Fly Me to M-78: The Evangelion-Ultraman Connection

With the resurgence of Neon Genesis Evangelion via Netflix, the revived online discourse and think pieces have mostly focused on the imagery, allegories, takes/interpretations of symbolism and all that jazz. But when discussing Evangelion, Western fandom ignores the fact that its esteemed auteur, Hideaki Anno, is a total goddamn dork for tokusatsu. In fact, it’s his love for one particular tokusatsu series which is the integral cornerstone, if not the bulk of the foundation, for the series: Ultraman.

Hideaki Anno in the Return of Ultraman short he directed for General Products.

A lot of what  Anno does visually with his storytelling can be traced back to shows like Ultraman, Ultraseven, and The Return of Ultraman, all of them part of Tsuburaya Productions’ enduring Ultraman franchise or “Ultra Series.” Whether he’d admit it or not, the influence is still prevalent in his later work like Shin Godzilla and even Love & Pop. Within the Evangelion TV series is where you really get to see said influences play out and streamline into the director’s own personal style. But the most surprising thing is that, when you step back to look at it all, Evangelion itself shares several unique parallels to the Ultra Series that I don’t think Anno planned on.

It all starts in episode one of Evangelion, “Angel Attack,” which plays out in equal parts “super robot” intro and kaiju movie. The staging of the first military battle with the Angel, as well as the pacing between the war room and the action all reeks of the kind you would find in a Godzilla movie or support team scenes in the Ultra Series. As the true plot of the Eva takes flight, there are still flashes of that tokusatsu influence.

For instance, episode six’s Operation: Yashima climax feels like a McGuffin Superweapon combat sequence from a Toho sci-fi film. The entirety of “Both of you, Dance like you want to win” is the classic training montage episode that was a staple in shows like Ultraman Leo and The Return of Ultraman.  Several NERV mecha are nods to both Return and even Ultraman Taro. Hell, even the traumatic 19th episode’s Angel, Zeruel, is a living homage to Zetton, the kaiju that kills Ultraman in that series’s finale. It’s all there in plain sight.

Miniature-looking cities in Rebuild.

As Anno moved into the Rebuild of Evangelion movies, he and Shinji Higuchi (fellow Gainax alum, Heisei Gamera VFX director, and co-director on Shin Godzilla) doubled down in Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance. Specifically, the film stages several battles as if the Evas and Angels were fighting in miniature cities. Most notably, this happened during the battle with the Eighth Angel where, instead of realistic crash damage, cars and debris fly away as if they were in a 1970s Ultra Series battle sequence. Funny enough, this approach was homaged in Trigger’s SSSS.GRIDMAN TV series.

Ultraseven episode eight.

One of the biggest aesthetic influences on both Evangelion and Anno’s later films is the work of the late director Akio Jissoji. Jissoji is connected to the Japanese New Wave of cinema in the 1960s, helming a trilogy of erotic Buddhist films produced by the Art Theater Guild. His whole body of work is provocative, sexual, and theatrical in terms of staging.  The avant-garde and surrealism permeate from his cinematography, especially in his later years where he almost exclusively aimed for more dreamlike imagery. So what’s his connection to Ultraman? He directed several of the best episodes of the original 1966 TV series, as well as some of the most iconic of the entire franchise.

Jissoji worked on episodes 14, 15, 22, 23, 34, and 35 of Ultraman. These completely stand out from the rest of the series, with storylines that venture into darker or more dreamlike places, and a vastly different approach to the cinematography. In a “Jissoji Episode”, you’re more than likely to see things like windows being used to frame characters, low angles obscuring someone in the foreground or part of the frame to highlight another, and more playing with lighting and shadow to emphasize the emotion of a scene. Case in point, Episode 23 of Ultraman, “My Home Is Earth”: during the scene where the Science Patrol is ordered to kill Jamilla, a mutated predecessor of theirs, the softer focus and placement of lights render the scene all the more heartbreaking as Ide, the happy-go-lucky member of the team, begs the captain to not go through with it.

