SciFi Japan

    Tsuburaya Productions, 2004: A Year In Retrospect

    Author: James Ballard Sources: Illustrated Who`s Who of Ultra Series, Matsu-Red`s Home Page, Henshin! Online, 5 Shadows Special Thanks to August Ragone, Bob Johnson, Keith Aiken, and Elliot Gay 2004 was an exciting year for giant monster fans. With the hype surrounding Toho’s 50th anniversary and allegedly “last” Godzilla movie - GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (2004) - also came a surge of dual-language Region 1 DVD releases, the first ever U.S. release of the uncut GODZILLA (1954) from Rialto Pictures, and some spectacular U.S. theatrical events such as the Egyptian Theatre’s “Godzilla 50th Anniversary Tribute”, the Hollywood Theatre’s “50 Years of Godzilla” festival and Bay Area Film Events’ Godzillafest at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. However, while most eyes were squarely focused on Godzilla, many overlooked the happenings at Tsuburaya Productions, where a complete re-envisioning of their popular ULTRA franchise was well underway. Leading up to Tsuburaya’s 2004 works, an all-new radio program titled THE ULTRA Q CLUB began airing on TBS Radio in Japan, starting October 5th 2003 until March 28th 2004 at 7.30-8.00pm every Sunday. The show reunited the original cast of Tsuburaya’s ULTRA Q (1966) television series - Kenji Sahara, Hiroko Sakurai and Yasuhiko Saijo – in new radio stories, and was narrated by TBS announcer Masao Mukai. Twenty-four main stories were broadcast, featuring monsters both new and old, with a special 2-hour show airing at 2.00pm on February 21st 2004. Many ULTRA veterans returned, including ULTRAMAN ZEARTH 2 (1997) director Kazuya Konaka, ULTRAMAN (1966-1967) and ULTRA SEVEN (1967-1968) writers Shozo Uehara and Mamoru Sasaki (who passed away very recently on February 24th 2006) and ULTRA Q director Toshihiro Iijima. The show was split into two segments, the first being the new drama and the second a studio talk session with many of the veteran cast and crew members, who recalled their experiences working on the classic Tsuburaya productions.

    Following the success of THE ULTRA Q CLUB, Tsuburaya returned to the small screen with ULTRA Q DARK FANTASY on April 6th 2004. The all-new 26 episode series was the first new television show from Tsuburaya in almost two years, following the conclusion of ULTRAMAN COSMOS (2001-2002) on July 20th 2002. The new “darker” show began airing to audiences at 1.00am on Tuesday mornings. In a similar vein to the U.S. sci-fi classic THE OUTER LIMITS (1963-1965), each week saw a new mystery, whether aliens, monsters, fantasy or science-run-amok. In the new modern-day setting, the main recurring cast for ULTRA Q DARK FANTASY included Yoshiko Hakamada as Mind magazine reporter Sakamoto, Kumiko Endo as photographer Ryo Kusunoki, and veteran actor Masao Kusakari as the eccentric Professor Watarai. The show attracted several top-rung directors, among them Shusuke Kaneko, popular among monster fans for his work on the three 1990s GAMERA films and Toho’s GODZILLA, MOTHRA AND KING GHIDORAH GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK (a.k.a GMK, 2001). Since then, Kaneko has gone on to become the lead director for Tsuburaya’s recent Ultraman show, ULTRAMAN MAX (2005-2006). For ULTRA Q DARK FANTASY, Kaneko lent his talents directing episodes #3 and #7.

    Episode #3 “Who Are You?” stars Yoshimasa Kondo as Yamazaki, a seemingly average middle-aged barber. One morning, he notices things seem different: the alarm clock is two minutes fast, his slippers are too small, there is an extra step on the stair case. However, the big surprise comes later in the day, when Yamazaki recognises one of his customers as Yoichiro, a friend he witnessed die when he was a child. After having lunch with Yoichiro, Yamazaki visits his old school friends who also witnessed the death. His friends all confirm that Yoichiro had died, but now Yamazaki is not convinced that he did. Could it have been another student instead? Returning home, Yamazaki looks through his school graduation photo album, in order to find which student is missing. To his horror, he discovers that he is the one missing from all the photographs.

