There have been so many incarnations of Ultraman over the years that explaining everything would be impossible. But as I understand it, Ultraman is an ordinary guy who, with the aid of a special suit, grows to enormous size and fights off big monsters. It would be tempting to call him “The Japanese Superman,” although where Superman fights for ideals (truth, justice and the American way?) I’ve only ever seen Ultraman fight off direct, concrete threats to Japan. Maybe there’s a deeper metaphorical context. If Godzilla was the embodiment of atomic horror and foreign threat, then Ultraman was likely envisioned as a dam against it. Whatever the case, he must still be very popular; there’s a new manga, “Son of Ultraman,” out to prove it.
Tiger and Bunny
“Tiger and Bunny” is like a parody of both American superhero team-ups and Japanese robot-suit characters such as Gundam. In T and B world, superheroes are corporate sponsored and compete in live, filmed competitions to see who can do the most good and therefore, net the most profit. When the suits come off, relationships are surprisingly solid and touching. This is superhero-ing with large doses of irony and wit, not to mention heart. I’m a big fan of this series!
When high school sleuth Shinichi Kudo is poisoned by gangsters he nearly exposes, he doesn’t die; the poison instead transforms him into a little boy. Dubbing himself, “Conan” and going undercover as an elementary school student, Kudo solves crimes with the aid of his friends and various gadgets made by the scientist he’s staying with. This brain-over-brawn series is crazily popular, with over 80 manga volumes and movies every year. Conan might just be on the case forever. I wouldn’t mind!
Conan gets his “powers” from an elixir, and Ranma gets his (or hers!) by magic. Ranma is a young boy and martial arts hotshot who falls into a magic river and becomes a girl; for reasons quite beyond me, his grizzled mentor becomes a panda. Hijinks ensue as Ranma converts back and forth and…well, do I really need to explain the funny? Long story short, it is. Don’t take things too seriously, just watch the panda’s stern expressions and have a giggle.
Kind of the “Harry Potter” of Japan. A family of exorcists gets ready to train the next in line, an angry teenager who’s going through a bit of a rebellious streak which might have to do with the fact that he’s the devil himself. I’m not really kidding about that last part. Anyway, the kid has to battle with his duel nature: being a young whip who basically wants to do good while repressing the fact that he’s actually Satan’s spawn. Simultaneously more fun and less jokey than it sounds. Those easily offended by mixed religious imagery shouldn’t venture here.
This robotic cat from the future is less hero than sidekick, but any kid would love to have him around. “Doraemon” follows the exploits of the titular cat and his young charge, Nobita, a below-average kid whose laziness will apparently result in a dire future. But instead of learning from Doraemon, Nobita naturally prefers to take the easy way out by using Doraemon’s gadgets, often making the situation worse. With its inventive premise and archetypal characters, “Doraemon” is still a hit today.
No matter the country, some police dramas just dig in their heels and steadfastly captivate people, year after year. In Japan that honor belongs to “Aibo” (Partners) the story of an older cop and his younger charge solving unusual crimes in a fictional section of the Tokyo police department. While the role of the younger sidekick has changed several times during the show’s debut in 2000, veteran Ukyo Sugishita (played by Yutaka Mizutani) keeps going strong as the lead. Having seen the show several times, I suspect it’s Mizutani’s presence and charisma, not to mention above-average production values, that have kept this hero-show going. Here’s to many more years of sleuthing!