Quick Thought: Chihayafuru

Another series I’ve started watching is the anime Chihayafuru. It’s the story of a group of young people playing competitive “karuta.” Oh, you think, a cartoon about kids and a game of memorizing traditional Japanese poetry, how… exciting… Except that it is incredibly intense. After just four episodes, the emotional level, is, if not turned up to “11,” pushing well into “10.” The show’s been running for three seasons, so I have to wonder where it can build to…

The production is very 21st Century, technically. One of the main visual motifs are the poetry cards sliding, scattering, and flying across the room. That’s a challenge to draw just in a comic, but doing it in traditional animation would be immensely difficult, all the more so since it’s important to see the writing on the cards. So while the characters in the anime are produced by hand on paper, the cards are computer graphics, rendered and them composited with the drawings. It’s done very impressively.

So where this will end up going, I don’t know (the originally comic has been coming out since 2007) but I’m looking forward to watching more.

Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 24-28

Finishing up my series of comments and observations on this classic 1960’s Japanese tokusatsu, or “special effects” series. Assume some Spoilers for each episode.

I’ll follow this up with an overview of my thoughts on the series as a whole.

The Idol of Goga

Ultra Q steps into the waters of yet another genre: this time with a secret agent story involving international art thefts, kidnapping, and lots of James Bond gadgets and plot twists. It’s a particularly violent and scary episode too, with several onscreen deaths, both from guns and from snail monster flesh melting eye beams. At first our usual trio of investigators seem in over their heads once they get caught up in it all, but even Ippei demonstrates he can be an action hero when necessary.

Speaking of “necessary,” the giant monster in this episode might not strictly have been needed, but it did increase the tension, with an escalating threat in addition to the main plot’s chases, fights, and gunplay. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many of the kaiju in the series have been puppets, giving it some nonhumanoid variety, rather than every threat being a man in a monster suit.

Devil Child

The Devil Child

Episodes have been getting kind of grim lately. Alien invaders or giant monsters are one thing, murderous ghost children are something else. There’s not only the child in danger aspect, but there’s almost a cruelty in the glimpses into the lives of victims just before their untimely ends. Characters make a couple puzzling references to “the ghost girl and the doll,” which I’m guessing is a well-known legend or folklore ghost story. What’s happening in the episode may be a modern, sci-fi update of that story. Ultra Q is sometimes compared with The X-Files, but this is really the first story that could easily be made to work for either show.

Ultra Q’s occasional narrative framing uses a phrase commonly translated as “Your eyes will leave your body,” but in these subtitles is “You will experience a separation of mind and body.” That is literally what this episode is about, so maybe it is based on an older script from before the show became so monster focused. It also emphasizes that these events are occurring due to the Unbalance that fills the modern world. Unbalance that can make even an innocent child into a devil.

Blazing Victory

Some episodes of Ultra Q have a monster inserted in them for less than justified reasons. This one might get described that way — but I don’t think it should. Joe’s pet lizard is a reflection of the Unbalance that comes to haunt him. He at first he is using “Peter” to reinforce his own confidence, by claiming the animal is predicting the outcomes of his fights. When doubts begin to haunt him and he runs away, hiding as a stage show clown, Peter’s own form becomes unstable. The crisis of Joe’s internal conflict is what brings about the crisis of Peter escaping and becoming a rampaging kaiju. The connections between the Unbalancing of mind, body, and nature is the central theme of the show.

If I was a producer of this episode what I’d be wondering is not why the script needs a giant monster, but do we really need to spend all that money to build this intricate miniature dock and marina, just to incinerate it in a huge fire just because it’ll look cool?

Manga cover

The Disappearance of Flight 206

The above manga cover makes this episode look quite a bit more exciting that it actually is… An airliner disappears into a time-space vortex and gets attacked by a giant walrus. Not much else to say about this one, try as I might. I kind of think somebody in the Tsuburaya special effects department developed some impressive looking vortex techniques with a cloud tank and they needed some excuse to use them. Plus there was this walrus suit lying around left over from another movie. Maybe this series’ lavish budget was running low?