    A regular TV drama actor, Kondo has also appeared in Toho’s GMK and DRAGON HEAD (2003). Yoichiro is played by Kai Shishido. A man of many talents, Shishido has worked in television, movies and theatre, as well as taking to professional writing and photography (under the name of Kai Itsukage). The following year he would take on the role of DASH Captain Shigeru Hijikata in ULTRAMAN MAX, as well as appearing in director Kaneko’s theatrical film AZUMI 2: DEATH OR LOVE (2005). Episode #7 “Kiara” sees actor Hironobu Nomura take the role of a jazz bassist named Sakaguchi. Following a performance one evening, Sakaguchi almost hits a young woman, Kiara, with his car. After carrying her back to his apartment, he goes to find some blankets for her, but once he returns she has disappeared. The following day Sakaguchi meets with his manager Mr. Tanaka at the recording label, who has obtained an extremely rare LP of Sakaguchi’s hero - Buster Karkland - a man who claimed to be haunted by an angel. Later that day, Mr. Tanaka discovers that the LP has been stolen from his office. When checking the security video tapes, the young woman is seen. However, on closer inspection, she disappears for several frames of the video. Who is this woman, and what connection does she have with Sakaguchi? Aside from director Kaneko, many other familiar names were involved with the show. ULTRAMAN TIGA (1996-1997) director Tsugumi Kitaura returned to tackle episodes #4, #8 and #11, ULTRAMAN GAIA (1998-1999) assistant director Takeshi Yagi directed episodes #1, #5, #21 and #23, and ULTRAMAN and ULTRA SEVEN director Akio Jissoji directed episodes #24 and #25. Shiro Sano also lent his voice as the show’s narrator. Godzilla fans will remember Sano for his role as Miyasaka in GODZILLA 2000 (1999), the CCI scientist and old friend of the lead character Shinoda. Sano since appeared with smaller roles in director Kaneko’s GMK and Ryuhei Kitamura’s GODZILLA: FINAL WARS. Original ULTRA Q composer Kunio Miyauchi, who also wrote the music score for GODZILLA’S REVENGE (1969), returned to produce an updated version of his opening theme for the show.

    2004 also saw more top DVD releases from the DIGITAL ULTRA SERIES, including the entire ULTRAMAN ACE (1972-1973) series. The DIGITAL ULTRA SERIES is a continuing effort between Tsuburaya Productions, Panasonic, Imagica and Beam Entertainment to digitally restore many of Tsuburaya’s classic shows, which have naturally begun to deteriorate with age. The frame-by-frame digital restoration being performed is some of the most advanced in the world, and has been estimated to take between 200 to 400 hours per each 25-minute episode. The results are spectacular, looking as good – if not better – than when the shows initially aired. Each DVD volume also has a brand new Dolby Digital 5.1 audio remix. Following ULTRA Q DARK FANTASY - which completed its run on September 28th 2004 - was the ULTRA N PROJECT, a three-phase experiment to re-invent Japan’s most enduring superhero, Ultraman, for a whole new generation of fans. Since ULTRAMAN first appeared in 1966, there have been dozens of television shows, theatrical films, direct-to-video specials, joint international productions and more, not forgetting the incredible line of merchandising produced with big-name partners like Bandai. Ultraman even has his own theme park, Ultraman Land, located in Arao City, Kyushu. Due to this constant exposure, Ultraman has maintained its popularity with Japan’s youth, where Godzilla has sometimes struggled to keep up. The first stage of the new project was “Noa: Nostalgia”. The new character and project mascot, Ultraman Noa, was designed specifically for live stage shows and merchandising. A rather radical change in appearance from previous Ultra heroes, the all-silver Ultraman Noa has protruding, angel-like wings on its back. Like all good heroes, Ultraman Noa also has a nemesis – Dark Zagi – with whom he has been battling for years across space.