“My Home is Earth” and Evangelion episode six.

If this particular scene looks familiar, it’s because Anno was absolutely inspired by the work of Jissoji, and incorporated the approach into his own visual playbook on Evangelion.

All throughout, there are shots framed in the same style of a Jissoji Episode, whether it be through obscuring people to highlight an emotion, abstract framing, or stark lighting. Like those episodes of Ultraman, the instances of these aspects beings used heighten the emotions in each scene and ramp up the drama.

“Nightmare of the Fourth Planet” and End of Evangelion.

Anno also largely lifts from another Jissoji-directed Ultra Series episode in Episodes 25 and 26 of Evangelion. Specifically, he pulls from “Nightmare of the Fourth Planet”, a story Jissoji directed for Ultraseven. The plot revolves around Dan (the alter-ego of Seven) and one of his teammates finding a world in which machines are the dominant species, and stage mass exterminations of humans on television. The most vivid scenes of that episode all take place on the television set with emphasis on the lighting rigs and various pieces of gear and tech used to film the killings. They’re all shown at a dutch angle, skewing the scene and showing just how detached the machine men are from the act of murder, while also showing the sort of clockwork nature of the operation. Another memorable shot shows the stage they film on with the dead humans in the top third of the screen. This happens before the big reveal and foreshadows the true nature of the Fourth Planet. The overall effect is chilling and ramps up the tension as our heroes slowly realize the danger they are in.

These exact images are replicated in episode 25 of Evangelion during the revelation to Shinji that the Human Instrumentality Project is happening at that moment. The framing of the lights and the creepy artificial nature of the television in that episode set evoke the uneasiness of the machines in Ultraseven walking our heroes through and explaining their plans for humanity. Anno would pull from “Nightmare of the Fourth Planet” again years later during the dream sequences of Love and Pop, each of those taking place on a detached film set with emphasis on the lighting grids. Here, the imagery is used again to show detachment, but in this case illustrating just how removed those scenes were from the main story.

Ultraman episode 23.

Moving away from the visual side, the Ultra Series influences also appear in terms of Evangelion’s structure and storytelling. In a post-Evangelion interview with Ultraman actress Hiroko Sakurai (which keeps being uploaded everywhere and never sourced), Anno mentions his dream approach to Ultraman, which essentially outlines what he did with another aspect of Evangelion, the NERV organization:

SAKURAI: If you were to direct an Ultraman series, what kind of story would you create?

ANNO: I would want to seriously redo the Earth Defense Force…I want to run the organization through all kinds of situations.

NERV is, essentially, a deconstruction of Ultraman’s SSSP or Science Patrol team. In Ultraman, the Science Patrol’s job was to discover the monster-of-the-week and serve as the means of exposition. In subsequent Ultra Series, there’s some manner of successor to the Science Patrol which fills the same role, but in general, they always typically side with their show’s Ultra hero and help them. NERV, however, is their antithesis; a version of the Science Patrol that, instead of working with Ultraman, confined and controlled his power for their own purposes. The Ultra Series would go full circle with their own deconstruction of the support team trope years later with the shady and mysterious TLT and Night Raiders organizations in Ultraman Nexus. While they did go as far as erasing people’s memories and deadly covert ops, they never reached the level of NERV where they manipulated people and flat out sabotaged the competition at the behest of the Illuminati.

NERV as a whole also touches upon the moral gray areas seen in early Showa era Ultra Series. While the support teams were always there to save the day, they would occasionally be subject to orders that favored the greater good for mankind. Case in point, Ultraseven: throughout the series, the Ultra Guard’s higher-ups, the Terrestrial Defense Force, never hesitated to shoot first and ask questions later if there was an immediate threat to the planet. This attitude often created more problems than solutions, with greater ramifications that played out in the direct-to-video Heisei Ultraseven series.

Behind the scenes of Ultraman Leo and Evangelion episode 19.

