Museum of the Slightly Curious

The Return of Ultraman: Episodes 13-14

Some quick thoughts from watching through this Ultraman TV series from 1971.

13. Terror of the Tsunami Monster: Tokyo in Peril
14. Terror of the Two Giant Monsters: The Great Tokyo Tornado

Two-part episodes allow some variation in how Ultraman episodes usually work, departures from their almost ritualized structure. They offer rising stakes from Ultraman being defeated in his first encounter with the two-parter’s monster — or monsters in this case. Normally there’s not much actual suspense about whether our hero will defeat that week’s kaiju. An initial defeat raises the tension and offers at least the illusion of doubt about whether the monster can be stopped (though of course we know Ultraman will be victorious in the rematch).

Having a breeding pair of kaiju is also a nice variation on the monsters-of-the-week and gives them a logical motivation for their behavior. It’s odd how often legends and folktales about monsters are dismissed in Ultraman’s world. You would think researchers and anthropologists would be scouring the world for clues that any culture’s traditions would offer about monsters, given the high likelihood that there’s some truth in them. They sure tend to be helpful when a the legendary creature does, in fact, show up. Given the premise of a mated pair of monsters without malevolent intent, it was a sympathetic touch for this to be one of the rare stories where the kaiju are allowed to live.

This story is one of several in a row that will center on an individual’s physical and psychological trauma from encountering a kaiju, something that would be a logical consequence of living in such a world. These stories also involve disasters and accidents caused by monsters, but blamed on individuals who survived the events. They saw the monster, but no one believes them, which is another trauma they must endure. Again, I have to wonder with monster attacks being so common, why are these witnesses met with such skepticism? Are the courts of this world filled with people using monsters as excuses for their mistakes or incompetencies? This episode does suggest that insurance laws are pretty brutal here, with “acts of kaiju” not covered, unless definitively proven.

I doubt this was intentional, but a close reading of these episodes also suggests some important facts about the political situation about Japan in this narrative world. I mentioned in discussing “Dinosaur Denotation Order” that MAT appears to have very little authority to over public situations. That’s the case here as well: the owners of the industrial site where Seagorath and Seamons are trying to nest not only can easily ignore MAT’s requests, but also can order around the Self-Defense Force. Are these episodes depicting a dystopia Japan where corporations are the main authorities, with the government and military just their puppets? Another notable moment was when the plant operator expressed his belief that Ultraman would always just show up to save them if there was any trouble. Ultraman being the dependable savior, and not MAT.

Natural disasters are the stars in the tokusatsu of this episode, as much as the kaiju. Seagorath’s ability to summon up a storm and tsunami makes him one of the few actually scary monsters we’ve seen so far. I thought it interesting that even in Japan — which gave us the word tsunami, to replace our inaccurate term “tidal wave” — the phenomenon is depicted as a huge, crashing wave, rather than the slow, relentless, overwhelming flood that an actual tsunami is. Maybe until the modern day, when video recordings of them are widely available, few people anywhere had actually seen a tsunami. As for the other meteorological menace in these episodes, the tornado, I have the perspective of living in the Midwest of the United States. I have not personally seen a tornado, but I have grown up with them as a potential menace all my life. My dreams are certainly haunted by them. I know they do occur in Japan, but are rare. I don’t know how exotic or unnatural they might have seemed to Ultraman’s audience.

The special effects for both wave and twister are, for the most part, quite impressive here. Tsuburaya’s effects people has been masters of water for a long time. Winds are less common, and I don’t recall a full vortex before. Now sometimes they do resort to little more than swirls drawn on film, but other effects shots make up for those budget saving techniques.

The Return of Ultraman: Episodes 9-12

Some quick thoughts from watching through this Ultraman TV series from 1971.

09. Monster Island S.O.S

As we get into the double digits of Return of Ultraman episodes, the show is settling into a comfortable formula. I know there are changes to come, but for now the stories are coasting by, without a great deal to distinguish one from another. The kind of thing I recall after watching an episode such as “Monster Island S.O.S.” is MAT’s ongoing problem with discipline, and how somebody is always disobeying regulations and orders putting missions at risk for personal issues. I’m beginning to wonder if MAT, rather than being an elite squad of the best-of-best, with a vital role in the defense of humanity, is actually a minor department in the Terrestrial Defense bureaucracy, where they send troublemakers and oddballs who do not fit in anywhere else.

The monster plot itself in episodes such as this is barely memorable, even Ishiro Honda himself doing the directing.