    The second stage was entitled “Next: Evolution”. The brand new theatrical feature – ULTRAMAN: THE NEXT (simply titled ULTRAMAN in Japan) – opened to theatres nationwide in Japan on December 18th 2004. Air force pilot Shinichi Maki has decided to resign from his post in order to spend more time with his son, who is suffering from a blood disease. However, during his final days an alert is ordered, and Maki is sent out to investigate. Loosing control of his craft, he is unwillingly pulled into a giant, mysterious glowing object. To everyone’s surprise, Maki somehow survived the fatal accident which completely destroyed his aircraft. A month later, now working for a small flight training centre, Maki is taken captive by one of his customers – a young woman named Sara Mizuhara - in midair, and ordered to fly the plane to Cape Ryu, from which he is taken to the secret base of BCST. His captors inform him that a similar incident involving a mysterious glowing object happened to a marine officer named Udo, Sara’s fiancée, three months prior, who slowly mutated into a dangerous monster codenamed “The One”. With the same fate expected of Maki, BCST are to keep him captive, and also hope he will be adequate bait to lure back the escaped “The One”. “What will you call me then?” asks Maki. ““The Next”…maybe,” Sara replies. Surely enough, The One finally appears to confront Maki, who makes his transformation into the silver giant, Ultraman. Eventually, The Next and The One face off in Tokyo’s busy Shinjuku district, in a spectacular sequence shot under harsh broad daylight.

    Following Maki’s first painful transformation, Ultraman’s facial appearance bares a resemblance to the very first “A-Type” Ultraman. The original ULTRAMAN show featured three prominent Ultraman designs, commonly referred to as “A-Type”, “B-Type” and “C-Type”. The original “A-Type” Ultraman had an extremely pliable face in order for the lips to move as he spoke. The effect was very subtle, and the material used for this made Ultraman’s face appear very rough in texture. The subsequent “B-Type” and “C-Type”, and indeed all that followed, used much stronger, smoother materials. Before the final showdown in Shinjuku, Ultraman transforms into a more traditional red-and-silver form with a smoother facial design. Shinichi Maki is played by 39-year-old actor Tetsuya Bessho. A familiar face to Godzilla fans, over a decade prior Bessho was the leading man in Toho’s GODZILLA AND MOTHRA: THE BATTLE FOR EARTH (1992), playing the divorced relic hunter Takuya Fujita. Sara’s character is played by 29-year-old Kyoko Toyama, a popular TV drama actor appearing in shows such as BEST FRIEND (1995), CAMPUS NOTE (1996) and MANHATTAN LOVE STORY (2003). Maki’s foe Udo is played by the wonderfully elaborate Kenya Osumi. The 39-year-old actor’s previous credits include FOSSE (2002) and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (2003), as well as his own CD single ADVENTURE NIGHT.

    For director Kazuya Konaka this was his fourth theatrical Ultraman feature, having previously directed ULTRAMAN ZEARTH 2, ULTRAMAN TIGA AND ULTRAMAN DYNA (1998) and ULTRAMAN GAIA: THE BATTLE IN HYPERSPACE (1999). The special effects for the film were directed by 34-year-old Yuichi Kikuchi. Graduate of Tokyo Visual Arts, Kikuchi served as an assistant special effects director for productions such as ULTRAMAN TIGA, ULTRAMAN DYNA (1997-1998) and GMK. In 2002, he made the leap to special effects director for Toho’s GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA. Produced on a budget reportedly one-third that of GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, the difference in quality is quite striking. Kikuchi takes steps to push the evolution of Japan’s traditional “suitmation” method further, with less focus on miniature-scaled sets in favor of realistic composites onto real location footage shot around Tokyo. As with the 1990s GAMERA series, the film also makes good use of CGI effects and sequences, whilst not allowing it become the dominant process. The screenplay was written by Keiichi Hasegawa, a man who has an extraordinary history of credits to his name. These include the theatrical features ULTRAMAN TIGA AND ULTRAMAN DYNA, ULTRAMAN GAIA: THE BATTLE IN HYPERSPACE, ULTRAMAN TIGA: THE FINAL ODYSSEY (2000), ULTRAMAN COSMOS: THE FIRST CONTACT (2001), ULTRAMAN COSMOS 2: THE BLUE PLANET (2002) and ULTRAMAN COSMOS VS. ULTRAMAN JUSTICE: THE FINAL BATTLE (2003), as well as a variety of television series. In 2001, Keiichi also penned the acclaimed GMK with Masahiro Yokotani and director Shusuke Kaneko. Keiichi will also be writing the 40th anniversary movie ULTRAMAN MEBIUS AND ULTRAMAN BROTHERS (2006).

