New Images of a Hero: Any Anguished Teenager and a Middle-aged Bureaucrat

A persistent cold that waylaid me over the winter holiday break was a perfect excuse to spend hours on the couch binging on some Japanese TV series on Netflix, including “Ultraman” (2019) and “Japan Sinks: People of Hope” (2021). Familiar with their earlier incarnations from the 1970s, I was struck by how these stories had changed after nearly a half-century.

Most obviously, the visual appeal of the new “Ultraman” 3D anime series is a far cry from the live actors in awkward kigurumi (or whole-body character costume), rolling all over miniature models of Tokyo neighborhoods. But more importantly, the Ultramen in this series — all five of them by the end of Season 2 — are human beings in a mechanized suit, instead of a mysterious union of an alien and an earthling. The artificial skin in the 1970s production was a prop that the audience was not supposed to notice. Now, the artificial skin has become the center of attention in the world depicted in the updated version, the result of technological advancement, manufactured and replicated like any other industrial products.

With the remaking of the Ultraman into a human pilot inside the Ultraman “suit,” the animated “Ultraman” switched from the kaiju (oversized monster) genre, to the robotto/meka anime, in which human pilots inside mechanized devices — some human-sized, some gigantic — are the requisite element. The trope of meka anime is also seen in the new hero, Shinjiro Hayata, the teenage son of Shin Hayata, the first Ultraman-turned-defense minister. In contrast to the protagonists in earlier “Ultraman” series who were professional combatants, Shinjiro of the 2019 “Ultraman” series is a seemingly ordinary high school student who hides his inexplicable powers to blend in. Just like two other teenage heroes of meka anime, Shinji Ikari (“Neon Genesis Evangelion”) and Amuro Ray (“Mobile Suit Gundam”), he is reluctant when he is first brought into the ongoing battle between humans and aliens.

Keishi Amami, the protagonist in the 2021 version of “Japan Sinks,” is a middle-aged bureaucrat in a well-tailored suit and a tie. With budding political aspirations, he is depicted as glib enough to navigate through the maze of bureaucracy, and willing to resort to political maneuvering when necessary. When he finds out about the catastrophic prediction that Tokyo and its surrounding areas may sink under the sea, he must choose between protecting his promising professional career or fighting for the truth in order to save the people of Japan. In the uphill battle to convince reluctant politicians and industry leaders, he breaks all the rules of political engagement, ignores bureaucratic protocols and keeps pushing political and economic leaders until they finally begin to take action.

Shinjiro Hayata and Keishi Amami end up on a path to overcome obstacles larger than life — the very definition of a hero. From Greek mythology to today’s popular culture, stories of these heroic figures reflect the worldviews of the people in the particular time and place. If we are to extend this premise, what do the two heroic tales of “Ultraman” and “Japan Sinks” tell of the collective psyche of contemporary Japanese, for whom they were created?

Anthropologists have long argued that there is an overt emphasis on collectivity in the Japanese value system and that the Japanese sense of self, which focuses more on relationships with others, is distinct from the Western “individual” self. This collectivist approach was the mainstay of the older “Ultraman” franchise, in which the protagonists were all members of the team tasked to fight invading aliens. Their difference — the fact that they were the Ultramen — was carefully concealed from their teammates to maintain their solidarity. Similarly, in the 1973 film version of “Japan Sinks,” a team of scientists work together. Most recent versions of these two series suggest a shift away from the collectivist emphasis. Five Ultramen in the new series are collaborators, who entered the war against invaders on an individual accord. Keishi Amami in the 2021 “Japan Sinks” defies collectivist pressure, and it is his individual conviction that motivates him and moves others. Another “hero” in this story is Dr. Tadokoro, whose idiosyncratic ways nearly derailed his academic career, and yet, his single-minded pursuit of scientific truth ends up saving the entire population of Japan.

These individualistic heroes, who struggle to save the earth from destruction, are, literally and figuratively, human-sized. Hayata and Amami harness extraordinary powers — the superhuman strength and weaponry of the Ultramen, or the power of a high-level bureaucrat to sway crucial political decisions. But inside their suits, whether mechanical or tailored, they have their own personal battles with uncertainties, interpersonal conflicts, emotional attachments and self-doubt. If the teenage anguish for Hayata ends dramatically with a moment of clarity during a desperate battle, the journey of the middle-aged Amami goes on more quietly. Either way, their imperfections add a sense of humanity to their heroic acts.

Individuals with every human weakness who are yet courageous enough to face existential crises — they are the ideal heroes of our times. Even though their struggles may not bring complete resolution, “Japan Sinks” ends with a glimmer of hope (as suggested by its subtitle) for the Japanese people as a whole, and for Amami as an individual. The final season of “Ultraman” is expected to be released this spring. I can’t wait to find out how Shinjiro Hayata’s journey will end.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.