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‘Ultraman: Rising’ Directors Discuss the Art of Updating a 1960s Hero

By: Devin Nealy
June 3, 2024

It’s often claimed that luck happens when preparation meets opportunity. For the influential Ultraman franchise, there has been no shortage of preparation for the intellectual property’s incremental push toward mainstream recognition. With a history spanning almost 60 years, the iconic Japanese property has accumulated an impressive library of content across a litany of mediums. The only problem stalling Ultraman’s inevitable ascension into the upper echelons of true global popularity has always been opportunity.

 

Shannon Tindle

‘I love action movies, but I love to feel as much as a I love to cheer. I want people to be surprised that they felt something.’

— Director Shannon Tindle

 

 

Since the debut of its Ultraman animated series, which ran from 2019 to 2023, Netflix has spent years attempting to rectify that injustice, and with this month’s new animated feature Ultraman: Rising the streaming giant has given the beloved franchise an unparalleled springboard to success. Besides gaining access to the proverbial center stage of the streaming world, the Ultraman franchise is also benefiting from the talented minds behind its new feature filmdirectors Shannon Tindle and John Aoshima.

“[The original script] wasn’t an Ultraman film; it was a film inspired by Ultraman called Big in Japan that I had been shopping around since 2001,” says Tindle, an acclaimed animation veteran who wrote and produced last year’s Emmy-nominated miniseries Lost Ollie and has worked on Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings and Coraline and such popular series as Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and The Proud Family. “I knew there were a whole lot of folks here that hadn’t grown up with Ultraman or just knew the character peripherally, so [I thought], ‘How can I tell a story that engages them?’ Let’s talk about a universal subject.”

Ultraman: Rising [Netflix © 2024]

Famous Figure: First introduced in 1966, Ultraman is brought to animated life thanks to the efforts of writer-director Shannon Tindle, co-director John Aoshima and the teams at Netflix Animation and ILM.

Big in Japan

Ultraman: Rising tells the story of the brash yet lovable Ken Sato (Christopher Sean), who is attempting to juggle his baseball career along with his role as the eponymous Ultraman, a position he inherited from his father, Professor Sato (Gedde Watanabe). Aside from battling giant monsters, Ken’s bravado, sarcasm and strained relationship with his father embroil him in a series of personal conflicts that further complicate his already complex life. After besting a giant monster as his alter ego, Ken unintentionally becomes the guardian of the creature’s child, placing him on a journey of maturation and self-discovery. For Tindle, Ultraman: Rising’s deft mix of action and heart is the fulcrum on which the story’s emotional arc sits. “I love action movies, but I love to feel as much as I love to cheer,” says Tindle. “I want people to be surprised that they felt something.”

Although both Tindle and Aoshima’s mutual childhood affinity for the character of Ultraman played a role in anchoring the film’s emotional core, the duo’s almost 30-year-old friendship is what both men credit as the secret ingredient that brought Ultraman: Rising to fruition. “We’ve known each other since ’97,” says Tindle. “We both went to CalArts together. John, actually, was two years ahead of me.”

Aoshima can’t help but smile as he reflects on the formative years of the duo’s budding friendship and Tindle’s early draft of Big in Japan, which would ultimately transform into Ultraman: Rising. “Shannon and I were roommates, and I remember that first day when he showed me some sketches of what he wanted to do,” says Aoshima. “I hadn’t thought about Ultraman since I was a kid.”

 

John Aoshima

‘It really goes back to what the franchise and the original IP represents: It’s about challenging yourself to be better — to be that Ultraman, that ultra self, to do better and inspire people around you to do better.’

—  Co-director John Aoshima

 

As a Japanese American, Aoshima finds his tether to Ultraman is both cultural and nostalgic. “I grew up in Japan with my grandparents from ages four to eight, and so when I came to the States I had to adapt,” says Aoshima. “Being in this whole new world and being in an American classroom [was] a complete flip to my cultural surroundings.”

Before departing Japan, Aoshima became obsessed with the late Akira Toriyama’s hit manga Dr. Slump, replete with copious references to Ultraman. As he researched the source of the references within Dr. Slump, Aoshima saw the massive cultural footprint Ultraman had in Japan firsthand. “I realized it was all over my grandparents’ house with my cousins’ Ultraman books, and my older brother was already watching the show on TV,” says Aoshima. “Before I knew it, I was just playing along, wanting to be one of the Ultra heroes.”