    As with GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, the genre’s traditional orchestral music was replaced in favour of a more modern “rock” soundtrack. The entire soundtrack for ULTRAMAN: THE NEXT was composed by Takahiro "Tak" Matsumoto and his rock band B’z. The English language song “Never Goodbye” featured in the closing credits was composed by Matsumoto’s newly formed “Tak Matsumoto Group”. With much credit to his name, in 1999 Matsumoto became the first guitarist in Asia to have a signature model guitar produced in his honour by the Gibson Guitar Corporation.

    The final phase of the ULTRA N PROJECT was “Nexus: Trinity”. The darker, grittier television series ULTRAMAN NEXUS (2004-2005) debuted on October 2nd, the same week that ULTRA Q DARK FANTASY reached its conclusion. Most of the crew who had worked on ULTRAMAN: THE NEXT – which completed principal photography at the end of 2003 - returned for ULTRAMAN NEXUS. Yuichi Kikuchi returned as special effects director for 19 of the show’s 37 broadcast episodes, while Kazuya Konaka directed 7 episodes for the show, as well as directing special effects for 5 episodes. Keiichi Hasegawa returned as one of the show’s leading writers, while also serving as the series manager. Further, and while not explicitly stated until well over half-way through the run of the new show, the two productions are also directly linked. The story of ULTRAMAN NEXUS takes place exactly 5 years after the events of ULTRAMAN: THE NEXT, in the year 2009. In this world, the events of The Next and The One’s battle in Shinjuku have been erased from all minds and data, in an attempt to cover up the real truth: that the Earth is being invaded by alien creatures known as “Space Beasts”. Behind this mass cover-up is the Terrestrial Liberation Trust - “TLT” (popularly abbreviated as “tilt” by characters in the show) - an enormous worldwide organization working to keep knowledge of the beasts a secret from the public, whatever the cost! Developing further from styles first introduced in ULTRAMAN GAIA, the show abandons the traditional “monster of the week” structure in return for longer multi-episode story arcs with rivalling “dark giants” – the first being Dark Faust – with most episodes leaving the audience on a cliff-hanger. To compare, this is similar to how STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE (1993-1999) adapted from the original STAR TREK (1966-1969) formula.

    To shake things up further, the main character of the show, Kazuki Komon, is not Ultraman. Rather, Komon is the latest recruit of the Night Raiders, the TLT attack team who deal with the invading beasts. On his way to the TLT base on his first day, Komon is attacked by a small human-sized beast, but is rescued by a silver giant: Ultraman. Throughout a great deal of the show, Ultraman is simply considered another dangerous beast by TLT – as he initially was in ULTRAMAN: THE NEXT - with Komon being the only member to believe he’s their ally. This new perspective allows the audience to join Komon in discovering this new world of monsters and giants for the first time, something that is especially welcoming to new viewers unbeknownst to the franchise’s long history and tradition. Komon’s character is played by 23-year-old Takuji Kawakubo, who appeared in episodes #33 thru #36 of MASKED RIDER 555 (2003-2004), as well as the 2004 DEVILMAN remake. Several liberties were also taken with the Ultraman character himself. Ultraman no longer had a singular “host”, ULTRAMAN NEXUS seeing no less than four people taking their turn to transform into the silver giant. The idea - as quoted by a CBC representative in a Henshin!Online translation - was that they “want[ed] children in the audience to feel like any one of them might be able to transform into Ultraman.” The traditional “3 minute rule” was also removed, but in turn, Ultraman’s strength now relies on that of the human host –called a “Dunamist” – he has joined with. Should the human weaken, so will Ultraman, and vice versa. Ultraman also has the ability to create the “Meta Field”, in a sense an alternative dimension, which is where the majority of fights between Ultraman and the Space Beasts take place.

