A costumed actor steps out onto the stage. As he mugs for the audience, waving to delighted children in the audience, the MC runs a finger along his well sculpted, silver-painted abs. "Are these real?" he teases. The figure, hidden behind a mask, can only nod in acknowledgment.

This figure is Ultraman, the popular superhero who made his premiere on Japan's airwaves in 1966. He's on stage to promote his latest film, which premiered this month in China.

Actually, let me qualify that. The character is intended to be Ultraman. And the film he's starring in is not part of Ultraman's official story line; it's the second Ultraman movie produced in China that his Japanese production company insists have been produced without their consent. And the row between the two companies is slowly building into an international incident.

The History of Ultraman

Ultraman fighting
Ultraman was a giant alien who fought monsters (kaijuu) alongside a special defense team. (Picture: NHK documentary on Ultraman)

The 1960s were a pivotal time in Japanese culture. The first bullet train (shinkansen; 新幹線) had premiered in 1964. Japan's economy was booming, and its population was poised to pass the 100 million mark. It was a time when "making it" meant having the 3 C's: a car, a cooler (air conditioner), and a color television. The future, people believed, was now.

Director Tsuburaya Hajime (円谷一), who began his career delighting audiences in 1954 with a little creation called Godzilla, decided to take advantage of the new space-age mood. He was also eager to try his hand at television, which provided a large audience and a new, unique medium for storytelling.

Tsuburaya began his TV life with a series called Ultra Q, which every week, in Godzilla-style, introduced Japanese kids to a new kaijuu (怪獣), or monster. (There were no superheroes.) Ultra Q was a smash hit. At its peak, it boasted a 30% audience share, and the series was heralded for creating a "kaijuu boom".

Ultraman premiered in July 1966 on the TBS television network for a year over the course of 39 episodes. The series is a sci-fi action tale about an alien named Ultraman, who, pursued by his enemies, escapes to Earth. However, while entering Earth's atmosphere, he accidentally collides with Hayata, a member of a special investigative scientific unit, and kills him. Remorseful over causing the death of an innocent being, Ultraman gives his life to Hayata, who uses the alien's powers to protect the Earth.

Unlike Ultra Q, Ultraman debuted in vivid Technicolor. The hero instantly caught the nation's imagination, and viewership achieved an astounding 40%. Additional sequels such as Ultra Seven, Ultra Fight, and many others followed.

As Japanese society changed, Ultraman changed: e.g., when the Woman's Rights Movement began in the 1970s, the male protagonist became a male/female combo. The series continued to morph to response to various popular booms, such as a fascination with psychokinetic powers, UFOs, the predictions of Nostradamus, and even the "Teacher Drama boom" of the 1980s. There have been periods where Ultraman has remained off the air, but for the most part, the series has reflected Japanese society back on itself for 50 years running.

Why has Ultraman remained so popular for over half a century? In an article for Mag2News, journalist Shima Nobuhiko notes that the original series' special effects were challenging, and required Tsuburaya Productions to invent new tricks and mechanics constantly. But the crew was ultimately successful, and created a realistic atmosphere for its absurdist sci-fi drama.

The other reason is the richness of the Ultraman universe. Ultraman is a personality - a specific individual from a specific sector of space and time, with a mother, a father, and a rich history. The people who play the Ultramen (and Ultrawomen) are likewise real, flesh and blood beings with their own complicated history. Shima argues that the Ultraman universe had to be richly detailed in order for the company to make money off of figures and other licensed products. Without that money, Tsuburaya Productions would've gone bankrupt:


It cost between 20 and 30 million yen to make an episode, but the TV station would only pay a few million yen. In order to make a great product, Tsuburaya had to take on the financial expense itself. As a result, Tsuburaya Productions found itself multiple times falling into operational crisis. But if they wanted to make a product whose effects won esteem even from abroad, they couldn't cut corners.

(JP) Link: Why Does Love for Ultraman Continue Even Now, Across Generations?

なぜウルトラマンは今もなお世代を超えて愛され続けるのか? - まぐまぐニュース!

Violation of International Copyright: The Sequel!

Given Ultraman's appeal, it's not shocking that production companies in other countries would want to make their own versions. Indeed, versions were make in the 1990s in Australia and the US with the cooperation of Tsuburaya Productions.

However, a production company in China has decided that getting permission from Tsuburaya to use its characters is just too much hassle to bother with. The show, Steel Dragon (鋼鉄飛龍), originally had a Japanese director, but shortly after he quit, the series introduced a character named "Ultraman". While the character clearly resembled Japan's famous hero, there were notable differences, such as a lengthened, sharp jaw. When the character takes the stage at public appearances, it's not an actor in a suit, but an actor in a mask and made up with elaborate body paint, which leads to another key difference from the Japanese Ultraman: visible abs and protruding nipples.

Ultraman's nipples
A Chinese MC is all, "Check out these Ultra-nips!"

