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.



All Dressed Up with Nowhere to Go, Godzilla 2000: Millennium.

Beginning my thoughts on the Millennium Series of Godzilla films. I’m not going to be summarizing the plots here. If you haven’t seen these films, check out a site such as Wikizilla for a story recap. You can assume Spoilers.

1995’s Godzilla vs Destroyah was the end of an era in the Godzilla film franchise. Room was being made for what was hoped to a series of American produced Godzilla features, beginning with Tristar’s 1998 Godzilla, directed by Roland Emmerich. That didn’t exactly work out as hoped, so Toho Pictures got back in the game by beginning a new series of films for the arriving 21st Century.

Godzilla 2000: Millennium, released in 1999, was directed by Takao Okawara, written by Hiroshi Kashiwabara and Wataru Mimura. All had worked on previous Godzilla films. Special Effects director Kenji Suzuki had been 1st assistant special effects director since 1991’s Godzilla vs King Ghidorah, but this was his first time leading the effects for a Godzilla film.

Godzilla 2000 begins the Millennium Series of Godzilla films. Unlike the Heisei series, or even the earlier Showa films, this new era would not attempt to create continuity from one film to the next. Each — with one eventual exception — was a stand alone story, looking back only to the 1954 Godzilla as a predecessor. This approach allowed the possibility of experimentation, with each creative team bringing their own take on the premise. It also has the potential for each one-off film to seem inconsequential. After all, whatever happens, the next film just reboots everything again. Godzilla 2000 suffers from just that sense of a story that is set in motion only to mostly spin its wheels and go nowhere. It ends up as a demonstration of the many potential problems in creating a successful Godzilla narrative, and just gives up without finding any answers to them.

I actually saw the edited and dubbed English language version of Godzilla 2000 in a movie theater — it was the last Japanese Godzilla film to get theatrical distribution until 2016’s Shin Godzilla. In a DVD commentary track, the American localizers basically admit to not understanding the original script and just making up there own version— as well as laboring to “improve” the script by adding more jokes and silly lines, trying to make it into a campy, tongue-in-cheek story. That is not a satisfactory solution to the film’s problems. Despite some early clowning and slapstick (on the level of someone getting hit in the head repeatedly for no good reason) this is not a comedy. Any humorous tone falls away as the story progresses, as do many ideas and themes that get introduced only to be set aside and left to fade away.

In my posts about the 90’s Gamera series, I bring up the problem of relative scale in kaiju eiga narratives. How do you fit a monster-sized story and a human-sized story together on the same screen? Godzilla 2000 starts with a promising idea: Yuji Shinoda and Shiro Miyasaka were once two young, enthusiastic scientists working together studying Godzilla. Their friendship was broken when Miyasaka joined a government agency dedicated to destroying the monster, while Shinoda believed Godzilla should be learned from. Shinoda eventually quit and founded the Godzilla Predication Network, a civilian organization that tracks Godzilla’s movements and appearances. Shinoda and his GPN function much like storm-watchers and tornado-chasers that issue warnings while collecting scientific data. To them Godzilla is a dangerous force of nature, with the potential for great destruction, but also to be a source of knowledge. Miyasaka ends up part of Crisis Control Intelligence, an agency with authority to direct the military in hunting down and destroying Godzilla. This ruptured friendship of two people with two conflicting points of view on a dangerous topic has a lot of potential. It makes the Godzilla situation relevant to their relationship and the resolution of their personal conflict relevant to dealing with Godzilla. Or rather, a script built around that situation could have worked well. Only this movie does not do much with it. The two do reconnect in a lab while studying Godzilla’s cells and Miyasaka eventually comes around to Shinoda’s point of view. None of that ends up mattering to the story.

That’s the scaling problem. Nothing the humans do in this film ends up affecting anything that happens. Shinoda’s personal antagonist, and the man Miyasaka works for, is Mitsuo Katagiri, the head of CCI, who has the authority to order everyone around, even the military, despite continually making very bad strategic decisions. He repeatedly assumes Earth technology can handle the extraterrestrial menace that eventually arises, despite having no idea of how advanced or powerful this alien is. A central action sequence in the story revolves around CCI making a desperate and dangerous attempt to use high explosives to blow up the Millennian UFO — and which has no effect whatsoever. You’d think they’d try the super-powerful armor piercing missiles that had been employed against Godzilla earlier in the film, but those are yet another forgotten story element. Katagiri is the sort of plot device character who, whenever he makes a decision or evaluation about something, you can comfortably assume that he will be wrong.

