Ultraman, Episodes 32, 33, 34, & 35

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

The Endless Counterattack

This is about as conventional as an Ultraman episode gets: a natural disaster is reported; turns out to be caused by a monster; the SSSP fights it; Ultraman finishes it off. The stars of the episode are the special effects, which are given both the time and budget to go all out. The flash fire rushing across the detailed scenery is authentically terrifying. We get two complete sequences of the SSSP dealing with an inferno and thoroughly fighting it to the last flame. There is also an extensive tank battle and many building crushing scenes. I felt some real concern for the suit actor, since the Zambolar costume itself appears to catch on fire a couple times…

The thought that human activity has driven this monster to go berserk is becoming a reoccurring theme in the series, along with the team’s regret at having to destroy it.

The one unusual element in the episode is the visit from Patty, an SSSP member from the India branch. The strangest thing is just why she is in the episode at all, as she doesn’t do anything besides provide a brief obstacle to Hayata transforming. It seems a odd waste of a guest star. I always suspect in these cases that an earlier draft of the script had more for her to do and rewrites or schedule problems got in the way. Her main justification for being in the story is to give her closing zinger about seeing Japan’s three specialties: earthquakes, monsters, and Ultraman.

The Forbidden Words

After the last very formulaic episode comes one that is anything but the usual. It’s also one that you can watch and just be thinking: okay another tricky alien, Mefilas, trying to temp Fuji’s brother into trading him the Earth and… wait a minute! “Mefilas” as in… Mephistopheles maybe? Mefilas is certainly an impressive, ominous design (no re-used monster bits here) who comes across as demonic without any of the usual visual short cuts.

And, as in Faust, Mefilas likes to show off his power with spectacular if pointless stunts. The most impressive of which is turning Fuji into a building destroying giant, switching the usual human to monster scale. It’s only fair to Hiroko Sakurai, who, back when she playing Yuriko in Ultra Q, was shrunk down to miniature size in one episode. A whole episode of Kaiju Fuji smashing away at Tokyo would have been cool.

An even stranger and more unnerving scene follows when Mefilas confronts Hayata. Not only does he directly address him as “Ultraman” but Hayata answers and accepts that address. “Are you a human, or an alien?” a confused Mefilas asks, with Hayata responding that he is both. For the first time in the entire series I feel he is not pretended to be Hayata, or acting the role of Ultraman. We are seeing the “real” composite entity — and it’s a little scary.

Fortunately this being is on Earth’s side, defending it along with Fuji’s brother Satoru, who knows with a child’s perception Earth should not be traded away for Mefilas’s promises. The most devilish thing about Mefilas is that, for all his claims to desire it, he doesn’t really want the Earth, literally; he wants Satoru to commit the sin of giving it away. His true goal, as he says, is to “test the human spirit.” One wonders if, like the Adversary of the Old Testament, he is not truly evil himself, but is an agent of a higher power…

He’s still not a nice guy. Mefilas has a temper, and even while protesting about despising violence, he’ll try and kick you in the head if he looses control. The thing that makes him unique from every other enemy so far is that when he calms down, he realizes the pointlessness of physical conflict (and it isn’t cowardice in any way, since he appears Ultraman’s equal in power). Satoru had already beaten him after all…

Present From the Sky

From the start, as this episode gets underway, one might start suspecting that Akio Jissoji is at it again, along with screenwriter Mamoru Sasaki. When we get to the shot pictured above, it’s pretty obvious that this another one of theirs.

I’d describe this one as being a self-parody skit that the Japanese branch members are putting on themselves, as part of the SSSP holiday party or something. There are bits, such their being awoken in the middle of the night and scrambling around in their pajamas, that are funny, but are probably hilarious to the team themselves (we spend so much time on duty it’s like we live here!). Add to that their constant eating — and drinking beer — on the job, the increasingly outlandish solutions to the Skydon problem, and the Scooby-Doo-like chased by the monster scene. Even Ultraman gets in on the self-roast, with Hayata trying to transform with a spoon, and being completely ineffectual fighting the monster.

Skydon itself is just a monster that happened to crash to the Earth one day. Snow, rain, umbrellas, (and suicides) at are all shown as falling things that shape our terrestrial life, disrupting whatever we might be planning for as well crawl across the ground. Even something as refined as a formal tea ceremony is under the whims of cherry blossoms and lark droppings. Or was the whole thing just setting up a reason for Fuji to wear a kimono?

The Monster Graveyard

Creative teams on Ultraman seem to have often worked on pairs of episodes, so this is the second of a set of Jissoji and Sasaki romps.

Recent episodes have brought up the Science Patrol’s regret at having to kill so many monsters. Their remorse is heighten by the discovery of “The Monster Graveyard,” a zone in space containing the bodies of kaiju that Ultraman hurled into space after defeating them — a thing he definitely does not do in the show, save for Gavadon, whom he made into a constellation. The normal end of a monster is to be blasted into flaming bits by a Spacium Beam. I wonder if there is some translation looseness in the English subtitles, and that the forms seen floating in space are actually meant to be ghosts, not literal bodies (they are presented as translucent images).

So saddened is everyone, Ultraman included, that the decided to hold a Buddhist funeral service for the monsters. And then you start wondering how serious this is really meant to be, when an alarm sounds and we see that the ceremony is being held right in the middle of the SSSP control room…

It seems a space rocket has crashed to earth carrying a weird skeletal monster called Seabozu. In another example of this episode’s jumbled continuity, that rocket is described as being Japan’s “first lunar rocket” — despite missions to Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn being prominent in earlier episodes. The 1960’s of course didn’t have our obsession with story “canon.” Even facts such as what year this series is taking place in are at the whim of whoever is writing that particular script.

Seabozu itself just wants to get back to the Monster Graveyard, as the SSSP realize after causing considerable collateral damage attacking the harmless kaiju. This premise pairs oddly with “Present From the Sky” which was also about attempts at returning a monster to space. None of the schemes from that story are tried here. What they do try — just tying Seabozu to another space rocket — is even less effective and well-thought out than any of those.

Fundamentally the problem is one of communication. Seabozu doesn’t understand that people, and Ultraman himself, are trying to help. Their initial attacks when it first showed didn’t make a good impression or earn much trust. Even building a rocket in Ultraman colors doesn’t get the message across too well, and Ultraman has to bully and strong arm Seabozu into accepting the rocket-powered lift.

“Present From The Sky” and this episode are not as visually experimental as some of Jissoji’s episodes. His striking camera work and unexpected compositions still make them stand out. Where he does go over the top are a few later shots where a colored gel is put over the lens, making it seem like the early attempts to colorize black-and-white films. Why does he do this in these shots, one might ask? Maybe he just found the gels lying around and wanted to use them? Or maybe it’s some deep reference to the history of Japanese cinema. There’s a lot of online information about the show’s monsters, the history of the suits, what sounds are used to make their roars, etc., but it isn’t easy to find, in English, more extensive information about topics like that. I’m still a newbie in Tokusatsu knowledge and lore.

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