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Sympathy for the Monsters: Ultraman’s Minority Perspective

Ultraman is a perennial favorite, loved by generations of children for more than 50 years. We spoke to Uehara Shōzō, one of the scriptwriters from the series’ earliest days, who applied his outsider perspective as an Okinawan in creating some of the show’s more morally complex episodes.

Tsuburaya Eiji, who brought Godzilla to the world, is also famous in Japan as the father of Ultraman, a 40-meter-tall superhero who comes to earth from the “Land of Light” located somewhere in Nebula M78. The imagination and passion of the writers and staff who worked under Tsubaraya’s direction to produce the first-generation series Ultraman and its sequels Ultra Seven and Kaette kita Ultraman (Ultraman Returns) laid the foundations for a series that has become an indispensable part of Japanese popular culture.

The character first appeared on Japanese television in July 1966. Color TVs had started to become a common feature in regular households at the time of the Tokyo Olympics two years earlier. The new space-age superhero, standing fully 40 meters tall, and his battles with monsters and aliens, captured the imaginations of youngsters throughout the country. Ultraman became a phenomenal success attracting up to 40% of the total TV audience.

No discussion of this classic science fiction hero would be complete without mention of two very different scriptwriters from Okinawa.

Slugs and Sludge

In 1963, Tsuburaya founded Tsuburaya Productions, to create television content in the special-effects-heavy tokusatsu genre. Tsuburaya had previously made his reputation in the film world through working on a series of tokusatsu hits. The company’s first show, Ultra Q, brought a whirlwind of monsters tumbling into the nation’s living rooms, and was a stepping stone to the birth of Ultraman. The chief writer for both series was a scriptwriter from Haebaruchō in Okinawa named Kinjō Tetsuo. Kinjō met Tsuburaya as a student in the literature department at Tamagawa University. Tsuburaya was quick to recognize his potential, and after graduation Kinjō joined Tsuburaya Productions.

Uehara Shōzō, originally from Naha in Okinawa, won a TV award at the 1964 National Arts Festival for his script Shūkotsu (Collecting the Bones) about the Battle of Okinawa. He came to Tokyo at the suggestion of Kinjō, whom he knew from his Okinawa days. He arrived in the capital during the filming of Ultra Q, and remembers a startling encounter.

Uehara Shōzō was born in Naha, Okinawa, in February 1937. After graduating from Chūō University in Tokyo he returned to Okinawa for a time due to tuberculosis. He went back to Tokyo at the invitation of Kinjō Tetsuo, supporting him through the creation of Ultraman.

“I was astonished to see a man dressed up in a full-body suit as [space monster] Namegon,” Uehara says. “I’d been writing scripts dealing with the issues of the US bases in Okinawa since my student days. I couldn’t imagine a story about a giant slug from Venus. It was the kind of thing only Kinjō could have come up with. I remember when we were students he started a society called ‘Shake Hands with a Venusian.’ He was always dreaming of the stars.”

Despite his reservations, Uehara agreed to work with Kinjō at Tsuburaya Productions. What he really wanted to do was to write dramas that would tell people the truth about Okinawa, but there were fears of reprisals from the right wing, and in TV circles any kind of antiwar movement or discussion of the Okinawa issue was taboo. And so Uehara agreed to write monster stories for children instead. The first script he came up with was “Oil SOS,” in which a monster emerges from the sewage sludge in Tokyo Bay. Uehara says today that the real-life problem of Minamata disease caused by industrial pollution was in his mind when he wrote the story. “I’m the kind of person who just can’t write unless I have some kind of social issue in mind,” he admits.

Eventually, “Oil SOS” was canceled. The team was denied permission to film by the oil petroleum company that owned the site in Chiba where shooting was scheduled to take place. To make use of the monster costumes that had already been made, Uehara hurriedly wrote a script called “Uchū shirei M774” (Space Directive 774), episode 21 of the Ultra Q series. It marked his professional debut as a writer.

