Ultraman, Episode 01: “Ultra Operation No. 1”

In my previous post I wrote in general about Ultraman and the world the first series presents us with. Now I’ll look in some detail into the debut episode. Since the Ultraman franchise is just staring out, there is a lot to comment on. For future episodes I’ll just present my main observations and questions.

Ultraman opens with the familiar swirling logo of Ultra Q (though in color for the first time) immediately staking the claim for Ultraman to be a continuation of its predecessor. Different episodes will feel sometime more, sometimes less than episodes excerpted from the progenitor anthology. It’s easy to accept that Ultraman is set in the Unbalanced Zone that Ultra Q theorized the world entering. Humanity’s actions have loosed the blood-dimmed tide. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world — and there are monsters now.

The Ultra Q title burns away to the stylized credits of the main show. A chorus of children sing admiration of the valor of their hero Ultraman. The message is loud and clear that this is a children’s show, more than Ultra Q ever was. The colors are bright and the lyrics to the point.

As the titles roll on we see silhouettes of Ultraman and various monstrous foes. Several have quite familiar outlines, as they are creatures prominently featured in episodes of Ultra Q, such as the money hungry star of “Kanegon’s Cocoon.” Several beloved Ultra Q monsters will end up famous guest stars and reoccurring menaces of the Ultraman universe. And speaking of stars, the opening always ends by introducing, by name, the featured creature of the episode: Space Monster Bemular this time. Every “kaiju” is the series has its personal name, a name which the public often knows when it appears to rampage through a city. It’s an extraordinary aspect of Ultraman’s world that giant monsters not only exist, but are known, recognized elements of that world. Just as we name hurricane and other major storms, or how large scale disasters become stuck with monickers. When someone speaks of “Chernobyl” they are most likely referring to the nuclear meltdown event, not the region it took place in. Ultraman’s monsters are such named events.

The episode proper opens with shots of red and blue Orbs flying through space, observed by a rocket vehicle. This craft is piloted by Shin Hayata, the man who will become our hero. Next, we cut to SSSP Headquarters and another connection with Ultra Q: we see the familiar face of Hiroko Sakurai, only in this show she is playing not spunky reporter Yuriko, but an entirely different character, Akiko Fuji. The other members of the Japanese branch of the Science Police are also on duty. We will get to know them only very gradually. Throughout the series there are a lot references and homages to “kaiju eiga,” the giant monster movies that Eiji Tsuburaya and his team did the special effects for. One of the first, and strangest, is that the phone at SSSP headquarters chimes with the sound of King Ghidorah, the three-headed archenemy of Godzilla.

Hayata is investigating the two UFOs when the primary event of the Ultraman franchise occurred: one of the Orbs collides with his ship in a fiery explosion. It turns out that the Orb was the vessel (or a transformed manifestation, maybe?) of a Space Warrior who was pursuing a extraterrestrial criminal, Bemular.

This is still a mystery to Hayata’s comrades, who only know that there has been a serious accident. As they prepare to rush to his assistance, they under go their own transformations: zipping off their bright blue jackets and gray pants to reveal their bright orange mission uniforms (also changing gray ties for darker orange ones at some point). These uniforms, in their way, are as iconic as Ultraman himself. They, and their accompanying helmets, can seem silly or campy from our perspective today, but I’ll say as a middle-aged man who remembers being a boy of the target age for this show, a distinct uniform, something that established for the world, and the narrative, that this was the Science Police, on the job, was a big deal. Even today, allowing for 50+ years of fashion, these suit make a statement. And after all, given the extraordinary authority and jurisdiction the SSSP have as law enforcement agents, you’d want common citizens to be able to spot them quickly and recognize their authority. My only practical concern is their having to wear those heavy duty flight helmets most all the time, driving in cars, or just walking around.

Arriving at the crash site the SSSP find burning wreckage and terrified picnickers who say Hayata’s body lifted into the air by a glowing sphere. The team are quick to dismiss this as impossible. I wonder why they are so doubtful. Their raison d’etre is investigating weird phenomena after all. We ran into that in Ultra Q as well, when characters would react with completely disbelief at somebody who was reporting what could only have been the strangest thing that had happened that week. Captain Muramatsu is at least willing to consider that aliens are involved.

The next morning everyone is still looking for Hayata. The military is also on hand. Interestingly the SSSP members salute them in greeting. Unlike your typical American hero team, the SSSP have good relations with the other authorities. Joint operations, as we will see throughout the series, seem to be put together efficiently, with no squabbling over jurisdiction. The search is iterupted by strange lights and boiling water on the lake. Part of the team’s equipment are tie tacks that alert them to danger. It’s not clear how they work other that being general purpose “monster detectors.”