I am though impressed by how developed the miniature work is getting to be. The hanger bay sequence with the various MAT aircraft undergoing maintenance worked particular well and was something we hadn’t really seen before. At about this same time, over in Great Britain, Gerry Anderson was starting to branch out from puppets shows to doing special effects for live action films such as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun and his TV series UFO. It’s interesting to watch the parallel development of tokusatsu from these two sources.

10. Dinosaur Detonation Order

One thing I find fascinating about the Ultraman franchise as whole is its creation of a “hyperreality.” It is not a depiction or representation of the “real” world. It is its own reality that follows its own laws and logic. Sometimes it is dreamlike, or like the stream-of-consciousness of children playing. Sometimes it drifts into metatext, almost incorporating an acknowledgement of its being a tokusatsu TV series. In “Dinosaur Detonation Order” we have children mentioning kaiju from Ultraman, such as Red King, as well as Godzilla. Are these monsters that exist within this show’s world? Or is do the Ultraman TV series and the Godzilla movie series exist there as media texts?

This episode has another great example of the unique, internal logic of this series: schoolchildren are on an archaeological field trip when an important dinosaur fossil is found. It’ll be so educational to let the kids excavate the fossil! And then there’s the question of whether a construction crew could so blithely decide to demolish such a find, particularly when it goes against the orders of a official organization such as MAT. But then maybe in the world of this show, so full of monsters, the remains of a dinosaur are trivial — though you’d think the possibility of such fossils coming alive, as they do here, to be a reasonable concern, given all the others kinds of things that go on.

Some interesting camera work in this episode as well, such as the top down view of the MAT’s meeting table as they discuss the situation. After Go and Minami object to the plan of destroying Stegon and are removed from the mission, the room goes dark except for the spot lights both highlighting and isolating the two objectors, in a very theatrically designed tableau.

11. Poison Gas Monster Appears

It would be interesting to survey how the events of World War II are examined in the Ultraman franchise, which often extols military power and values. The war does not come up often, but that it is ever a story element at all is a little surprising. Here the legacy of Kishida’s family’s as manufacturers of poison gas is part of both plot and character motivation.

A look at the backstory of one of the characters is a nice touch, though often these end up being one-offs that are never referred to again. I know this series is from a different era of television. Unlike today where everything is a serial drama and characters are expected to have “arcs,” in Ultraman’s day, shows were written without thought to narrative continuity or the order in which they were seen. Still, in both Return and Ultraseven, character details are just handed out at random, without contributing to the personal portrait of who these people are. I’d contrast this with the original Ultraman, where the supporting cast of Arashi, Ide, Fuji, and even the stoic “Cap,” had memorable, consistent personalities. I know I am only a dozen episodes in, so perhaps I am judging Return too quickly, and it will do more with its cast than Ultraseven did.

At least in some of these recent episodes Yuriko gets to go into the field, piloting MAT aircraft and engaging in monster combat. The female characters in Ultraman series have not exactly been given much to do. Poor Anne from Ultraseven only had the job of occasionally wearing a doctor’s coat and shouting “Dan!” a lot. Akiko Fuji from Ultraman’s SSSP with her wit, attitude, and charm has been greatly missed.

12. Monster Shugaron’s Revenge

The name of the “Science Patrol” in this series is MAT: Monster Attack Squad. And they do take that name seriously. If there is any sign of a monster, they go after it, with extermination as their goal. Investigation, examination, or alternative means of dealing with the situation never come up. Maybe afterwards there is some reflection on “Hmm… that monster had been threatened by humans moving into its territory” or a thoughts towards “too bad we had to violently attack it, thus leading to destruction, the death of a young girl, and the loss of priceless works of art. Oh, well…” It is true that these monsters do tend to be dangerous — Mognezun did kill a lot of people in “Poison Gas Monster Appears.” Yet even then, it seems the kaiju’s natural behavior was disrupted by the human-created poison it encountered.

This series does leaving me pondering what kind of world this is, fundamentally, with monsters being such a constant threat. The original Ultraman was a direct continuation of Ultra Q, with its theme of unbalance, and a planet where the forces of nature and reality were spinning out of control — and thus monsters. Ultraseven was all about extraterrestrial invasion. What is up with the why and how of monsters in Return of Ultraman? But then with issues such as climate change and pandemics in our world, we don’t seem too interested in dealing with them a core level, and just do the equivalent of running around shooting laser pistols at the symptoms.