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.

Tarō

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.

Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 1-3

The recent Blu-ray release of Ultra Q is my first chance to watch this legendary 1966-67 Japanese sci-fi series. Created by Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects master behind the original run of Godzilla movies, Ultra Q is often described as cross between Outer Limits and X-Files. It is the adventures of a team of reporters, pilots, and scientists who investigate and deal with weird events, usually involving giant monsters.

Ultra Q team

Which leads us to the 500,000 lbs. kaiju in the room. While in its time this was a very expensive TV show to produce, today the special effects in Ultra Q, with its floppy monsters suits and miniature sets, can look cheap and ridiculous – though I’m not sure if the rubbery CGI common today is really that much better. If your reaction is that this all looks worthy of only a Mystery Science Theater treatment, Ultra Q isn’t a show for you. If you sincerely like Godzilla movies, and can appreciate the craft, ingenuity, and imagination that went into such a show, it’s a lot of fun. In those ways, Ultra Q is rather like the older seasons of Dr. Who, which was airing in England at the same time.

The right way to approach Ultra Q is that it, again like Dr. Who, is fundamentally a children’s program, one with entertainment value for older viewers as well. Besides the monsters smashing buildings, over the first three episodes more and more thoughtful ideas are introduced. Episode one “Defeat Gomess” is the troupe of a nerdy kid who could solve the monster problem if only adults would listen to him. “Goro and Goro,” like most stories with a giant monkey, has King Kong inspired themes, that fear and aggression make monsters out of nature and that for some problems: ”You don’t need weapons, you just need a heart.” By episode three, “Gift from Space,” we are considering whether humans reaching out into space might be breaking cosmic laws and customs we are too ignorant to understand, and that space aliens aren’t contacting us because we are still too violent and destructive for extraterrestrial civilization.

Martian Slug

The third episode also has already taken our monsters from a reused Godzilla suit to a slimy giant slug from Mars. A lot of the fun of this show is from seeing what kind of crazy creature will star in each episode. I’m also wondering where the world view of the show, the portrait of a technological society on the brink of discovering a much greater universe will go. More thoughts to come as I watch further episodes.

Quick Thought: Proust on the BBC

BBC Radio 4 is currently presenting an adaptation of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time as a 10 Episode audio drama. Any dramatization of Proust has a lot of challenges, the shear length of the work being only the first. Just the first volume, Swann’s Way, is over 20 hours long as an unabridged audio book. Monty Python’s “Summarizing Proust” routine is as relevant as ever.

I’ve listened to the first two episodes so far and my reaction is… mixed.

Episode One covers the first half of Swann’s Way, describing narrator’s childhood in the French countryside. Like many BBC radio adaptations of books, the presentation is very narration heavy, which works well for the recollections and internal musings that make up this part of the book. The Narrator is performed by Derek Jacobi, and you kind of wish the whole thing could be just his reading of the book. There are a few performed scenes of the Narrator as a child with his family. And here are the first few problems. In the book the exact age of the Narrator is problematic; in this section he must be a young child, probably under 10 years old. The child actor does a decent, articulate job — but he is no Derek Jacobi, and the comparison is hard to ignore. The young actor is clearly reading from a script, but an even bigger issue is that the words Proust gives his younger self to say, the subject matter, and the emotional tone are not those of a child that age. You can let it slip by when it is on a page, especially when understanding that what you are reading is an older man reminiscing about his youth. Actually hearing it from a child makes it harder to accept.

Episode Two transitions into the story of Swann and his unfortunate marriage. This episode has much less narration and presents a series of scenes of society life in Paris. It is an assortment of characters and incidents from the second half of the first volume. I think this episode could have used more narration, since events move quickly and a lot of names are introduced. It was entertaining to hear the members of the Verdurin’s “Little Clan” speak for themselves, yet the Narrator’s perspectives, opinions, and judgements of all these goings on are an important element of the text, so I missed that voice. You don’t want to go too far with narration, or you do end up with little more than an audiobook. At least in these two episodes the balance between narration and “action” does not quite work for me.

One choice the production makes that I thoroughly agree with is that none of these British actors affect a French accent. It is a very French story, but if all your characters are assumed to be French people speaking French, nothing is gained by having English performers speak English words in a French accent.

These two episodes do not entirely cover the first volume, which leaves me concerned that the fast pace will only get worse as the series attempts to get through all seven books. Then I recall that in some of the latter volumes such The Prisoner and The Fugitive not a lot happens, at least in terms of the plot advancing or characters actually doing things, so a dramatic adaptations could get through them fairly efficiently…

This BBC production is available for streaming at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0007xsq Most BBC radio programs are only up on their site for a limited period, so have a listen in the next few weeks. If I have more thoughts on the rest of the series I may have a follow up post later.

Quick Thought: Watched This Weekend

Things I watched this weekend:

For Me and My Gal (Busby Berkeley, 1942)

I wasn’t too familiar with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly’s work together, but after seeing a clip of one of their numbers from this film I was quite interested in watching it. This was Kelly’s first film and Garland’s first role as an adult character. Berkeley’s direction is described as having “unusually elegant restraint.” That’s very true: no elaborate glittering sets constructed out of showgirls’ bodies.

