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‘Ultraman: Rising’ Directors Speak to the Family Values of Ultraman

Netflix Ultraman Rising Shannon Tindle John Aoshima

As a child growing up in Kentucky, Ultraman: Rising director Shannon Tindle was captivated by kung fu movies, Godzilla, and most of all, Ultraman. The iconic character found its way across the Pacific and into the rural south of America; while the film’s co-director, John Aoshima, was literally born into the Ultraman culture in Japan.

For both filmmakers, Ultraman formed a part of their childhoods, and, as is the way, that connection with the character was lost as they matured and explored other interests. Upon meeting one another at CalArts, Aoshima recalls Tindle sharing his love for Japanese pop culture, including Ultraman, which brought the superhero back into mind. 

The result of this mutual love for Ultraman is the latest film of the franchise, and one of the few Hollywood iterations. In Ultraman: Rising, the titular hero’s mask is in the process of being passed on from one generation to the next. Professor Sato (Gedde Watanabe), the long-standing custodian of Ultraman, has grown elderly and he, and Japan, needs his son, Ken (Christopher Sean), to take up the mantle. 

As a young boy, Ken immigrated to the U.S. with his mother (Tamlyn Tomita) and became a baseball sensation. Upon returning to Tokyo to continue his career, Ken reluctantly dons the Ultraman mask, while harbouring feelings of disconnect from his father. 

The Asian Cut spoke with Tindle and Aoshima about their take on the famous superhero, specifically how familial themes ground the film above anything else.

Ultraman: Rising premieres June 14 on Netflix.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Asian Cut: I just spoke with the cast and they had so much energy!

Shannon Tindle: I don't think you can make Tamlyn and Gedde tired. [laughs] 

I’ll start off with the same question I posed to them: how familiar were both of you with Ultraman prior to this film?

ST: I started watching Ultraman when I was about five years old. Watched it on TV in syndication on Saturday afternoons with my dad. I didn't realize how big the character was, then I moved to L.A. and began to understand and I reconnected with the character.

John Aoshima: I was born into the world of Ultraman in a way. I discovered Ultraman in a Japanese Manga called Dr. Slump, and the main character was fascinated with Ultraman. Next thing I know, I'm glued to the TV just like my brother and we're fighting over who gets to be which Ultraman. 

For many people in the West, especially younger audiences, this will be their first exposure to Ultraman. What do you hope Western audiences will take away from Ultraman: Rising?

ST: The story is about a kid who has difficulty with his parents, who loved his dad, [and] becomes estranged from his father and the ideals of Ultraman. He's asked to take on that role and then become a parent himself when he has all these negative connotations about it. My hope is that people connect with it in that way — on an emotional level [where] they understand Ken and his challenges. But then when he starts to engage with Ami [a sports journalist, voiced by Julia Harriman] and their relationship grows [as] he grows as a parent, that's how they connect. 

We never wanted to make a film where you needed to have watched Ultraman to enjoy it; we just wanted you to have a good time watching a movie.

JA: For me, it's really about letting the audience discover who Ultraman is and the meaning of Ultraman's heroism by connecting to the character, by understanding Ken's journey. Through that, I think it provides a message of this aspiring hero. And that's who Ultraman is: someone who aspires to be better, no matter what the conflict or the situation is.

Netflix Ultraman Rising

What were the challenges you found in making sure the family aspects of the film spoke loudly but not forgetting that you’re making an Ultraman movie at the same time?

ST: We always led with those relationships. All of our main characters in the film are parents — Ami, his mom, his dad, [and] Ken becomes one. Our rule was, we wanted to incorporate the mythology into it and working with Tsuburaya [Productions] really closely helped a great deal with that. But we never wanted to do it in a way that would take away from that emotional story. 

Any time any of the [Ultraman] references distracted from the story, or drew people out who didn't know anything about Ultraman, then we knew that we had to pull it back. It was really just listening to audiences, especially people who didn't know anything about Ultraman, and making sure that they could enjoy the film. That's who I want to enjoy the film. We want fans to enjoy it too, but I want it to play universally. 

JA: There's plenty for the fans, too. Plenty of Easter eggs.


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