Okinawa: Land of Spirits and Monsters

Ultra Q was broadcast for six months from January 1966. Next came Ultraman. Uehara, who was working in the script department at the time, remembers well the discussions and abandoned ideas the team went through before they hit on the final idea for the famous character. “At first he was a tengu-like figure,” he remembers, referring to the long-nosed creature of Japanese legend. “Then the art director, Narita Tōru, came up with this bearded character who looked like something out of an old Greek myth. But we felt it wasn’t right somehow.” After much trial and error, the team finally came up with the character that has become familiar to generations of Japanese children: the sharp-featured spaceman hero with his red-and-silver body.

Left: A statue of Ultraman in Tsuburaya Eiji’s hometown of Sukagawa, Fukushima Prefecture, unleashes a dose of Spacium rays. (Photo courtesy of Sukagawa City/© Jiji). Right: Ultra-heroes on parade at the 2014 Tokyo International Film Festival (© Jiji).

Kinjō was involved in 14 of the 39 episodes of Ultraman, either as sole writer or as cowriter. “Most people think of the plot first, but for Kinjō it was the monster that came first and then he would fit the story around that.”

“We grew up in Ryūkyū [Okinawa], where there is a long tradition of shamanism and people still have a sense of fear and respect for the spirits and strange creatures that lurk in the shadows. Kami are everywhere in the world of nature. I think Kinjō felt that his monsters were just another kind of kami. And Ultraman comes from the Land of Light. This too is connected to Okinawa folk traditions—people used to believe in a land of light and fertility across the sea called Nirai Kanai.”

Kinjō did not regard monsters as creatures to be driven away or exterminated as quickly as possible. He believed in the idea of balanced coexistence, and felt that monsters had their own raison d’être and their own purpose in life. This sympathetic view resonated with Uehara.

Leaving Tsuburaya Behind

Ultraman was followed by Ultra Seven, first broadcast in October 1967. Of its 48 episodes, one of Kinjō’s stories, Nonmaruto no shisha (Envoy from Nonmalto), stood out in particular. The story dealt with a race of beings who lived under the sea, driven there by humans in ancient times. They protest against human exploitation of the ocean floors, and accuse humanity of being the true invaders, before they are finally destroyed by the Earth Defense Force. The story refuses simple definitions of good and evil, and leaves troubling doubts in viewers’ minds. Where does true justice lie?

In parallel with Ultra Seven, Kinjō was also working on scripts for a new science fiction drama called Mighty Jack. This was a major undertaking for Tsuburaya Productions, an attempt to break into the popular eight o’clock evening slot with programing aimed at adults. But viewing figures were disappointing. This failure led to the closure of the script department, and Kinjō left the company.

Uehara quit soon after, feeling that there was little meaning in staying on now that his mentor and colleague was gone. Kinjō went back to Okinawa, then about to revert to Japan after over 25 years of US control, and invited Uehara to join him in starting a new company to create content with a special Okinawa flavor. But Uehara turned the offer down, deciding to remain in Tokyo and build up more experience as a scriptwriter.

This diorama, displayed at an event in 2012, recreates a scene from “Urutora keibitai nishi e” (The Ultra Garrison Goes West), episodes 14 and 15 of Ultra Seven. The monster, King Joe, is rumored to have been named after its creator, scriptwriter Kinjō. (Photo: Rodrigo Reyes Marin/Aflo)

Uehara had other reasons for remaining in Tokyo. As a high school student, he learned that his uncles, who had been successful in the capital, had moved their family registers out of Okinawa. “There was a system of discrimination against people from Okinawa, who were regarded as second-class citizens.” It seemed you were less likely to succeed if people knew that’s where you were from. As the islands were not then part of Japanese territory, Okinawans needed a passport to visit Tokyo. During his time in Tokyo as a student, Uehara was struck by the lack of US bases, and felt the discriminatory attitudes toward Okinawa in people around him. But he saw this as a reason to stay and learn more about Yamatonchu, as Okinawans called the mainland Japanese.

He had made many good friends through his work and some producers continued to send work opportunities his way after he went freelance. Eventually he became part of the scriptwriting team that worked on the martial arts hit Jūdō itchokusen (1969–71), and his professional career took off.

  • [2016.12.15]
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