Katagiri does get a moment of doomed glory at the end of the film where he literally stands up to Godzilla and becomes one of the few characters in the franchise to look Godzilla directly in the eyes. It’s a striking moment, but would be more powerful if it wasn’t a pale repetition of the confrontation between Godzilla and Shindo in Godzilla vs King Ghidorah.

Humans are amazingly ineffective throughout the film. By the concluding sequences they are left just standing around making not very well supported assumptions about what’s taking place. That is not an uncommon situation to find at the end of Godzilla film, when the final kaiju throwdown gets all the cinematic attention. Yet, usually the humans have by then done something — even if it’s to make the situation worse and heighten the tension.

As you can tell, I am one of those people who think the human parts of a Godzilla movie are important. Still, we should look at the star of the film himself. Unfortunately he does not fair much better, narratively. Godzilla 2000 presents a world that has Godzilla in it, as a known menace, with no other backstory or context. Godzilla shows up from time to time, causes trouble, and that’s it. There is some speculation by the humans that he is going after energy sources, such as power stations, but without any explanation or motivation (In 1984’s Return of Godzilla, he rips up nuclear power plants to feed off them, but there’s nothing like that here). He ultimately attacks the Millennian out of revenge for his defeat after their first encounter and that’s as much of a motivation as ever gets presented. The film even ends without any clear resolution or conclusion. Godzilla defeats Orga, then starts incinerating Tokyo. It seems like once the monster vs. monster plot was wrapped up nobody knew what to do next, other than have the humans make a few cryptic remarks and it’s the End.

I have made a couple references to Godzilla’s main foe in the film: the Millennian, extraterrestrials who crashed on Earth millions of years ago, only to lay dormant on the dark floor of the ocean. The humans announce that the Millennian are somehow solar powered and need sunlight to stay active — until the film’s climatic sequence which takes place at night and so nobody mentions the solar power thing again. Much of what you can find about the Millennian online includes information from manga, games, and other supplemental material. The film itself is pretty is pretty vague about what they/it are. While the main goal of this extraterrestrial menace is finding biological material they can absorb to give themselves a new organic form, they are also mentioned as transforming Earth’s atmosphere to suit themselves and hacking our computer network as part of an effort the create a 1000 year kingdom to dominate the planet. Those are more ideas that come and go so quickly you can miss them (the English dub even left them out of their version). Godzilla’s super-regenerative cells turn out to be the thing they are looking for — though after absorbing some they are unable to control them and end up mutating in a giant, vampiric kaiju. Actually all that is based on interpretations made by the humans with scant evidence, and given their record for correctly evaluating things, I’m not sure how much I trust their theories.

In the overall saga of the Godzilla movie franchise, Godzilla 2000 does have some significance for its experiments with new ways of doing special effects and, beginning here, computer effects as well. Not only is the Millennian UFO, and its first octopus-like form, presented through CGI, there is even a shot of computer rendered Godzilla, swimming under the ocean. The film utilizes greenscreens to composite the suit actor on filmed plates of real locations. These don’t work perfectly, by modern standards, but I remember seeing these sequences at the movie theater and being struck by how different and “realistic” they looked. Other shots, involving just superimposing flaming explosions on top of filmed footage are less impressive. It is not until the final fight sequence that we get traditional suit performers wrestling in the middle of a model city — and even then some shots are enhanced with composited CG elements. This film is in era of Shinji Higuchi’s pushing the envelope with the effects work on the new Gamera series. Godzilla 2000 does not look nearly as good as what was going on in the Heisei Gamera trilogy, but it is interesting to see new experiments and techniques.

We also get a different looking Godzilla in this film. He is greener, spikier, more reptilian, with a glowing orange spines, and a breath weapon distinctly signifying a heat attack rather than problematic atomic radiation. It all suits a more aggressive and bitey Godzilla, who engages his foe in a much closer, direct combat that his Heisei predecessor did.

I have to be more negative than I prefer to be when examining this movie. It could have done a lot more with what it brought to the table, but the result is ultimately forgettable. It did set the new series in motion towards much better and developed takes on a Godzilla for a new century.