A monster does appear then, rising out the lake. Tsuburaya and his effects team have quite the mastery of using water in their monster movies, going back to the original Gojira in 1954. You’d think that water would be a major obstacle and complication with live-action filming of actors is cumbersome costumes, but Tsubaraya seems to relish the challenge. The SSSP members immediately pull out their Super Guns and fire energy beams at the creature. “Shoot First” is clearly their standard operating proceedure. The beams seem to drive the monster back underwater. I can’t help but note that all the monster did was appear. It hasn’t attacked anyone or anything to. I guess we can give the SSSP the benefit of the doubt that monsters are to dealt with without hesitation. This is life in the Unbalanced Zone after, all and monsters are a fact of life on Earth now.

Hayata mysteriously reappears, claiming to have been saved by some inexplicable entity and that the monster, named Bemular, must be destroyed. The team then carries out a very well thought-out operation. Hayata, aboard the SSSP mini-submarine, blasts Bemular underwater. When it arrises, the other attack from the air. It goes back underwater where Hayata waits with more torpedoes. It’s efficent, if brutal, tactics — until Bemular gets its jaws on the sub and comes ashore. The team continues to blast it with missiles, causing the enraged creature to hurl the sub through the air — they didn’t quite think that out so well. Hayata has his second crash landing of the day.

Bemular itself, now that we see in entirety, is an interesting kaiju. It’s a man in a suit of course, but the design attempts to hide those human proportions, with a thick neck, no shoulders, and forelimbs that aren’t joined like arms.

Despite the crash and Bemular setting the surrounding woods a blaze with a breath ray, Hayata is still alive — though wounded. Actual red blood on a characters would have been striking difference between Japanese and American children’s shows of the era. He manages to clamber out of his burning submarine and, holding forth the Beta Capsule, does the thing. The space being he saw in the last flickering moments of his life never told him what would happen, in fact made a point of not telling him. Yet Hayata, with only some apprehension on his face, does not hesitate and is transformed (?) in the silvery giant Ultraman. As I wondered before, is this Hayata transmogrified? Is it the space being fully existing in our world for the time being? For now, we have no idea. If it is somehow Hayata, he knows exactly what to do — which is attack the giant monster. For we viewers, a narrator now speaks up and explains something of what is going on, including some of Ultraman’s capabilities and strengths.

Over the years of seeing Godzilla movies (there had been six or seven by the time Ultraman debuted), we’ve seen kaiju fight many times, but fans of the genre had never seen what goes on next. Ultraman does not mess around. He is a grappler, a wrestler, a brawler who grabs his opponents and hurls them to the ground. He headbutts, kicks, and punches. It’s a viceresal, close-in struggle. It’s with almost a sinking feeling that Ultraman’s plan for victory is to just to beat his foe to death with his hands.

The SSSP are observing this beat down, and are in no way nonplussed by the giant’s appearance. He’s fighting the monster, so they are on his side 100%. They also do a good job at figuring out the meaning of another key element of the Ultraman premise: the flashing light in his chest. The Color Timer activates as a warning that Ultraman only has a limited amount of energy. The details of this will be elaborated on future episodes.

We are spared seeing Ultraman reduce Bemular to a bloody pulp. The monster, desperate to escape, transforms back into Orb mode and attempts to fly away. Ultraman then, relatively cleanly, blasts it with a ray from his hands, striking one his enduring poses, with his hand positioned more like the mundra of a Hindu deity that a typical superhero shooting a laser beam. But like a classic superhero, Ultraman flies off into the sky before anyone can arrive question him about just what his deal is.

Moments later Hayata himself reappears, for the second time unscratched by his deadly crash. This begins another trend that Hayata shares with his western hero counterparts; somehow he is always elsewhere when Ultraman shows up. He keeps his new dual identify secret, even from his monster-fighting comrades. Why is a, I think, a reasonable question. The tactical advantage of the SSSP knowing that Ultraman was, more-or-less, on their team would be huge. And it is not like Ultraman’s very existence is kept secret (hard to do for a 50m giant). Hayata explains that Ultraman (he gives him the name) is an alien trapped on Earth who wants to help protect it. Can we assume it is some compulsion from the Space Warrior that keeps Hayata from telling the whole truth? You might say that, and the other question I’ve raised, are a lot for a children’s monster show to have to worry about explaining. I only know that if 8-year old me had been watching the show I would very much have wanted answers to those kinds of mysteries…

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