Trapped onboard

Open Up!

The final episode comes with no giant monster in sight, though with lots of unnerving optical effects. It’s haunting note to end on — that the only escape from the pressures and anxieties of the Unbalanced, modern world is into fantasy and imagination — and perhaps madness (reminiscent of Terry Gillian’s Brazil, nearly 20 years later).

This story is the only one to suggest that Jun and Yuriko have a romantic relationship. In the past Ippei clearly has a crush on Yuri-chan, but otherwise the gang has just been good friends and adventuring companions. And I felt bad that the couple were so mean to Ippei, ditching him with his arms full of groceries. I rather hoped the episode would end with him playing some trick on them to get his revenge. Maybe there was an intent to show the consequences of thoughtlessly running away from responsibilities?

Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 20-23

Short comments and observations on this classic 1960’s Japanese tokusatsu, or “special effects” series. Assume some Spoilers for each episode.

The Undersea Humanoid Ragon


It would be fascinating to see a natural history textbook from the world of Ultra Q. The existence of giant monsters seems an accepted part of things. People are surprised at the appearance of a kaiju, but not shocked and horrified. In the 1954 Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Gillman is a discovery that overturns every conventional theory of biology and evolution. In Ultra Q, a geologist can casually pick up a text book that explains, with illustrations, about the race of aquatic humanoids that existed 250 million years ago — and continue to thrive today, beneath the sea. Supposedly they only have the IQ of “a gorilla,” but it is hard not to think of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Deep Ones,” who, immortal and vastly more advanced that we apes, have been the true superior life forms of Earth for eons.

As other episodes have shown —with the week’s monster appearing in the opening credits — Japanese shows have a different sense of mystery and suspense than we are used to in the West. Fans of anime from the 80’s and 90’s are used to major “spoilers” being given away in just the title of an episode. If Citizen Kane had been an anime, its title might have been: “Rosebud: the Mysterious Sled of Nostalgic Youth!” So with Ultra Q we are used to episodes begun with titles such as “The Undersea Humanoid Ragon,” which kind of gives away a lot.

Space Directive M774


If you had a friend who started going on about seeing a UFO and how a voice starting talking to them through a doll, warning of alien invasion, you’d probably be justified in suspecting a joke, mind-altering substances, or mental disturbance. But given what the characters of Ultra Q have experienced so far, I think Jun and Ippei are a little too quick to dismiss Yuriko’s account of such things. Those are not the strangest things that have happened to these characters so far in this show.

Despite ominous warnings, the monster Bostang is that most unusual of mysterious creatures, one that is easily dealt with by human military power. The would-be invaders from Planet Keel didn’t do due diligence in researching Earth’s defenses. The true creepiness in this episode comes from the “good” alien Zemi, who can hijack our technology, instantly create a false human identity, and reveals that extraterrestrials have thoroughly infiltrated Earth society and live among us everywhere, enjoying the paradise our planet appears to be.


Either for budgets reasons or just because it’s an idea that’s hard to resist, this series featuring giant monsters decided to have an story about a giant… giant — that is, a human who grows to Godzilla proportions. What’s interesting visually is that this episode does much more with low camera angles, lenses, and slow motion to create the effect of an enormous creature than is usually done when featuring a ”normal” monster of the same scale. The “realism” of the giant required more careful cinematography than the fantasy of a 50 meter tall lizard, ape, or weirdo space alien. Contrast this with the early “giants” in “The 1/8th Project,” which were shot with more conventional camera work. Even though their proportions relative to their environment were exactly the same as here, they came across as normal human in a miniature world, rather than as giants.

Also this was anther episode where I wondered if the English translation left something out of the script, such as some more explanations about why Prof. Ichinotani had so conveniently invented a weapon that could counter-act the butterfly gigantification poison almost immediately just before it was needed to save the day.

