The Japan-born Ultraman superhero franchise has inspired a frenzy in China some three decades after it was first broadcast there, with Chinese kids clamoring to get their hands on the latest must-have merchandise, and families visiting theme parks and staying at the world's first Ultraman hotel.

As China emerged from its stringent "zero-COVID" policy, which heavily restricted people's movements until early 2023, Ultraman attractions were established in Dalian, Chengdu, Zhengzhou and Shanghai, with the hotel in the latter, the nation's commercial hub, opening in January the same year.

The world's largest Ultraman statue, recognized by the Guinness World Records at 10.4 meters in height, stands at an amusement park adjacent to the Ultraman hotel in Shanghai on Nov. 7, 2023. (Kyodo)

According to Tokyo-based Tsuburaya Productions Co., which produced the program that first aired on Japanese television in 1966, online distribution of the Chinese-dubbed series on various video platforms and wide-ranging merchandise sales have driven Ultraman's popularity in China.

The Ultraman story revolves around the red-and-silver size-changing character that fights monsters to protect Earth from extraterrestrial threats. Originally from the Land of Light, he has many incarnations.

During the summer vacation period, many children clad in Ultraman costumes, capes and masks visited the Ultraman area in the Discoveryland theme park in Dalian, northeastern China, which opened in May 2023.

In August at the Dalian park, a 3-year-old local boy wearing an Ultraman mask said that his favorite character was Belial, the arch-enemy of Ultraman Zero. His mother said her son became interested because all his friends play with toys from the franchise.

Twin brothers who came from southern China's Guangzhou with their mother pose in Ultraman costumes in front of the Shanghai Ultraman hotel on Nov. 7, 2023. (Kyodo)

The mother of a 7-year-old boy from Beijing said he collects trading cards and Ultraman figurines. "His father is also a fan. He began to watch the series in childhood. They often watch videos together," she said.

The 5,000-square-meter area features a theater showing a 30-minute Ultraman show, a restaurant offering food and drink themed on the characters, a souvenir shop selling toys and other goods, a ride and a museum as well as statues of Ultraman and monsters, including Alien Baltan.

A Discoveryland park official said actors appearing in the Ultraman show were trained by staff sent from Japan. To commemorate the opening of the park operated by Haichang Ocean Park Holdings Ltd., a copy of an Ultraman painting by Toru "Tohl" Narita, the late designer of the series, was initially exhibited at the museum, she added.

Visitors enjoy a ride at an area featuring Ultraman characters inside a Dalian amusement park on Aug. 9, 2023. (Kyodo)

Meanwhile, the Ultraman hotel in Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park, about a 30-minute drive from the city's Pudong international airport, looks to cater to fans' desire to explore the franchise's world with its 105 rooms of different designs.

Posters and images of Ultraman characters can be seen almost everywhere -- in the lobby and on the walls of the rooms and corridors at the hotel.

Kids staying at the facility can enjoy Ultraman games at a video arcade, watch films at a theater and read related books. The hotel also offers afternoon tea in a Japanese garden with sweets featuring the hero character.

"I like Ultraman because he is strong. He also has a light beam," exclaimed a 5-year-old boy who came to the hotel with his twin brother and mother from Guangzhou, southern China. The mother said the children got to know the series through videos posted on Chinese social media.

Photo taken on Nov. 7, 2023, shows a room at the Ultraman hotel in Shanghai. (Kyodo)

The hotel remains popular, with more than 90 percent of rooms reserved on weekends. Accommodation fees include a two-day admission ticket for the nearby amusement park, which also houses an Ultraman zone, a Shanghai park official said.

At a peak time during China's National Day holidays in October, the hotel charges up to 5,000 yuan ($705) per night. The hotel tends to quickly reach full occupancy during holiday seasons, with reservations required far in advance, the official said.

The main target clientele of the hotel are families with kids up to 10 years old, but sometimes adult fans also come to enjoy greeting sessions with Ultraman characters at the amusement park, she added. In October and November, monsters joined a Halloween event.

File photo taken on Nov. 7, 2023, shows a Ultraman-themed hotel in Shanghai. (Kyodo)

The Shanghai park has the world's largest Ultraman statue recognized by the Guinness World Records, measuring 10.4 meters in height. It also plans to open a private birthday party venue for the hero-loving kids.

The park operator has said in financial documents it will "accelerate the progress of our IP-themed pavilions," in reference to intellectual property including Ultraman areas within its parks. "We believe that this is a very successful commercialization opportunity."

Tsuburaya Fields Holdings Inc., a parent company of the Ultraman producer, said in its fiscal 2023 half-year financial report issued in November that merchandise and license revenues in China in the April-September period more than doubled to 2.1 billion yen ($14.3 million) compared with the previous year.

The growth has been supported by brisk sales of toys and trading cards. The company has also said it plans to open the second character-themed hotel in the "Ultraman town" to be launched within Zhengzhou Haichang Ocean Park in early 2024 and increase the number of Ultraman areas in China to 10 by March 2025.

Children take a commemorative photo with Ultraman characters after a show at an amusement park in Dalian, northeastern China, on Aug. 9, 2023. (Kyodo)

Masayuki Nagatake, president and chief operating officer of Tsuburaya Productions, said in an online interview with Kyodo News the company has been focused on expansion in China and elsewhere since winning a U.S. lawsuit in 2020 over the copyright of Ultraman in the global market.

Nagatake said in China, where Ultraman was first introduced in 1993 and viewers have enjoyed simultaneous distribution of episodes aired in Japan over the past decade, many parents who grew up watching the series "can feel at ease" with their children having a familiar experience.

"There is no national boundary in our efforts to present stories that parents (of children) think are worth seeing," he said.

Tsuburaya Fields has said it will release the new animation movie "Ultraman: Rising" in 2024 on Netflix and is considering opening similar Ultraman areas in Southeast Asia.

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