The Evangelions themselves are also indicative of Anno’s Ultraman influence by virtue of their true nature: literal humans in suits. While the Rebuild films downplay this, the original TV series shows Eva Unit 01 gaining more human-like features in the climax of episode 19. By the end of the episode, Unit 01 looks like a suit actor, like those in the Ultra Series, with a broken, crumbling costume. The fear associated with that scene plays into Anno’s childhood fears of the original Ultraman costume (also known as the A-Type). In the previously-mentioned interview, Anno recollects:

“In the A-Type, it felt like he was a person. His lips were slightly parted and it was scary. A-Type Ultraman was frightening to me as a kid…After the accident with Hayata…he was laughing, ‘Ha-ha-ha’, like nothing was wrong.”

Unit 01’s exposed core.

Also worth noting from Episode 19, Unit 01’s core is exposed, looking eerily reminiscent of Ultraman’s chest Color Timer. Anno would later allude to that bit in a flashback sequence from Rebuild of Evangelion and even tease a further Ultra Series connection with the Ultra Signs for Zoffy, Ultraman, Seven, and Ace in the Evangelion 2.0 post-credits tease.

Another interesting parallel is the nature of the Angels themselves by the end of the Evangelion TV series. After a barrage of bipedal humanoid monsters, the Angels suddenly became more abstract and geometric. By the time these abstract Angels appeared, Eva’s plot had begun to shift to its dark place, with most of the supporting cast gone or evacuated. Within this, as an Ultra Series fan, you can’t help but see a hint of the endgame for Ultraman Leo.

Basically, around the time Ultraman Leo was being made in 1975, Tsuburaya Productions had been affected by the Oil Shock crisis. Leo unfortunately got the brunt of it. Not only did the budget cuts delay pre-production (resulting in its predecessor gaining an additional story to buy time), but it also resulted in one of the most drastic status-quo changes in tokusatsu history. In Episode 40 of Ultraman Leo, the support team, MAC, is brutally killed off and massacred by new villain Commander Black. Now stuck on Earth sans vehicles and tech, Leo squared off against the new wave of Kaiju of the Week… which were all puppets or inferior quality. Imagine 10+ episodes of Leo tackling a non-moving monster and ripping it to pieces while big, swelling music blasts in the background. It was a completely different show. Much like how, by the end of the Evangelion TV series, the abstract Angels find our heroes in a series that hardly resembles what we started with. I doubt Anno intended on this actually being a parallel but it’s another sign of how in spite of everything, that Ultra Series foundation kept showing up.

Though ultimately, one of the biggest Ultra Series influences on Evangelion is The Return of Ultraman, the namesake of the Daicon Films short. Evangelion’s trademark strobe effect in the opening titles, as well as Studio Khara’s title slate, are both homages to this show. Remember how I said in Evangelion 2.22, Annno doubled down on his tokusatsu influence? Well, he also broke off the dial on his barrage of callbacks to Return, right down to Misato’s new car literally being the Monster Attack Team’s Mazda Cosmo, NERV vehicles boasting MAT-esque color trims, and even Gendo’s VTOL is just the MAT Gyro.

NERV hardware painted up in a decidedly MAT-esque color scheme.

In another interview, Anno even uses Return to explain the sudden character shift following Episode 6 of the Evangelion TV series:

Anno: In the case of Rei, it was the line in episode six….Shinji says, “I think you should smile,” and Rei smiles. I felt like, ah, this is going to work…However, when I thought about it afterwards, I cursed. I thought, in short, that if she has [already] communicated with Shinji there, then isn’t she over with? At that moment, Rei, for me, was finished, all at once.

Takekuma: You had finished depicting her.

Anno: Right. When she smiled, she was already finished with, this character.

Takekuma: I understand. Because of that, it feels like the human relationships take a step backwards afterwards.