Fury of the South Seas

Though it might not seem that way from our contemporary media experiences, Ultra Q was an expensive program for its time. Even with that budget, in this episode we have some fairly obvious stock footage, both of soldiers, and of reused effects shots from another film. There are pretty good effects though, including an actual octopus photographed to look gigantic — these come off better than the iguanas used as dinosaurs you seem in many American monster films.

Some sociopolitical issues get raised but glossed over in this story, with how casually outside forces decide to try and kill the “god” that has been protecting an isolated island culture from the rest of the world. But that’s a wide-spread mythic form, with a local group sacrificing of lives (either deliberately or through complaisance) to a dragon or other beast, in return for its beneficence. Until, that is, a hero arrives to reveal the monster’s evil, and then slay it

If you are interested in the popular culture aspect of Ultra Q, I recommend checking out the website Black Sun. Among other things they have some fun images from Ultra Q manga adaptations.

Ultra Q Manga

Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 16-19

Short comments and observations on this classic 1960’s Japanese tokusatsu, or “special effects” series. Assume some Spoilers for each episode.

Garamon Toy

Garamon Strikes Back

Ultra Q has not been widely viewed in the United States, even by monster movie fans. In 1967 CBS licensed the series, and even produced an English dub, but did not pursue it further. In Japan though the series was foundational to the science fiction and special effects genre, like Star Trek had been in America and Dr. Who in England. Several monsters from the show have become stars themselves, appearing in other programs and continuing to be popular toys. One of these is Garamon, also know as Pigmon from when it became part of the Ultraman monster menagerie. So Garamon returns for an episode that follows up the earlier “Garadama.” There is also another new element: an enemy with a human face — or at least the appearance of one. We meet the specific extraterrestrials that are using the Garamon creatures to attack Earth. At least that is what we can only assume they are doing, as they no interest in communicating their goals and motivations. Space aliens concealing themselves among humans, hidden flying saucers, and remotely controlled monsters reoccur in the genre throughout the decades.

The 1/8 Solution

When Ultra Q was being developed, and still with the working title of Unbalance, it wasn’t intended to be so focused on “kaiju” — mysterious creatures. Early testing showed that people liked giant monsters quite a lot, so they became the central feature of the series. This episode though seems like a script from the earlier vision of a Twilight Zone or Outer Limits like series. Through most of the episode you’re thinking: hmm, an Ultra Q without giant monsters — but then at the end it turns out there are, after a sort. Seeing ordinary humans clomping around a typical Godzilla-scale miniature city is a weird bit of cognitive dissonance. Another aspect of the crazy world Ultra Q puts us in (“experiencing a parting of mind and body” as the show’s introduction puts it) is that you can’t make predictions about what its reality will consist of. If we were watching an episode of I Love Lucy and she was shrunken down to doll-size, we’d be expecting it to turn out to be a dream. In Ultra Q you never have that reassurance…

The Rainbow’s Egg

If you are transporting enriched uranium, I don’t know which is the most irresponsible: using an ordinary moving truck without additional security or military escort, or not preparing for the possible appearance of a giant monster with a molecular destruction beam known to be digging through the earth searching for radioactive food. This episode once again shows us a monster in the opening credits, giving the audience what the came for. There is also a rich mix of folklore, super science, charming kiddies, mass devastation, and a weapon nearly as apocalyptically destructive as the Oxygen Destroyer from the 1954 Godzilla, but without the angst.

Kemur Man

Challenge from the Year 2020

An episode exploring the dangers of toxic social media and of the rich and powerful exploiting people’s fears and insecurities to entrench their privilege and… Oh, sorry… that’s not this particular nightmare of the 1966’s future. This episode is almost at a Philip K. Dick level of reality warping, with an alien invasion following the plot of a science fiction novel written by a scientist whose research discovered too much. What is the the X-Channel Light, and does it bring life, death, or visions of a future where our super-advanced descendants have warped themselves into bizarre horrors on a mad quest for immortality? And once you’ve been transmitted through the X-Channel, can we trust that you are ever truly “you” again? Probably the scariest Ultra Q yet, with a suit performance that highlights how weird body language is what it takes to make a truly creepy monster. Also a guest appearance by Japanese Lt. Columbo.

Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 12-15

Short comments and observations on this classic 1960’s Japanese tokusatsu, or “special effects” series. Assume some Spoilers for each episode.

I Saw a Bird

Many episodes of Ultra Q reveal their premise immediately, as when that week’s monster appears in the opening credits. This time there a real mystery. Some aerial phenomenon leads to zoo animals bursting from their cages and disappearing. A 1000 year old sailing ship appears in a fishing harbor. A young boy runs away to his private island playground. They are all linked by a small white finch — which is also giant prehistoric bird that maybe is moving through time and space along an unknowable 4th Dimensional journey. Maybe. Just because there is a mystery doesn’t mean there is a solution.



Even in the 1960’s when Ultra Q aired, we were already sending automated probes into space. Since it does not get much headline news coverage it’s easy to forget that a plutonium powered robot is prowling around poking at things on a Mars this very minute. If there was primitive life on Mars, what would it make of such an entity? And what would we make of a probe sent to Earth by a species vastly more advanced than us? Could we only comprehend it as a bizarre monster with inexplicable goals and behaviors? We might, with our human ingenuity, manage to damage or deactivate it, but could we ever understand it or its purpose?

Tokyo Ice Age

Something of a new phase begins for Ultra Q, with the return of Peguila, a monster from an earlier episode. Ultra Q can be very efficient in telling a story in a half-hour episode, but occasionally ideas show up that could have worked in a longer format. A boy walks to Tokyo in search of his father, a seasonal worker who never returned home. This man is actually an ace Zero pilot from the War, who has turned to drink and become a jewel thief. At first he cares little about the giant monster destroying the city, but a reunion with his son inspires him to take up his old skills and defeat the monster, at the cost of his life. In what time the episode actually has to work with, the plot points of that story are only briefly touched on. And that’s not even getting into topics such as how climate change was already a concern back in the 60’s. We do get to see Yuri-chan busy at her job as reporter and photographer, which is always fun.



The opening credits of an episode are often our only clue as to what kind of story is heading our way. They might empathize the scary, go for the surf-music jive of the show’s usual main theme, or as in this case, a playful march with prancing ragamuffins. The earlier “Grow Up! Little Turtle” mixed a child’s fantasy with reality and folklore, but this time almost everything could be attributed to an elaborate let’s pretend — except the surreal sequence when Kaneo transforms, which is like something out of Dali. The Japanese folklore tradition of “yokai” seems important to comprehend the craziness of this episode, with Kameo’s parents warning him that his misbehavior would turn him into a living, cursed money purse — which is exactly what does befall him. Neither Jun, Ippei, nor Yuriko appear at all in this episode, a first for the series so far.

Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 8-11

Short comments and observations on this classic 1960’s Japanese tokusatsu, or “special effects” series. Assume some Spoilers for each episode.

Sweet Honey

Terror of the Sweet Honey

In less than a half-hour this episode tells a complete kaiju story: scientific experiments appear to create a giant monster. Human foibles and passions are revealed as the true cause of the disaster. Remorse and self-sacrifice (along with military firepower) end the menace. That the situation occurs at all is due to the zone of unbalance that modern humankind has created both in the world, and in our hearts. This is the central idea of Ultra Q as a concept. We also see why this was such an expensive TV show in its day. Not only is there a giant mole monster and consequences, but the episode also presented a catastrophic train crash, a barrage of rockets destroying a hillside, and a volcanic eruption – none of which were strictly necessary to tell the story.

Baron Spider

In many of the episodes so far, our three continuing characters have been little more than observers to the unbalanced events going on around them. This time they are right in the middle of it – it being a classic haunted house story, one with giant spiders and a bit of Edgar Allen Poe. Once again you never know what genre Ultra Q will put us in each time. The episode also shows their typical disregard for western traditions of suspense and concealment of a menace until a climactic moment: if an Ultra Q episode is going to feature a giant spider, then they are going to show you a giant spider in the opening credits! That life-sized puppet was expensive so they are going to give it as much screen time as they can.