In 2017, the company announced it would release a movie called Steel Dragon - Farewell, Ultraman. The movie put Ultraman in modern Japan in some fairly humorous scenes - from hula dancing to answering a phone in an office. Tsuburaya Productions immediately lodged complaints alleging violation of international copyright laws. However, the company ignored the threats, and Chinese authorities did nothing to stop the film's general release.

Now, despite an ongoing legal dispute, the company has released yet another film: Steel Dragon 2: Ultraman Dominant. The release was accompanied by road shows and other public events, obscuring the fact that a trial began in October of last year in China between the two companies, and that Ultraman's legal status in China is still up for debate.

(JP) Link: Ultraman Used Against in China Without Permission - Shameless! A Sequel Amidst a Legal Dispute

中国が再びウルトラマンを無断使用 係争中にもかかわらず続編映画を制作 - ライブドアニュース

For its part, the Chinese production company insists that it's obtained legal permission to use Ultraman's name and likeness in accordance with Chinese law. The company maintains it has a license with the authorized rights holder of the Ultraman brand in China. Tsuburaya has shot back that the original license was limited to past products only, can't be extended to other companies, and can't be used to create "derivative" works.

Copy Culture in China (and Japan!)

So is this Ultraman a legitimate derivation, or a rip-off? This isn't the first example of mohou bunka (模倣文化), or copycat culture, in China. Beijing's Shijingshan Amusement Park has become notorious in recent years for ripping off characters from numerous American and Japanese companies, including Disney and Sega. The park even brazenly advertised that Disney fans should come to their park because the official Disneyland in Shanghai was "too far".

The Amusement Park In China That's A Total Disney Ripoff - Your Mileage May Vary
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But when a theme park in China has obvious copies of a WHOLE LOT of Disney parks, I’d say it goes way beyond flattery and more into copyright infringement. Now, Joe and I went to the now-defunct Nara Dreamland, in Japan, in April 2005 (some … Continue reading "The Amusement Park In China That’s A Total Disney Ripoff"

In a piece for the New York Times, Didi Kirsten Tatlow documented other brazen examples of Chinese copying, including a replica of the entire Austrian town of Hallstatt in Guangong Province.

Why Do the Chinese Copy So Much?
In Guangdong province, a little bit of an Austrian town grows. Actually, a lot of it. Is the imitation the highest form or flattery, or proof of a Chinese lack of imagination?

I don't buy Tatlow's explanation that the love of copying is due to the complexity of the Chinese writing system; that comes across as somewhat patronizing. Japanese is nearly as complex, and you don't see the same sort of copying culture in Japan. However, it's true that copying and modification are actually a part of Chinese artistic tradition. Professor Byung-Chul Han makes this point in a more scholarly way in his essay "The Copy is the Original", in which he argues that in Chinese culture, copies aren't regarded as rip-offs, but as just as good as the first one.

This attitude doesn't exist only in China: it can also be found in some forms of Japan. Professor Han points out the case of the Ise Shinto Shrine, which was removed from the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites when UNESCO discovered that, far from being 1,300 years old, the shrine is rebuilt from the ground up every 20 years. In UNESCO's eyes, this makes the shrine a fraud. In Japan's eyes, it's the continuation of a venerable tradition.

Why, in China and Japan, a copy is just as good as an original – Byung-Chul Han | Aeon Essays
In China and Japan, temples may be rebuilt and ancient warriors cast again. There is nothing sacred about the ‘original’

But we live in a global economy, and copyright and trademark law are things now. And I'm frankly suspicious of the Chinese company's claims. I suspect they know they're on thin legal ice. As noted above, this isn't the first instance of Chinese companies playing fast and loose with trademarks and copyrights.

You don't see incidents like this happen often in Japan, despite a similar cultural context, because Japan has more of a built-in tradition for respecting written and unwritten rules than exists in modern Chinese culture. I've heard quite a few Japanese grumble about how Chinese tourists flagrantly disregard rules around littering and walking with quiet respect when visiting holy sites in Japan such as Shinto shrines. I don't think that's because Chinese people are inherently rude or disrespectful; likely, it's the natural response to being raised under a totalitarian regime where saying the wrong thing in public can get you arrested or killed. In such a world, why not break a rule that no one's going to punish you for?

At any rate, the dispute over Ultraman has fans in both Japan and China shaking their fists. Japanese fans who were shown pictures of the Chinese Ultraman were put off by the "strange" rendering, and angry to hear that a beloved national treasure was being used illegally. Meanwhile, fans interviewed by Ni-Tere in China took umbrage at the suggestion that their character was a "rip-off", and that the Chinese producers had done anything wrong.

Given that Beijing's "Disneyland" continues to churn along without consequence, I don't see this dispute being resolved in Tsuburaya's favor anytime soon. I also don't expect fans outside of China to regard this knock-off as canon.


NHK. "Ultraman and 50 Years of Japanese History." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eib4Z3lZuk4