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With ‘Ultraman: Rising,’ a Japanese Cultural Icon Reaches a New Audience

Writer/Director Shannon Tindle and co-director John Aoshima talk about the many creative synergies that fueled their journey in bringing a venerable superhero - forced to care for a baby kaiju - to a new generation of viewers; film debuts today on Netflix.

Since his debut in 1966 on the Japanese TV show Ultra Q, the character of Ultraman has become part of the pop-culture fabric, a superhero whose legacy bridges multiple generations. Originally created by special-effects director Eiji Tsuburaya (co-creator of the Godzilla franchise), the science-fiction character has spawned hundreds of series, films, video games, comic books, spinoffs, and even various iterations of the hero known as Ultras.

And now, thanks to the efforts of writer/director Shannon Tindle, a diehard fan since he was growing up in Kentucky, Ultraman has undergone yet another iteration – one that is relatable to modern audiences, while remaining true to the original series – in Ultraman: Rising. Tindle’s thrilling 3DCG action-adventure debuts today, June 14, on Netflix.

“I'm only half joking when I say it's fan fiction that became the real thing,” says Tindle about his longtime obsession. “I loved the character of Ultraman since I was little and, when I moved out to LA to go to CalArts, I became even obsessed because I had a lot more access to information. This whole new world opened up for me and it kindled this idea of, how can I take something that’s niche and tell a story that would be compelling to everybody?”

One way to universalize his superhero’s experience, he realized, might be to make him  a parent. And not only a parent, but a reluctant parent – as well as a reluctant superhero. It seemed like a promising approach, but the whole thing didn’t really come together until Tindle’s own life became a model for his character’s.

“When I had my daughter, then it became real, and I started to work all my personal experience into the story,” Tindle recalls. “So the story remained the same, but it went from an outsider's perspective on being a parent, to a very insider's perspective. And that to me is when it really started to hit.”

In Ultraman: Rising, Ken Sato, a star baseball player and son of the original Ultraman, reluctantly returns home to Tokyo to take on his father’s duties in order to protect his homeland against a rising number of monster attacks. However, things take on an added layer of complexity when the superhero is compelled to adopt a 35-foot-tall, fire-breathing baby monster (or kaiju, to use its proper Japanese nomenclature). Giving new meaning to the idea of work/life balance, Sato must defend the city, while protecting the baby from forces bent on exploiting her for their own dark plans.

The film’s unusual visual style combines elements of anime and manga, but somehow succeeds in achieving a synergy that’s not easily attributable to either. In Tindle’s telling, this was due, at least in part, to both a meticulous attention to detail – for which he’s known – and a desire to be comprehensive.

“I wanted Tokyo to feel like Tokyo,” he says. “A lot of times, people will just focus on Akihabara – that's the place with the big neon screens. Everybody knows it and it's where we have our first battle, so that people could get their legs under them. But I also wanted to show the wider city that I've experienced – Daikanyama and Roppongi and other parts of town. And making sure that the rooms followed Japanese units of measure, which is not the same as Western measurements.”

Another source of creative synergy came from the teamwork of Art Director Sunmin Inn and Visual Effects Supervisor Hayden Jones of ILM, which handled VFX and animation for Ultraman: Rising.

“Sunmin and Hayden and [Production Designer] Marcos Mateu Mestre started to work really closely together with our art department and the team at ILM to come up with the style,” Tindle relates. We wanted it to be illustrative. We wanted it to feel like there was some lush rendering to it, that you could see brush strokes, that you could see ink marks. Even going in a stream, where we have black-and-white shots that look like fully inked panels for comics. It's not the thing that ILM is known for, but, man, did they figure it out.

“They created these amazing tools for the water and the explosions, and the fire, to integrate them. I can only be meticulous because I surround myself with meticulous people who are really amazing and who constantly inspire me and surprise me every day. I always try to base visual objects on things that are real, things that someone experienced and grew up with. Even if people don't know exactly where something comes from, they know it's not generic. When you can incorporate things that are important to you and personal to you, I think it just enriches the movie.”

