Ultraman is awesome.
I needed to state that out loud (in written form, somehow), but this is also an excellent jumping point to talk about one of the most interesting topics that exist in the collective well that is human knowledge: the lore and continuity of the Ultraman franchise.
I know discussing the continuity of a show built around guys dressed in rubber suits might seem like a pointless endeavor, but unlike other Tokusatsu franchises, Ultraman has managed to maintain a coherent continuity between series and movies that not only has remained consistent for 50 years, but it also managed to create an actual multiverse to house every single Tsuburaya property, a feat that only one other company has managed to achieve.
Of course, the continuity of the Ultraman franchise is by no means perfect, the first two series, for example, were meant to be standalone works and as such possess several inconsistencies with later works that would require an army of fan fiction writers to make sense of.
Regardless, what Tsuburaya achieved is still a remarkable thing to do for a franchise as old as this one, but there is still one little knot in the almost flawless weaving of a continuity that not many people talk about but that I do find a bit infuriating to think about because apparently I have nothing better to do.
Ultraman Taro aired in 1973 and it has come to be known as the odd child of the Ultraman franchise; most of the heroic tropes introduced in Return of Ultraman remained, but the science fiction elements were downplayed even more and the show took on a lighter, slightly surrealist tone. That was not necessarily a bad thing since, even though the show doesn’t pack the same emotional gut-punch as most of its brethren, it is still an absurdly entertaining viewing experience, even if sometimes makes little to no sense.
The reason why I bring this up is because while Taro as a character has had an important role in the Ultra mythos as of late, the canonicity of his origins is one of those aspects of Ultra continuity that was confusing to begin with, became more confusing as the decades went by and has now been mostly swept under the rug because again, I really am the only one who cares about this.
Since half of the point of this site is to share my idiosyncrasies with you all, the other half being bad jokes, we are going to take a deep look at Ultraman Taro’s origin and how it makes about as little sense as the rest of the show.
Like all good stories, the tale of Ultraman Taro began with a humble, noble, well intentioned and so-handsome-that-it-hurts young man. His name: Higashi Kotaro.
In the first episode of the show Kotaro is introduced as a globe-throttling adventurer who free loads his way around the world before returning to Japan in order to fulfill his dream of being a Boxing champion, because those two things are totally related.
Not long after arriving, Kotaro coincidentally meets an older woman who looks remarkably like his long lost mother, of whom he always carries a picture just in case something like this happens. And because this is children’s TV we are talking about, Kotaro just happens to resemble the woman’s long lost son who should be around Kotaros age. What are the odds?
A bunch of things that involve a monster flower happen, and Kotaro dies… for like, five seconds. He is then transported to the Land of Light where Ultra Mother herself, with the help of all the previous Ultras, use what I can only assume is Space Magic to resurrect Kotaro, who is then reborn as Ultraman Taro!
I know what you are thinking, does this means that Ultraman Taro was, in fact, a human that became an Ultraman? The answer is yes!
If you know your Ultraman, then you know that in most cases the Ultras are independent beings that sometimes merge with humans in order to heal them and become one with them to fight monsters, but in Taro’s case it is heavily implied that Higashi Kotaro really did became Ultraman Taro… but later on we learn that Ultraman Taro actually grew up in the land of light since he was a kid, making him a separate entity from Higashi Kotaro.
But wait, there’s more!
Remember that lady who may or may not have been Kotaro’s real mother? Well, turns out that she was, in fact, Ultra Mother herself taking a human form!
So maybe Higashi Kotaro was indeed born as an Ultra! Or maybe Ultra Mother merely took the form of his birth mother!! I honestly don’t know!!!
I think you can see now what my problem is, and no, it’s not that I take Japanese children’s shows way too seriously.
Ultramen origins are usually very cut and dry; they either merge with a dying human or take the form of one they meet, but in Taro’s case it is never clear which is the case. Maybe he was an Ultra that merged with a Human, or maybe he was a human that was reborn as an Ultra, or maybe he was an Ultra all along and he simply didn’t knew about it, which is kind of a huge oversight if you ask me.
Regardless, the show hints towards all of these possibilities but it never really settles in any of them. I think the original intent of Taro was to give an ‘origin’ to the Ultra characters that would relate them even more to humans by introducing an Ultraman that began as a man, but this idea was discarded as the show went along and they never bothered to fix it.
To make it a bit worse, the end of the show doesn’t exactly clears things up.
In the final episode, Higashi Kotaro choses to abandon his identity as Ultraman Taro and returns his Ultra badge to Ultra mother, forfeiting his ability to transform. After defeating Alien Valky using nothing more than his wits and an oil refinery, he remains on earth to live as a human, forever.
This was a neat way to end the show, but it has a couple of problems.
First, Kotaro’s decision to live as a human is not only abrupt, there is no reasonable explanation for it beyond “because humans are great”. Second, it makes the deal of the Taro/Kotaro identity even murkier because Higashi Kotaro didn’t separate from Ultraman Taro or anything, he literally just gave up his ability to transform, so technically speaking he’s still an Ultraman, albeit one without powers.