    The first person to inherit Ultraman’s “light” in the show was Jun Himeya, played by 27-year-old Yusuke Kirishima (who appeared in an episode of ULTRA Q DARK FANTASY earlier that year). Far from the typical hero, Himeya was once an accomplished photographer, whose life fell apart after inadvertently getting a small girl killed in a war zone (wisely left unnamed). After her death, Himeya would see the girl in his dreams, as she led him further and further through the jungle. In one dream, he was eventually led to an old ruin, where he encountered Ultraman. While Himeya continues to transform into Ultraman to defeat the beasts, he tries to understand the reason why he was chosen. After Himeya departs the show, a new younger character, Ren Senjyu, is introduced to become the second Dunamist of Ultraman Nexus. As a polar opposite to Himeya, Ren appears to be happy and carefree, working part-time at a fairground doing several odd-jobs. However, despite this joyous front, we discover that Ren is actually a son of the “Prometheus Project” – a genetically engineered human being – and is suffering from a genetic disease, which can only be cured by an incomplete drug known as “Raphael”. After the genetic problem was discovered, Ren ran away from the American institute at which he was created, and moved to Tokyo to live out the rest of his life freely. Ren’s character is played by 19-year-old actor Masato Uchiyama, whose previous appearances include episode #11 of ULTRA Q DARK FANTASY, as well as episodes #24 and #25 of MASKED RIDER 555. He was also recently introduced as an established, recurring character in Toei’s current MASKED RIDER KABUTO (2006), in which fellow ULTRAMAN NEXUS star Takuji Kawakubo is also rumoured to appear.

    As with most of the modern Ultraman shows, Ultraman Nexus can take on multiple forms, each offering a range of different abilities. After first transforming into the giant, all of Ultraman’s Dunamists appear in the default silver “Anphans” form (derived from the French word “enfance”, meaning “childhood”). In order to create the Meta Field, as well as utilise a host of other powers, each must change into a higher form. The first Dunamist, Jun Himeya, is able to transform into “Junis” (derived from the French word “jeunesse”, meaning “youth”), a slightly more traditional red and silver design. The second Dunamist, Ren Senjyu, can turn into “Junis Blue”. Fairly similar to Himeya’s “Junis” form, “Junis Blue” has slightly different patterning, and as the name suggests, is mostly blue in place of the red. In the final episode, Kazuki Komon finally inherits the light of Ultraman. During the final battle, the words of encouragement from the previous Dunamists help Komon change through the different forms, “Anphans”, “Junis” and “Junis Blue”. Finally, as a surprise for the fans, Komon transforms into the project mascot Ultraman Noa, in order to fight Dark Zagi, bringing the ULTRA N PROJECT to a full circle. ULTRAMAN NEXUS’ large cast also includes several familiar faces. The Night Raider team captain Eisuke Wakura is played by Tamotsu Ishibashi, who took the role of Hanatani in director Shusuke Kaneko’s GAMERA 2: ATTACK OF LEGION (1996), the character who reads the important biblical quote: “And he asked him, `What is thy name?` And he answered, saying, `My name is Legion, for we are many”. Hiroshi Okouchi also makes a frequent appearance as Mr. Negoro, the journalist trying to find the truth behind the increasing number of mysterious “incidents”, as well as Himeya’s former newspaper editor. Okouchi also had a brief role in GAMERA 2, as the colonel at the Sapporo base during the Legion’s first attack. Veteran actor Kenji Sahara also makes a semi-regular appearance as one of TLT’s most top-ranking officials. A fitting role for the legendary actor, Sahara’s appearances include RODAN (1956), THE MYSTERIANS (1957), MATANGO (1963), ULTRA Q, THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966), ULTRA SEVEN, GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA II (1993), ULTRA Q CLUB, GODZILLA: FINAL WARS and many, many others. Towards the end of the series, a new character called Hayato Kaimoto is introduced (one of Ren’s old teachers, who is secretly trying to complete “Raphael” against TLT’s wishes), played by Ryuki Kitaoka (formerly known as Hisataka Kitaoka). Working as both an actor and a suit actor, Kitaoka’s career is long and plentiful, having appeared in ULTRAMAN TIGA, ULTRAMAN DYNA, ULTRAMAN TIGA AND ULTRAMAN DYNA, ULTRAMAN GAIA: THE BATTLE IN HYPERSPACE, ULTRAMAN COSMOS: THE FIRST CONTACT, Toho’s SUPER STAR FLEET GRANSAZER (2003-2004), THE LAST SAMURAI (2003), GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (as one of the many mutant soldiers) and MIRROR MAN: REFLEX (2006), but to name a few. Kitaoka also appeared before fans at the Los Angeles G-Fests in 1999 and 2000. Kyoko Toyama also returns to reprise her role of Sara Mizuhara from ULTRAMAN THE NEXT in the closing episodes.

