Like Captain Planet, but taller
All Ultramans are not created equal. I say this not to rock your world, but to save the only one we’ve got. Amongst the rank and file of the red and silver soldiers that hail from Nebula M78’s City of Light, there was but one who was looking Towards the Future—our future. It wasn’t the much-celebrated Taro, Leo, Ace, or even Zoffy—no, it was an illegitimate Ultra Brother, not born of either the Ultra Mother or Father. His name is rarely uttered in the halls of the City of Light—he hardly even has a name at all. But right here, right now, he’s the one we need—the one our planet needs.
Our survival depends on a 40-meter tall Australian stuntman in spandex.
Since delivering his first rubber-suited chop in the summer of ’66, Ultraman has been Japan’s premier small screen kaiju-busting attraction—protecting the Earth from all things giant and monstrous. The show’s instant success made creator—and Godzilla FX mastermind—Eji Tsuburaya a household name, established his Tsuburaya Productions as a major player, and birthed a billion-dollar merchandising juggernaut. But after 1980’s Ultraman 80—in which Ultraman would shout “EIGHTY!”—Tsuburaya Productions decided it was time to give their benevolent being from the cosmos a reprieve from his TV-land grind. It would be some 15 years before the Specium Ray-slinging savior would officially go back on the clock.
That doesn’t mean he wasn’t earning a little on the side by appearing in a pair of theatrical features—and an ill-fated Hanna-Barbera animated pilot—the latter representing Tsuburaya Pro’s desire to play the international co-production game—a game that would infamously see them engaged in a decades-long legal tussle with an unscrupulous Thai businessman. Far less scandalous would be their journey down under, where they’d form a pact with the South Australian Film Corporation.
This state-funded film and TV operation was behind such Aussie arthouse darlings as The Last Wave, Breaker Morant, and Picnic at Hanging Rock. They also stirred government officials to protest tax dollars being spent on soft-core porn when they produced John Lamond’s sex comedy Pacific Banana. Obviously the ideal bedmate for your Japanese/Australian kaiju-slugging children’s show—birth parents of the black sheep of the Ultra Family, Ultraman: Towards the Future.
In 1990, Tsuburaya Pro would commission 13 episodes of the (heavily-accented) English language series, staffed primarily by former Ozploitation moviemakers and future Farscape crew members. Director Andrew Prowse represented both sides—he’d go on to helm many a Farscape episode, but previously cut his teeth as an editor on the notorious Oz-shocker Fair Game, and the street racing scorcher Midnite Spares. This The Fast and the Furious forerunner would provide an even more essential element in writer Terry Larsen—the one with eyes aimed directly towards our future. While Ultraman has always had an environmentalist slant—with creatures going homicidal after sucking down oil spills—none have felt like what Larsen and company delivered here: a desperate plea on behalf of the planet.
The series follows the Universal Multipurpose Agency, more commonly known as UMA, and pronounced “UUUUMA” by the Australian cast. Their universal multipurpose: to guard the Earth from aliens while also combating climate change. This leads team member Jack Shindo to Mars, and we know it’s Mars because there’s a red filter over the camera lens. There, he has a close encounter with a giant-sized slug named Goudes, who trashes Shindo’s ride and pins him under a rock. Thankfully Ultraman shows up in a revealing full-body spandex suit, and karate chops Goudes into a zillion green video pixels.
Instead of a being a corporeal creature, Goudes is now a sickly green virus bent on infecting creatures hidden about Earth, and wiping us out via global warming. With Ultraman needing a human host to continue this fight on the big blue planet, and Jack about to die on Mars, the two gaze upon each other longingly. A heartbeat pounds on the soundtrack, while a deeply emotional—and clearly sensual—connection is made.
Meanwhile, back in Australia, a band of sweaty, jaundiced drunks shuffle out of a bar to witness a “strange luminescence” in the sky, signaling the arrival of Goudes. At super science team UMA’s island HQ, science stuff goes “zwee-zwooo” while Jean Echo and the rest of the admirably inclusive team wonder what happened to Jack Shindo. Soon they’re interrupted by green smoke rising from the streets, and a rampaging tentacled unicorn on the loose downtown.
Shindo then appears on a rooftop in ripped jeans, with Goudes and climate change on the brain. Knowing that the tentacled creature is being manipulated by Goudes, he doesn’t wish to harm it—but release it from Goudes’s sinister grasp. He’s a cruelty-free Ultraman, and judging by the transformation that follows, one who is in touch with his Ultra-sexuality.
Closing his eyes, Shindo turns into Ultraman in a way that some may read as spiritual, but I can’t help but view as anything other than intensely erotic—a method akin to tantric lovemaking. I don’t wish to spend too much time on this, with the environment being the focus and all, but the bottom line is this: if you’re not willing to express the sensual connection you have with your inner red and silver alien superhero, then you’re no hero to me.
Because of Earth’s polluted atmosphere, Ultraman can only retain his big, honkin’ Ultra-form for three minutes, and wouldn’t you know, it only takes about that long for him to zap the Goudes infection out with a brilliant blue blast of early 90s video FX.
As the series continues, the eco-concerns escalate to dire degrees. By episode two the polar ice caps are melting to reveal a Goudes-possessed Gigasaurus. The third episode goes a bit off-message with the story of a kid and his lost pet iguana Gus, but soon enough we’re back to plots revolving around droughts and pesticide use. Once Goudes is vanquished at the halfway point of the series, the Earth itself lashes out, unleashing monsters to fight the real disease that infects it—us.
Towards the Future has a message, one it delivers loudly and with the utmost sincerity: we’re part of this planet, not its rulers. As one character states, “I feel like a flea on an elephant, unaware I’ve been inhabiting a living thing.” Free of any ties to previous Ultraman continuity, the series was instead able to cherry-pick bits and pieces of the labyrinthine Ultra mythology to enhance said message, one that went unappreciated back in 1990.
In Japan, the show received a straight-to-video release under the moniker Ultraman Great, which I’m pretty sure is supposed to be as “Ultraman, sigh, GREAT.” They even went as far as to point out that this red and silver environmentalist is not to be counted amongst the vaunted Ultra Brothers. An SNES game brought little attention to the series in the U.S.—while it never even received a release in its native Australia.
Ultraman did, however, return to Japanese airwaves full-time in 1995 in the form of Ultraman Tiga, but by then the one who looked Towards the Future was a relic of the past. His message, though, has never been more relevant. And unless a giant spandex-clad alien is coming to intercede, we’re going to have to get in touch with the giant spandex-clad alien that lives within, and save ourselves.