Museum of the Slightly Curious

Ultraman Final Thoughts

An epilogue for my viewing of the original Ultraman TV series.

I knew Ultraman was going to be about a team of special forces wielding high-tech weapons against giant monsters with the help of an alien superhero. So I can’t accurately say I didn’t know what to expect from this series. It certainly is all those things. Yet nothing I had read about this classic special effects show had led me to anticipate its box-of-chocolates sampler of different styles, tones, genre riffs, and visual techniques. Aside from the Science Patrol, a kaiju or two, and Ultraman himself, a viewer did not know what they were in for from one episode to the next.

Having watched Ultra Q I was somewhat educated for what would come, just not expecting its anything goes approach to continue so strongly. Nor had I realized quite how much experimental art and avant-garde design was behind the look of Ultraman. The series and its monsters occasionally drift into the surreal, because, well, there were surrealists working on it.

It might be important to remember that the Batman TV series was on the air at the same time as this original Ultraman. Would viewers in Japan have been aware of it yet? Batman TV is the closest thing I can think of to compare with some episodes of this show. But then Batman was parodying long established traditions in superhero stories. Ultraman gets into poking fun at a genre it essentially invented. I don’t think Ultraman ever becomes “camp” but it does edge toward meta. That’s something that will influence my view of every kaiju film, toksatsu adventure series, or super sentai show that came afterwards.

Another lasting effect of this series is that so much of Neon Genesis Evangelion makes more sense now (artistically at least). I knew that Hideaki Anno, the creator of 1995-96 anime, was a big Ultraman fan (even making his own homemade Ultraman movie), but I hadn’t grasped how much of the visual style of Evangelion was born from Ultraman. The connections Evangelion and Ultraman are a huge topic I’d like to explore someday, especially with the circle being closed by Anna’s upcoming Shin Ultraman feature film.

Ultra Q spawned Ultraman which spawned a franchise that continues today. I’ve seen a little of the current 2020 series, Ultraman Z — and it looks as wild as ever. I have several other series, new and old, waiting for me to watch. I’ve actually just started the 2013 Neo Ultra Q, and then I’ll likely go back to the original sequence, with Ultraseven. I can’t say yet how much blogging I’ll do about those shows. Given what I’ve seen so far, I’m expecting quite a journey.

Ultraman, Episodes 36, 37, 38, & 39

Finishing up my quick thoughts from watching through this classic Japanese Special Effects TV series.

Don’t Shoot Arashi!

We can take as given that there is a lot in this episode that is outlandish and makes little sense from a conventional narrative point of view. We’ll just move ahead with that out of the way. Monster appears, causes trouble, has to be dealt with. Okay.

This is might be the only episode that touches on the SSSP’s position in any larger organization or chain of command. There are, in turns out, people overseeing their activities and who can give them orders. This episode is all about following, and not following, orders. The focus is on Arashi, who, as a man of action, can’t deal with the command to not attack the monster Zaragas when they discover it adapts to attacks used against it, and it grows more aggressive the more it’s confronted.

The episode does a good job of putting Arashi into a personal dilemma. It’s not just his own shoot first attitude, but his authentic heroism and desire to help those in need that get him in trouble. With innocents in danger, and the potential to help them — Ide’s newly invented QX Gun — being the person who he is gives him no choice but to disobey orders and attack Zaragas, even if it means throwing away his career at the SSSP.

It’s a strong premise, but unfortunately lacks a good resolution. Without Ultraman’s intervention it would have been a disaster, since all the warnings about attacking Zaragas are accurate. Arashi’s disobedience does help Ultraman, but he still did disobey direct orders. I wouldn’t want him kicked off the Science Patrol, but I think even if I had seen this story when I was the age of its target audience, I would have felt some dissatisfaction at how few consequences there were to Arashi’s actions. He gets reinstated with barely a punishment, despite how severe his crime was supposed to have been. In this and the next few episodes I have some objections that might seem curmudgeonly, but which I think my 10-year old self would have agreeded with.

The Little Hero

Why does Pigmon unexpectedly appear at a department store? Why are there Pigmon toys on display on the shelves behind him? Why, for that matter, is Pigmon alive at all, given his death back in “The Lawless Monster Zone”? That lasts question is one the SSSP should have asked, because it turns out to have a rather significant answer.

Pigmon has something important to say and at least they grasp the importance of figuring out that message. Both Dr. Gonda, a linguist studying dolphin communication, and Ide get to work on translating Pigmon’s language. It’s unclear if they are working together on the project, or competitively. In any case eventually Pigmon’s warning is understood: he and other kaiju have been return to life by Geronimon, a psychic monster who is resurrecting an army of 60 defeated monsters to destroy the SSSP!

There are internal issues to face as well. The usually cheerful Ide hasn’t been keeping up with weapon maintenance because of a deepening depression. Why should he be working so hard when most of the Science Patrol’s efforts are futile? Isn’t it Ultraman who always saves the day? Why even bother with the Spark Bomb, his newest super weapon invention? The teammate he confesses these doubts to is of course Hayata, which is awkward to say the least.