Surprisingly, this plot twist was actually respected in the canon of the following series, Ultraman Leo; episodes 38 and 39 of the show featured a really awesome story line where Alien Babalu steals the Ultra key from the Land of light and heads to earth, because why not, and he is pursued by all of the previous Ultra brothers… except for Taro, who is not mentioned at all and is presumably enjoying his life on earth.
They could have left things as they were and just leave Taro’s destiny a mystery, but unfortunately things did not end there.
During that magical period known as the 80’s, the Ultraman franchise went on a sort of hiatus due in part to some very well documented money issues, so the only two works produced by the company to continue the franchise were a couple of movies, one built around Ultraman Zoffy and Ultraman Story, a very loose retelling of Ultraman Taro.
While both movies are glorified clip shows, Ultraman Story is still a fascinating eh… story.
While half of its running time is just old clips of the previous series featuring the Ultra Brothers that came before him (and Ultraman 80’s for some reason), the other half of the movie is focused on the childhood of Taro growing up in the Land of Light as raised by Ultra Father and Ultra Mother, which is kind of neat since the show never focused on the relationship between Taro and his father so it’s nice that we got to see that here.
While I enjoy this movie very much, I couldn’t help but to notice that this retelling of Taro omitted a small, insignificant detail; it completely ignores the existence of Higashi Kotaro.
That’s right, as fun as this movie is, it pretty much ignores 96% of the actual series and introduces a completely new origin for Ultraman Taro that, while it makes far more sense than the show ever did, it achieves this by essentially ignoring the series itself.
You might be thinking so what? It’s a clipshow movie! There’s no way that it is canon!!
Well, here’s the thing, remember how I mentioned that Taro has become quite prominent in recent years?
Ever since the excellent anniversary movie, Ultraman Mebius & Ultraman Brothers, Taro has had a recurring role in the franchise and even became a main character during Ultraman Ginga’s run… but the Taro that most recent fans have come to know and love is, in fact, the version of Ultraman Taro that appeared in Ultraman Story.
This is no exaggeration; Hiroya Ishimaru, who voiced Taro in Ultraman Story, has been reprising his role ever since. That means that this version of the character is the one we have had for over 30 years, proving once again that no one does continuity like Tsuburaya.
You are probably wondering what the hell happened to Higashi Kotaro, as I do every night before going to sleep, and the answer is as sad as it is mysterious; Saburo Shinoda, the actor who played Taro/Kotaro, has never returned to play the titular character
This is kind of baffling because, other than Shinoda, pretty much every single Ultra lead from the showa era has returned at some point to reprise their roles; even Susumu Kurobe, who played Shin Hayata/Ultraman in the original series, has returned to the franchise regularly, which is impressive because A) He is almost 80 by now and B) By the life of me, the man can’t act.
Mind you, it’s not like Shinoda hated his role or anything, he has remained associated with the franchise in one way or another and is even friends with Ryu Manatsu AKA Ultraman Leo, but destiny has conspired to keep him away from the role, which only cements my theory that Hiroya Ishimaru is, in fact, the voice of destiny.
You may think that I am making a bigger deal of this than it actually is, but to that line of thought I say nonsense; as I stated on my opening remarks, within the Toku circles (of hell) Ultraman is known for how consistent its continuity is, so it is rather unusual that Ultraman Taro, one of the famous six Ultra Brothers, has such a messy backstory that it actually spawned two separate origins, both of which are actually canon.
That’s right, both Ultraman Story and Ultraman Taro are canon, even if they contradict each other.
As I mentioned before, the version of Ultraman Taro that we know and love from the modern series is actually the one from Ultraman Story, a movie that also introduced Juda Specter, arguably one of the most powerful villains of the Ultra mythology that has been brought back a few times in recent years.
Normally that would be enough to declare Ultraman Story the definitive origin of Ultraman Taro, but as much as that would simplify my life, you can’t write off the Ultraman Taro series either; not only did this show introduced several classic Kaiju like Birdon, but events of the series have actually been referenced in recent years, mostly during Ultraman Mebius, and it can actually be argued that episode 33 & 34 of Taro served as the inspiration for Ultraman Mebius & Ultraman Brothers, a movie so good that I will never stop referencing it.
In the end, I think this ramble of mine does nothing more than expose the fallacy of the Ultraman Franchise outstanding continuity; it is true that the lore of the Land of Light is arguably more consistent than the lore of the real world, but this is not a product of careful planning but retroactive storytelling.
Essentially, with every new entry in the franchise the creators looked back at what had been done before and found ways to incorporate it into new narratives, even if that meant that they had to re-write the work of the ones who came before them. This way, each new season or movie adapted the canon to its needs and made everything work, even if the smaller details never quite fit.
This is not a bad approach in storytelling, in fact, some if not all of the best stories in the history of mankind have been written this way, but in the end it means that some of us have to accept that the canon of a story is not written in stone and it is subject to the whims of the times. What today is canon, tomorrow might not be, new stories will arise that will change everything, and then one day someone might put everything back where it was just for the lulz.
Such is the nature of stories and narratives, but what kind of fanboy would I be if I accepted such a rational and pretentious argument? Anyways, here’s a clip from Taro free of any context whatsoever.