But wait, there’s more. Tindle also benefitted from another synergistic contributor in the form of co-director John Aoshima, whom he’s known since they were students together at CalArts.

“I'd known about the project since 2001, when he first showed me sketches of this baby kaiju and Ultraman,” says Aoshima. “And my childhood memory of my fandom for Ultraman all rushed back and I'm like, ‘When is this going to happen? Let's make this happen.’”

Before it happened, the two worked together, as character designer and writer (Tindle) and head of story (Aoshima) on the 2016 stop-motion animated action fantasy Kubo and the Two Strings, during which they established a terrific working relationship. Thus, when Ultraman came back around, Aoshima didn’t need any convincing to sign on and, before long, found himself in the middle of everything.

“From start to the end, Shannon allowed me to be in all the rooms and share my opinions,” he recalls enthusiastically. “We would also talk privately about how to navigate some of the development and the storytelling. He had a very strong vision for the film – so my idea was, ‘How do I complement, how do I support this vision, and how do I act as that extra set of eyes, especially for a film that takes place in Japan?’”

Tindle adds, “When we pulled John up as a co-director, it felt like a very natural transition, because I would talk to him about things outside of story all the time. When I would write pages, John would be the first to see them and give feedback. Working with him was like having dinner with your family. It was just this natural back and forth. That's really what it felt like. It was like being around family.”

As for working with ILM, which, while rightfully renowned as a peerless creator of visual effects, had relatively little experience with a fully animated feature, Tindle found that their VFX orientation actually provided greater flexibility for the project.

“I'd already worked with Hayden Jones and his team on Lost Ollie,” Tindle says, “so I knew how ambitious they were and what they could do in a short amount of time. The other thing that's great about working with a place that's traditionally seen as a VFX house is they have no set pipeline. They have to adjust to different filmmakers and different studios. So they're used to reconfiguring the system, where, a lot of times, if you're working with an in-house effects team and an animation team, they're used to doing things one way.”

It also turned out that there was a natural affinity at the studio for the project, with top executives taking an interest from the beginning. ILM Senior VP and Chief Creative Officer Rob Bredow participated in the first couple of calls and, as Tindle discovered, Lucasfilm Executive VP/Chief Creative Officer Dave Filoni is a huge Ultraman fan.

“I heard that Dave actually pulled Rob aside and was like, ‘Don't eff this up. Ultraman is a huge character and you got to get this right,’” Tindle shares. “So when you have that kind of support and people are excited to try something new, you're going to get magic. They were a partner with us in creating this look. Anytime we would have an issue, they would come with three solutions to it. They always had a way to solve it and they rarely said no.”

The fact that both Tindle and Aoshima both had extensive experience in series TV also proved to be a boon to the production.

“You learn to trust your instincts because you have to move fast in television,” says Aoshima. “What I loved about the feature side is that we can try things quickly, but then we still had the time to find the right way of executing.”

Adds Tindle, “I did it on Kubo and I did it again on this. I hired people that came from a TV background. I like to get a film up as quickly as I can because the sooner you see what you need to fix, the better. And when you have folks that come from TV who can be decisive and can give you options quickly, you can start cutting and that's what you want to do.”

As for what they found most challenging about making Ultraman: Rising, both directors cited the need to make the movie as universally accessible as possible, which sometimes meant going against their natural inclinations.

“One of the biggest challenges was to make sure that we kept our eyes on the prize of telling a story for everybody,” Tindle says. “While I'm an Ultraman fan and John's an Ultraman fan, I wanted people who don't know anything about him to enjoy this movie. We talked to people about what they found confusing or unclear, and we made sure that the questions that came up were ones that drew people through the film, rather than making them scratch their heads while they're watching it.”

“As a fan myself, I was trying to squeeze in things that I thought were really important as background exposition,” Aoshima concurs. “Yet it was a bit too much for some people. It taught me to stay focused on the emotional drive and motivations of the characters, and the struggles that they're facing, and then, through that journey, to provide the message of heroism that Ultraman brings to our film.”

Jon Hofferman's picture
Jon Hofferman is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline chart that makes a wonderful gift.