I was surprised by the amount of emotional angst and drama in the story. I knew it involved World War I, yet was disconcerted by how much it became a pro-war film by the end. The movie was made during WW II, but even then was this a good way to rally patriotic support, with the message of ‘”We had such a grand time that last war, let’s do it again!”?

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Mamoru Hosoda, 2006)

In recent years there has been a trend in Japanese animated films of what I would call magical realism (though a literary scholar might object to my use of the term). Stories of ordinary people, often of middle or high school students, who have some extraordinary or magical event suddenly disrupt their lives. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was one of this first that I heard about, with the style perhaps reaching its apex with Makoto Shinkai’s 2016 your name. I want to learn more about the history and context of films such as these, and see more of the work by Hosoda, Shinkai, and others.

Young Justice (DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Animation)

A series long on my “to watch” list, I’m finally into the first season of this animated superhero saga. The tale of former kid sidekicks growing into adult heroes is historically the “Teen Titans,” both in comics and animation. This series sets itself apart from the history of that name. It is a separate continuity from the main DC Universe, and not based on any existing comic story, even while using classic characters from the original Teen Titans, such as Robin and Kid Flash. Newer characters such as Miss Martian and Conner Kent, along with an entirely new version of Aqualad are included as well. It is a serious adventure, with ongoing storylines and character development, influenced by the dramatic structures of Japanese animated series.

The show takes its audience seriously as well, believing viewers can follow events and situations that unfold over multiple episodes. And even while presenting new interpretations of established characters, it assumes anybody watching knows, say, who Lex Luthor is and why you shouldn’t trust him. It even takes a characters that are usually dismissed as jokes, such as Sportsmaster, and makes them a functional part of the world it is building.

Quick Thought: Batman: The Brave and the Bold

I have something of a nerd confession: I’m not that big a fan of Batman. Sure, he’s fine as a character, but he’s never going to appear on my list of favorite superheroes. I’m not that interested for a reason that is probably opposite to why a lot of people do like Batman: I like the more fantastic, weirdo, and sci-fi elements of the superhero genre (as demonstrated by how much I’m writing about Doom Patrol here).

Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski‘s 1992-1995 Batman: The Animated Series was an amazing achievement and transformed the world of TV adventure animation in many ways. Mask of the Phantasm is my favorite Batman feature film, even including the recent live action ones. But I enjoy the animated series mostly for its technical achievements, artistic innovations, and now classic performances — not, in the end, because it is about Batman.

I get more personal enjoyment from the 2008-2011 series Batman: The Brave and the Bold. This show was inspired by the long-running comic of the same name that featured team-ups of two DC Comics superheroes — usually Batman and someone else. If you are looking for a “realistic” gravel-voice Dark Knights then this not a show for you. It is not camp like the 60’s Batman TV show, but is playful and fun, though with a lot comic book violent action. Stories are fast moving with danger and high stakes, or at least the appearance of them; there’s never any doubt that Batman and his partner will triumph by the end of the episode.

To the delight of an old comic reader such as myself, the series makes full use of the imaginative toy box of the DC comic universe. In just the four episodes Batman visits an alien planet, Dinosaur Island, Atlantis, and King Arthur’s Britain, all drawing from deep DC lore. No part of the company’s lore is too obscure to appear in any episode (and yes, a version of the Doom Patrol appear at one point).

I’m in the middle of rewatching the series now. If a particular episode stands out for the kind of examination I’m doing here I might write a post just on it.

Quick Thought: Whisper of the Heart

This week I had the treat of seeing the Studio Ghibli film Whisper of the Heart on the big screen, as part of the ongoing Ghibli Fest.

Whisper is a 1995 film directed by Yoshigumi Kondo, with script and storyboards by Hayao Miyazaki. It’s a small, very touching film about youth, love, and creativity. And it is a pretty good example of Kishōtenketsu story structure.

The film also is a fascinating portrait of urban life in Japan, with many real locations in the Seiseki Sakuragaoka neighborhood near Tokyo. The film is over 20 years old now, leaving me to wonder how much has changed. The lack of cell phones is striking of course, particularly given how important they are in contemporary stories, such as Makoto Shinkai’s your name.

Quick Thought: About Kishōtenketsu

In describing Pokémon GO Fest in an earlier post I framed it terms of the Four Act Kishōtenketsu story structure.

You can find a lot of discussion of this structure on the web, particularly in how it relates to Japanese video game design. But here are a couple posts about the idea that I think are instructive:

The significance of plot without conflict
This was the first detailed discussion of the structure I found on the internet.

The Kishotenketsu struture of Digimon Adventure tri: an insight to traditional Japanese storytelling
This post looks at a specific anime, but goes into the cultural background of the structure, with some references for further study. It also makes me want to rewatch Digimon Adventure tri to better understand some of the puzzling aspects of that series.