Perhaps you were driving around the warehouses of Downtown L.A. or even Pasadena last November and thought you glimpsed Ultraman coming to the rescue of a motorist. You weren’t crazy and it actually happened! Next week, humankind’s champion from Nebula 78 is returning to the American airwaves (and the Internet) to promote State Farm’s services to the Chinese market. The Tsuburaya team flew from Japan to Southern California with their suits and expertise to shoot the campaign and I was there.
At the catering table, I chatted with a Tsuburaya business rep and trainer about what’s happening with the Ultraman franchise these days, as well as what it was like to wear the suit back in the day. Of course, I also snagged time for some pictures with the commercial’s star, Ultraman Neos, a close relative to the costumed hero of my youth and pop culture’s missing link between Superman and Godzilla!
TAKAMISA KITAZAWA (Tsuburaya Sales)
What do you do at Tsuburaya?
I’m a Tokyo-based sales guy who brings Ultraman to other countries.
Did you grow up as an Ultraman fan?
No, because Ultrman didn’t have a TV series from 1980 to 1996. I watched Kamen Rider and Power Rangers, instead.
But there were still stickers, puzzles, and toys. Ultraman is all over Asia! Can you talk about Ultraman’s popularity among Asians?
He is very popular because Asia doesn’t have its own hero and we’ve been showing since the seventies. So people in their thirties, forties, and fifties are familiar with the character. I think that’s why Ultraman is still popular today in all age groups.
What sorts of licensing are you doing in Asia right now?
Right now we’re doing a Happy Meal campaign with McDonald’s. We don’t do alcohol, medicine, drugs, or adult products.
How often is new Ultraman material produced?
We do not produce a TV series every year but try to make a movie or series every other year so people don’t forget about us.
Is it important to keep the costumes, puppetry, and miniature sets that Ultraman is known for instead of using cg for special effects?
Good question. The older generation wants to see the original style but the kids prefer computer graphics because the models don’t look real to them. Two years ago, we used both and there were pros and cons.
You don’t want to mess with a legend, but you need to please the kids.
It’s a challenge to decide to use both or one or the other. It’s very controversial.
It must break the otaku’s hearts to see Baltan or Dada in cg.
The old kaiju, the old monsters…
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Personally, I like the live events because you get to see the reaction right there. It’s not like selling merchandise or a product. We see the children smiling, and that’s what gets us going.
Who gets more excited, the children in the audience or the grownup otaku?
It’s about the same. Sometimes the parents get too excited and the kids have to calm them down.
These State Farm commercials are a little different than the TV shows because Ultraman isn’t 40 meters tall…
This is probably our first time working on a campaign with a company in the United States. It’s a little different from what we do back home, but we try to be flexible because the Japanese way doesn’t always work.
HIROYUKI OKANO (Ultraman Actor/Trainer)
What Ultraman roles have you played?
For TV and film, Ultraman Neos and Ultraman Cosmos. I also acted as monsters to teach newcomers and up-and-comers how to film action scenes. For live shows, I’ve played pretty much all of the Ultra characters—probably 30 of the 37. But not in recent years. I’ve retired.
Have you ever played Ultraman in the United States?
But you must have played him in Asian countries besides Japan.
In China, yes. And I have instructed in Taiwan and Hong Kong
Did you grow up watching Ultraman?
Ultraman started the year before I was born, and they re-aired it when I was growing up.
What was Tsuburaya Productions like when you started?
When I started, the original director was not there. And there was a huge gap between expectations and reality. I was expecting the company to be huge, but it was a house. More like a shack built out of wood and very dirty with many Ultraman suits and monsters inside. Some on hangers, some standing, some folded.
Do you remember your first suit?
I believe it was Ultraman.
Were the suits as dirty as the office was?
They were not maintained or very clean because the company was not working on a TV series or movie at the time. They were on hiatus. And there weren’t many events, either. So the costumes were sitting around getting dusty. It wasn’t until about three years after I joined that Ultraman’s popularity returned and we started having events. Eventually we had to make new costumes, which we took better care of.
They were like wetsuits? It must have been sweaty in there.
What is the longest time you’ve worn the suit?
Once I was in for three hours. It was a commercial and I had to wear a business suit over the Ultraman costume.
So you’d just drink a lot of water?
If you drink water, it sits in the stomach and that’s not very good for you. Sports beverages are better.
Did you ever get hurt wrestling in the costume?
I never broke any bones but I’ve had some hard falls.
When did you go from being the guy in suits to being the handler?
About 10 years ago.
Was that a transition that you were looking forward to?
I wanted to remain a suit actor but the management decided that I should move to the other side and instruct. I became a trainer.
When an actor who plays Ultraman or a monster gets sick, can you fill in?
That actually happened in recent years. It was unexpected but I did it. Because I wore the costumes for about 20 years, it was no problem!
The newer costumes must be more comfortable than the original ones.
They’re softer than the ones I used to wear. Those were rather rigid and it was very hard to move about.
Have you ever acted outside a costume?
I liked action and acrobatics, but never wanted to be a famous actor.
Your work is famous but no one knows who you are!
That’s right, although there are many otaku in Japan who grow up watching Ultraman. Of course those maniacs know me. But I’m not like Ken Watanabe in Hollywood. I’m nowhere near him.
Check out the State Farm x Ultraman link at StateFarm.com/Chinese and first Ultraman video below.. Thanks to my friends at interTrend Communications for allowing me to crash the set!