Ultraman, Episodes 22 & 23

Some quick thoughts as I watch through this classic Japanese Special Effects TV series.

Overthrow the Surface

This commentary is going to be more pictures than words because… well, there are things you have to see to believe. I couldn’t have been more than five minutes into this episode before I had to stop, go back to the beginning, and call my wife into the room to confirm that what I thought I was seeing on the screen was really there.

Even after all the episodes of Ultra Q and Ultraman I’ve watched so far, I wasn’t expecting to be seeing a French New Wave art movie, as if Jean Luc Godard was guest director this week. But it’s just our boys, screenwriter Mamoru Sasaki and director Akio Jissoji at it again. Somehow Jissoji was completely unleashed in this episode, surpassing what he’d done with Pearl Defense Directive and Terrifying Cosmic Rays.

We have uncomfortably too close close-ups:

Whip pans, jump cuts, and freeze frames:

Tables and walls blocking shots:

Multiple characters talking and shouting at once:

Hand-held cameras and strange compositions:

The SSSP control room has never been lit like this before:

And why are we suddenly in a TV studio?

And then there’s the eyeless subterranean humans who are the baddies here. I wonder if they might be the descendants of the ancient civilization who imprisoned the monsters in Demons Rise Again?

As the title suggests, these guys are out to take over the surface of the Earth after their long concealment underground. The plan includes disrupting communications and unleashing a giant monster. By the way I take back my earlier theory about the origins of the plastic monster toy that became the Dungeon & Dragons monster the Bullette. Telesdon is clearly the inspiration. Even he gets an uncomfortable close up

But their master stroke is capturing Hayata, since they have discovered he is Ultraman! There’s just the flaw that they don’t know Ultraman is an extraterrestrial and, though he shares life with his human half, mental control over Hayata does not carry over to Ultraman. So it doesn’t go well for then subterraneans when he transforms.

Ultraman burrows out of the Earth and finishes off Telesdon, not even taking long enough to trigger the Color Timer. Then there is a motionless close up of a SSSP helmet that sits on screen for nearly 4 silent seconds.

What is going on here? Isn’t this a kid’s superhero TV show? The dutch angles from the Batman TV series and the lighting designs from Star Trek used to seem avant-garde before this. All these shows were on the air at the same time in 1966, weirdly enough. Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner was being filmed at this time, but wouldn’t be on the air until the next year. Thunderbirds and Dr. Who were also on, though they’d already been running for a couple seasons.

My Home is Earth

Akio Jissoji and Mamoru Sasaki are still onboard for this episode. While it isn’t quite as visually over-the-top it still goes places we are not prepared for.

You have to wonder from the start about how many accidents (by accidents read “planes suddenly exploding in midair”) involving representatives to a peace conference have to occur before somebody decided to, like, maybe stop sending them? I guess they have to make the point clear. It’s interesting that the possibility of space aliens being involved is considered early in the investigation.

I won’t comment much on the order to watch for an invisible rocket. I’m sure Fuji was rolling her eyes back at HQ. There’s a lot of procedural problem solving in this episode. Ide really demonstrates his competency, though Cap doesn’t appreciate it. The script is setting up the theme that the officials in power don’t understand the sacrifices that those with ability make to accomplish their goals.

There are some interesting visuals throughout these sequences, such as a top down perspective on the control panel of the VTOL, or what is presumably the hanger at SSSP HQ. These are locations, or at least point of views we haven’t seem before, though not quite as radical a presentation as last episode.

The real twist is the revelation that the trouble causing monster is not an alien, but Jamila, a human astronaut who was lost on space and was abandoned by “a certain country” who did not want to publicly admit the failure. Now the strange rigors of space have turned Jamila into a creature hungry for revenge.

This is all explained during a spotlight illuminated outdoor meeting, something Akio Jissoji seems fond of, though now he takes in farther visually than ever before.

Ide is having none of this. Nobody before has considered the consequences of having a job such as being on the Science Patrol. On a regular basis they get involved in forces humans can barely comprehend. They fight and kill entities that are so dangerous there’s not time to even consider the ethics or ramifications. There’s only so much denial a sensitive person such as Ide is capable of.

But these are people who have joined a system, have for some time been complicit in the actions of their superiors. This is for the greater good… isn’t it?

Jamila manages to damage the Peace Conference location, but of course he is ultimately defeated by Ultraman. Dying, Jamila seems to be reaching out to something. I wonder which that “certain country” who wanted him dead and forgotten was?

Jamila didn’t stop the Peace Conference, but he did succeed in being remembered — at least as a brave explorer who sacrificed himself for the advancement of humankind. That is what his memorial proclaims to posterity. Others have learned a different lesson:

So some very heavy and dark content for what was, again, a children’s superhero show from that era. There are themes that one might expect in shows of today, such as The Legend of Korra or Steven Universe. But then this was the 1960s and issues of war, the violence of society, and the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy were on people’s minds. Even a giant monster show wanted people to be thinking about such questions.

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