franchise and wanted to learn about the Japanese perspective.
As an Ultra-noob from America, visiting Japan with my coworker Gia and experiencing the cultural significance of Ultraman there was powerful. Ultraman billboards in Akihabara, shops filled to the brim with Ultraman memorabilia in Nakano Broadway, Kaiju-themed restaurants in Kawasaki, or even a street dedicated to shopping for Ultraman products in Soshigaya. Any average Ultra-fan would lose their mind (and their savings) in excitement!
Ultraman Street in Setagaya City, Tokyo
It might seem obvious that Ultraman is so well-represented in Japan, but what did surprise me is the universal love for Ultraman that everyone seemed to have. Here in the states, people have polarizing beliefs on superheroes — “Mine are better than yours!” — and other iconic characters, however in Japan, it seemed like most everyone has a very fond association with Ultraman, even if they aren’t huge fans.
No matter who I asked, whether it was food servers, fellow club-goers, cashiers, Harajuku girls, young people or even Showa era adults, everyone knew their favorite Ultra and Kaiju. The diversity in age, occupation, personality, gender, and style of Ultraman-enjoyers was genuinely inspiring. To think Ultraman could be the uniting factor in a pool of people who have nothing else in common was comforting to this jaded American.
Stationary store in Kawasaki, Kanagawa
From my unscientific field research, I’ve concluded that Eleking is the most popular of the Ultraman Kaiju and of course his counterpart Ultraseven is the most popular of the Ultras. I wouldn’t have had the courage to ask around and find out, however, if it hadn’t been for two kind strangers on a train.
That’s right, the most inspiring experience I had during my time in Japan was when I was overheard speaking English with Gia on the train by two young law students from Tokyo. Daichi and Reo were curious about where we were from and asked if they could practice their English with us. Eager to learn more about Japan from a native’s perspective, I agreed to practice speaking with them in exchange for a tour of the coolest spots.
Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan
As we explored our first destination, the Shimokitzawa thrift stores, they asked me what I did for a living, and I told them I wrote for Ultraman Connection and wrote for the website. The two absolutely freaked in the best way possible! One pulled out his phone immediately to show me photos of his Ultraman figure shelf, the other began excitedly ranking his favorite Kaiju and Ultras. I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
After shopping, conveyor belt sushi, and Purikura booth photos, the four of us walked around Shibuya and they let me ask them questions about their relationship with Ultraman. Daichi and Reo explained how they’ve loved Ultraman since they were children, and that Ultraman is a great role model for hope, valor, and empathy.
“There’s something about Ultraman that just makes everyone feel happy and safe.”
After exchanging information with them (and declining their offer to give me some of their Ultraman memorabilia to remember them by) I decided that I was going to ask as many people as possible about their relationship with Ultraman while I had the chance in Japan.
Ultraman is steeped in the firmament of Japanese culture
The love those law students had for Ultraman and the kindness they showed me gave me the courage to talk to more strangers and the outcome of each interaction was priceless. Even if it was only for a moment, just bringing up Ultraman was enough to put a smile on everyone’s face.
The energy that comes from the Japanese love of Ultraman is unmatched and with the rise of Ultraman’s popularity here in the United States, I hope we’re not too far off from sharing that energy. I might not know as much about Ultraman as the next fan, but one thing is for certain, Ultraman has the power to connect people in the way we need it most.