Anno: Yeah. It was the same as in Tsuburaya’s Return of Ultraman. [Just] when the relationship between [Hideki] Goh and MAT improves, and you think [he] will get on well with other people, then next week things begin again from [a position of] estrangement…

It’s worth mentioning that Hideki Goh’s relationship with MAT is something that Evangelion echoes when it comes to Shinji Ikari’s character arc. In the first handful of episodes, Hideki risks his life to save a child and a dog from a crumbling building during a kaiju attack. In honor of his sacrifice, Ultraman Jack, the latest Ultra Brother, merges with Hideki to save his life. While most Ultra Series would have our hero jump right into the fray fighting kaiju and aliens, Return set Hideki up as a hot-headed rookie who had to learn to work with a team and mature.

In episode two, “Takkong’s Great Counterattack,” Hideki abuses his powers and clashes with his teammates, resulting in his temporary inability to transform. In turn, he was suspended from the team. Instead of owning his mistake, Hideki quits the team, but comes to realize his responsibilities and rejoins. Though it gets resolved here, Hideki’s struggles with the team and his calling as Ultraman eventually become a main friction point for the first half of Return. While Hideki never has as much angst as Shinji, you can see the parallels: two young men, completely out of their element, who are forced to come to terms with themselves while wielding the power to save the world. The gulf that separates the two is Hideki’s absence of hesitation in throwing himself into a training montage.

“Ultraman Dies at Sunset” and Evangelion episode 18.

Evangelion’s most notable callback to The Return of Ultraman pertains to one of the most iconic moments of the show, if not the most iconic moment of the entire Ultra Series. In episode 37, “Ultraman Dies at Sunset,” Ultraman Jack and Hideki come face to face with aliens from the planet Knuckle (the first-ever aliens to appear in-series). They come to Earth with a plan to psychologically and physically destroy our hero, and they succeed. After brutally murdering two people close to Hideki, the Knuckle aliens take on Jack in a dramatic sunset battle. Completely outgunned and running out of solar power, our hero is summarily defeated. (Don’t worry, kids, he’s saved in episode 38 and gets payback via mid-air judo throws!)

This episode represented the start of a massive game-changer for The Return of Ultraman. The villains of the week stopped being strictly Earth-born kaiju, and now included waves of aliens who would appear for the remainder of the show. Whether or not it was intentional, this was flat-out homaged in Evangelion’s own game-changer, episode 18. In it, Shinji’s friend Tohji is selected as the pilot for Eva Unit 03 and becomes trapped within when it is infected by an Angel. In one of the most violent moments of the TV series, Shinji is forced to watch as Unit 01, controlled by the new Dummy Plug, completely massacres the infected Unit 03 and nearly kills one of his only friends. The entire battle happens at sunset, with all three Evas being beaten back, and it signals the beginning of the show’s homestretch. Wherein Eva 01 “awakens”, the status quo begins to deteriorate, and the Angels become more psychological and abstract in their attacks against NERV. Suffice to say, this arc lifted from Return whole-sale, right down to Shinji begging his father to stop in the place of Hideki begging the sun for more solar energy.

In an interview for AnimeLand, Anno stated:

Clearly [tokusatsu] made up some part of my film and television culture. I have not taken ideas from this genre, but I think that in my works you can find a number of elements reminiscent of that genre”

There are those who would call Anno a hack for incorporating these and his other influences into his work, but I just think of it as a sign of how much he really loves the stuff. Evangelion may have started out as a stealth Ultraman deconstruction, but over the years it’s also become something of a secret love letter. This can be seen in the Rebuild films, and it looks to continue well into the upcoming 3.0+1.0. (I mean come on, the Wunder’s whole gimmick is being a tokusatsu miniature puppeteer.) But I encourage anyone reading this to seriously watch the Ultra Series that I’ve mentioned and then go back into the Evangelion TV series. The links will become so inherently noticeable, and will more than definitely leave you with a deeper appreciation for both.

In the meantime, I’ll be over hoping the final 10 minutes of 3.0+1.0 brings it all full circle by having the climax take place on a miniature set with live action Evas.

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