There are monsters out there to be fought though: a resurrected Telesdon and Dorako. Dorako puzzled me at first, since he’s physically changed from “The Mysterious Comet Tsuifon.” The reference to 60 monster brought back to life did suggest that the SSSP has killed a lot of monsters, even before Ultraman showed up, so I wondered if Dorako was just one of them. Telesdon goes down when when Cap, Fuji, and Arashi combine the power of their Super Guns in a, sigh, previously unrevealed tactic. I know, I know, the idea is to start reinforcing the fact that the SSSP does not always need Ultraman to save the day. I just wish they could have established more things earlier on, rather that pulling them out of a hat so suddenly.

Hayata and Ide are going after Dorako, but Ide doesn’t want to do anything but wait for Ultraman to show up. As Dorako is about to get them, it’s brave Pigmon who rushes out to act as a distraction, and gets crushed by much larger and annoyed kaiju. Shocked by the courageous sacrifice and Hayata’s berating, Ide finally acts and uses the Spark Bomb to utterly annihilate Dorako. Ide was not kidding around when he came up with this super weapon.

The feathered Geronimon himself finally appears, as does Ultraman. The two engage in a battle of both strength and telekinesis. It ultimately takes cooperation between Ultraman and Ide to save the day. The victory has come at a cost though: for the second time Pigmon meets his end. I don’t want to be too harsh, but the death kinda was Ide’s fault, since he could have taken out Dorako if he’d had the courage. At least he seems to have learned a lesson.

The Spaceship Rescue Command

Even the most straightforward adventure focused stories in Ultraman usually have something unique about their approach. This time it’s rocket powered mission to Space! This episode seems a loving homage to sci-fi adventure movies of the 50’s such as Rocketship X-M, Red Planet Mars, or Angry Red Planet.

A strange phenomenon related to a probe exploring “Planet Q” sends the SSSP (except for Fuji, who gets “Uhuru-ed” and stays behind to run communications) out to investigate. They hop aboard an actual interplanetary spacecraft — not just a boosted VTOL — and blast off to a remote space station. The series has now, I believe, achieved a perfect 0% consistency about what space flight technology exists in its world. Along the way they must survive a sudden meteor swarm — something that always happens in these space adventures!

The station is in danger and needs a special part from the space probe on Planet Q for repairs, with only a limited amount of time before it explodes! A tense ticking clock mission unfolds and the heroes must face hazardous alien terrain and two giant monsters to reach the probe in time. One, Kiyla, they can handle, but the second, Saigo, is a bigger problem since it produces blinding flashes on light. A lot of injury to the eye stories recently. That would have been upsetting to me as a kid. Even Ide’s newest weapon — yep, another one — doesn’t help (though it is a cool looking one, a sort of rapid fire handheld rocket launcher). The characters’ bravery and ingenuity keeps them in the game until Ultraman arrives. Even he has a hard time, as Saigo shrugs off his usual attacks and blinds Ultraman for a time. Fortunately, his list of superpowers is extensive, and Ultra Psychokinesis final wins the day.

Farewell, Ultraman

If you look for it, you can find a certain amount of narrative escalation in the later episodes of Ultraman. There has been the increasing sense of unease and doubt about the killing of so many monsters. There have been some meta-threats such as the Monster Graveyard, or the kaiju-resurrecting Geronimon, that refer back to previous stories. Now there is a space armada heading towards Earth, targeting the SSSP specifically. Has this been building behind the scenes for some time? Have recent monsters that have appeared out of nowhere, such as Skydon or Zaragas, been initial scouts or feints to test the Earth? The Zetton are revealed to have advance agents and have worked to infiltrate the Science Patrol HQ. The actual invasion seems to be the culminating strike of a careful plan.

And it’s a plan that works well. The Zetton know how and where to strike and their kaiju has a weapon that attacks Ultraman’s weaknesses and defeats him without a lot of difficulty. Given that this is the concluding episode, and that Japanese shows can get a little harsh, I wasn’t 100% certain that Dr. Iwamoto and Fuji were even going to survive!

The ultimate resolution is little spoiled for me by the two story conceits that it depends on. First is that the Zetton monster was taken out by yet another new super weapon that suddenly appears on the scene. That’s the fourth in four episodes. Developing a super monster killer might have made for a good ongoing storyline, which would have contributed to the theme that the Earth shouldn’t rely on Ultraman always being there. Some connection with Ide’s weapon in “The Little Hero” would have worked well. As is, it just becomes a convenient story device.

The other problem is actual resolution to Ultraman’s story. The debate between Zoffy and a Ultraman is a touching one, with Ultraman maintaining that Hayata’s life is more valuable than his, and, if only one of them can survive, it should be Hayata. That sentiment is then undercut by Zoffy conveniently having two lives with him, so they can both survive. You know he could have mentioned that at the start and avoided all the angst. I suppose that the show’s creators thought it would be too distressing (or confusing) if Ultraman did die, leaving Hayata back to normal — again I think even 10-year old me would have found that way out of the dilemma to be a cheat.

I didn’t intend to wrap up these comments on a negative note, but that is where the conclusion left me. There will be one final post summoning up my thoughts on the series as a whole.