Ultraman: Rising [Netflix © 2024]

The Parent Trap: Baseball star Ken Sato meets his match when he reluctantly adopts a 35-foot-tall, fire-breathing baby kaiju.

 

 

Growth Potential

Much like the prolific history of the character on which the film is based, Ultraman: Rising has undergone several iterations during its lengthy development. Before landing on Netflix, Ultraman: Rising spent a few years in gestation at Sony Pictures Animation. As evidenced by the film’s original title, the first draft of Big in Japan took place in the titular island nation, but under Sony’s umbrella the narrative’s backdrop changed. “The story did take place in Japan, but when it was at Sony we had to switch locations to L.A.,” says Aoshima. “But that actually helped us explore the character of a Japanese American protagonist and having a little bit of a chip on the shoulder of not being accepted as just an American.”

Tindle also credits the Sony draft for broadening his understanding of the nuances of Japanese culture. “I’d always written Ken with a lot of swagger, and John and another one of the folks on our crew, Makiko Wakita, said, ‘You know, Japanese players aren’t necessarily like that, but he could be if he’d grown up in America,’” says Tindle. “It justified something that had already existed in the character, his swagger, but [also] the chip on the shoulder of being defensive because of how he didn’t feel [like he was] a part of either world sometimes.”

“Talking with John, talking with Makiko — because Makiko had a similar experience — that, to me, was another opportunity to add depth to films that can sometimes not have depth,” says Tindle. “It was immediately, ‘Yes, let’s do that. That would be amazing.’”

When discussing Ken’s experience as a Japanese American, Aoshima illustrated the delicate challenge of relaying an authentic experience. “It’s an American production with a story that takes place in Japan,” says Aoshima. “So, I was able to tap into my own background and roots, share those experiences with Shannon so they could complement and amplify what his initial vision was.”

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Like the care they took in crafting their protagonist’s cultural upbringing, Tindle and Aoshima put intense thought into which elements of Ultraman’s previous iterations they wanted to incorporate into Ultraman: Rising. “It’s already a character that is open to interpretation because they’ve done it so many times,” says Tindle. “And we just lucked out in that the folks who run Tsuburaya, [Takayuki] Tsukagoshi-san and company are just incredible people and were willing to trust us to play in this world and throw a few curveballs that really hadn’t been explored so much in the Ultraman canon.”

As if deciding what to omit and include wasn’t daunting enough, the directors began their work at Netflix’s then-new animation studio, presenting the duo with a unique challenge. “When I first started working on it, Netflix Animation had been around for maybe a year at that point,” says Tindle. “[And] you’re working with ILM who, although they have done animated features before, has never hubbed one out of London.”

Fortunately, the duo, who previously collaborated on Kubo and the Two Strings, share three core sensibilities when structuring both a script and a scene. “That’s something John and I talk about a lot,” says Tindle. “Emotion, clarity and action fatigue. You want to be able to find those moments and those pauses [in the action] because guys like Spielberg get all of those things in there. You feel emotionally connected to the characters, so you’re concerned if they live or die in this sequence.”

“I think of action in terms of music,” says Tindle. “There are moments when you rest. There are moments when you bring the strings in, pull them back and bring the brass section in. Those are the kinds of conversations we would have with our team.”

“It’s so amazing when you start off as a student, and you find your colleagues in the same world and you can share this love for the craft,” says Aoshima. “And all through our careers as friends, we would talk about it. And to actually utilize those conversations … to me, it’s just completely priceless.”

Aoshima hopes audiences view the film and the character of Ultraman as an inspirational figure. “It really goes back to what Ultraman as a franchise and the original IP represents,” says Aoshima. “It’s challenging yourself to be better — to be that Ultraman, that ultra self, to do better and inspire people around you to do better. And I think it comes through in this film with the challenges Ken faces and coming around to it and finding his balance.”

Ultraman: Rising premieres on Netflix on June 14.

John Aoshima is represented by attorney Rob Szymanski.