It’s been a strange few years for the Ultraman franchise. First hitting the airwaves in 1966, Tsuburaya Productions’ red-and-silver hero captivated audiences year after year, raising a legacy that endures to this day. But in the interim, their enterprise was beset with legal troubles and financial woes that threatened its livelihood and left its future in international waters uncertain. And so we come to today, where an unauthorized creation based upon a stolen brand is being advertised to the masses, setting a grim precedent for the Ultraman property going forward.
The title’s current standing is merely the end result of a lengthy gauntlet of court battles dating back as early as the mid-1990s, in which two-time Thai collaborator Sompote Saengduenchai (The 6 Ultra-Brothers vs. The Monster Army, Jumborg Ace and Giant) claimed a relative of Ultra creator Eiji Tsuburaya had traded in the rights to the first six Ultra Series (including the original Ultraman and its precursor Ultra Q) for a financial loan. Somehow, despite a towering mountain of evidence to the contrary, including a myriad of incorrect titles and references in documentation (among them, the name of the actual company they were supposedly doing business with), all amid rumors that this transaction took place in the middle of a drunken night out, Saengduenchai’s company Chaiyo Productions was awarded legal rights to the aforementioned titles.
Across this long stretch of years, Chaiyo’s president would frequently boast that he was great friends with Tsuburaya, proudly displaying a portrait of the man in his living room, claiming that Ultraman’s iconic visage had been based upon Thai Buddhist edifices. An assertion which had conveniently been left without support from anyone but Chaiyo. Then came the appearance of three unsanctioned stage show characters known as Ultraman Millennium, Dark Ultraman, and Ultraman Elite. What broke the camel’s back was the creation of Project Ultraman, a new TV series to air in China with a Chaiyo-original Ultra character. They even got Ekin Cheng, star of the popular Hong Kong action film The Storm Riders to join its cast. Suing for plagiarism and copyright infringement, Tsuburaya Productions won this battle, preventing the release of the Cheng vehicle and cementing the ruling that Chaiyo had no legal right to produce its own characters under the Ultra banner.
If the saga had concluded here, we’d say it was about as happy an ending as one could hope for under such dire circumstances, but sadly, this is one epic that got an undeserving sequel. In spite of a previous Supreme Court decision which rested singular copyright holding with Tsuburaya, the Thai Intellectual Property Court and Tokyo District Court ruled against them only a year later, forcing Tsuburaya to pay Chaiyo millions in damages for supposed copyright violation.
We can speculate that the decrease of Ultraman’s reach, the fact that each new series is only half as long as they once were (and their spirited competition in Super Sentai and Kamen Rider continue to be), and a number of other conservative business practices may be the result of a reduced budget after the unceasing, money-draining legal disputes through the decades. Despite the company’s big name, and the glamor of one of Japan’s most recognizable heroes at its center, the House that Ultraman Built may only be enjoying a fraction of the prosperity it was meant to, thanks in no small part to the actions of those that appear, to say the least, untrustworthy.
Which brings us to this. Dragon Force: So Long, Ultraman is the apparent sequel to the animated original that no one knew or cared about until Ultraman’s name was brought into the mix, no doubt kicking and screaming. This collaboration of BluArc Animation, Le Vision Pictures, TIGA Entertainment, and UM Corporation purports to feature “Ultraman” in a “new vision” that they hoped would delight fans. To which many fans responded with a deafening “Nah.”
Through the roar of negative feedback from Ultraman fans across Japan and overseas, Tsuburaya Productions formally stated that this endeavor was not authorized or approved and does not in any way represent the official Ultraman brand. Tsuburaya president Shinichi Oka relayed their intention to fight against this latest threat to their intellectual property, as their conflict with Chaiyo remains ongoing.