    The incredible music for the show was written and composed by none other than Kenji Kawai. The popular musician has been responsible for scoring some of Japan’s most internationally-renowned productions of recent years, including DEVILMAN (1987), GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995), THE RING (1998), THE RING 2 (1999) and THE PRINCESS BLADE (2001). Airing at 7:30am Saturday mornings on Japan’s CBC network, ULTRAMAN NEXUS achieved an average rating of 2.97% (based on results in the Kanto area). While not a bad accomplishment, it was considerably lower than both ULTRAMAN COSMOS and the subsequent ULTRAMAN MAX (2005-2006). The inherent problem was that ULTRAMAN NEXUS was initially designed as a primetime show by Tsuburaya, and not for the 7:30am slot it received from CBC. As a result, younger viewers were undoubtedly confused by the deeper, mature themes and substantially lessened action the show presented, whilst teens and adults were simply not tuning in at that time to begin with. After 37 episodes, ULTRAMAN NEXUS reached its conclusion on June 25th 2005. Subsequent DVD releases included a double-length “directors cut” of Episode 29, along with an all new 45-minute “Episode EX”, neither of which had been broadcast on TV during the show’s initial run. ULTRAMAN NEXUS has recently begun airing in Hong Kong with MediaLink Group, and is seeing late-night re-runs in Japan, where it may find its target audience. Following theatrical screenings of ULTRAMAN: THE NEXT in Japan was a short teaser for a proposed ULTRAMAN 2 REQUIEM, however it would seem that the performance of ULTRAMAN NEXUS led to the project’s demise.

    While Tsuburaya’s 2004 experiments may not have attained the desired numbers, it was undoubtedly a very exciting and creative year for the studio, one which was unfortunately overshadowed by Godzilla’s 50th anniversary celebrations. But despite any setbacks, Tsuburaya has continued to forge ahead, having recently seen success with the lighter, faster-paced ULTRAMAN MAX. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the enduring franchise, and Tsuburaya is gearing up for a mighty celebration. April 8th saw the launch of the new television series ULTRAMAN MEBIUS (2006), which returns to the continuity set by ULTRAMAN thru ULTRAMAN 80 (1980-1981), while the accompanying theatrical film ULTRAMAN MEBIUS AND ULTRAMAN BROTHERS will open to theatres nationwide in Japan on September 16th. Meanwhile, BIO PLANET WOO – the studio’s first non-Ultraman production in many years – began on April 9th, and will run for 13 weeks. BIO PLANET WOO continues some of the themes introduced in ULTRAMAN NEXUS, and features many more familiar faces. ULTRAMAN: THE NEXT is available on Region 2 DVD with English subtitles from Bandai Visual. ULTRAMAN NEXUS is available on Region 2 DVD spread over 10 volumes from Bandai Visual, but does not include English subtitles. ULTRA Q DARK FANTASY is available on Region 2 DVD over 13 volumes from Avex Network, but does not include English subtitles. THE ULTRA Q CLUB radio drama is available on CD, and also contains a special DVD with footage from the studio talks – all in Japanese. All these titles are available from online retailers. Jim Ballard is the owner and web master for the popular Tokyo Monsters. He recently launched a new website devoted to ULTRAMAN NEXUS. Both sites are highly recommended.

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