The Underground Super Express Goes West

It’s just my opinion, but I think the development of a completely synthetic life form capable of accelerated growth and human level intelligence is a bigger deal than a very fast underground train. Yet in this episode the latter gets big press coverage, while the former is just casually mentioned. It’s treated a bit too casually it turns out. With a high tech transportation system and elaborate miniatures that exist mostly to explode spectacularly, much of this episode felt like the British puppet show Thunderbirds — which was very popular in Japan. We also get two boys in a trench coat pretending to be a adult, so this episode has a lot going on, to say the least. The featured monster here is said to be modeled on a popular Japanese comedian of the day. Maybe that is a clue that could explain the cryptic lasts words as the monster flies into space: “I am seagull!” It could be as if this had been an American show, and the monster had white hair, an arrow through its head, played a banjo and said “I’m a wild and crazy guy!” Or it could be an Anton Chekhov reference.


From the comedy of last episode, we quickly jump back to a dangerous monster story tinged with personal lost and grief. I wonder sometimes about the clarity of the English translation of Ultra Q. This episode gets kind of fuzzy in its timeline, with events sometimes seeming to have occurred recently and sometimes years ago. Our three heroes are again directly involved in the action, with poor Ippei-kun getting badly injured, and thus establishing a personal connection between the characters and the plight of hospitals dealing with patients who can’t be evacuated away from monster danger. Balloonga is itself an interesting monster, since it is not malevolent or intentionally destructive. Its energy absorbing metabolism is its natural biology, just one that is incompatible with our civilization.

Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 4-7

Seven episodes in and Ultra Q has established itself as a show where just about anything can happen. When you start an episode there’s no telling what kind of story might be coming, other that it will probably involve a giant monster of some sort. Here are a few comments and observations. Assume some Spoilers for each episode.

Ultra Q

Mammoth Flower

The original title of the series was “Unbalance” and this episode is an expression of that theme. Humanity has unbalanced nature and events such as a giant blood-drinking flower blossoming in downtown Tokyo are just going to happen. “It’s a time when you don’t know what will fall from the sky,” a character says.

Some different special effects techniques were used in this episode. Eiji Tsuburaya, whose company produced Ultra Q is known for miniatures, pyrotechnics, and monster suits, but this episode experimented with stop motion, photographic backdrops, and compositing. It’ll be interesting to see if the show continues to try new approaches to depicting this out of balance world.

Peguila is Here!

This is the first episode so far that really doesn’t make much sense. There’s a mishmash of ideas that don’t fit together or are ever adequately explained. In some scenes it’s just unclear what is actually happening or even where characters are and what they are seeing. Some of the blame might go to poor translation, but this could be a script that never had a clear idea of where it was going from the start.


Grow Up! Little Turtle

Occasionally Ultra Q will remind you that it is a show from the 60’s. Trippy is how you’d describe this mixture of reality, child’s fantasy, slapstick comedy, and fairytale. Our usual crew of Jun, Yuriko and Ippei make a cameo appearance, suggesting that at least some of what is happening is “real” but since the main character of the episode is named after a well-known figure from Japanese folklore, things get “meta” quickly.

S.O.S. Mount Fuji

This episode seems written around two distinct ideas, but the half-hour format doesn’t have enough room to fully explore either. There’s a monster awoken by volcanic activity at Mt. Fuji and a regional “Tarzan” who has been living in the woods on his own since infancy. It’s mostly plot convenience that two ever cross paths. But I’ll give this episode points for something I thought only occurred in 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, that is, a human being taking out a kaiju in direct hand-to-hand combat. The episode also features a bungling but well intentioned rural policeman, who I suspect is a stock comedic character that Japanese viewers would be familiar with.