Neo Ultra Q: Introduction

When I started watching Neo Ultra Q I didn’t plan to do episode-by-episode commentaries. As I watched more and more of it I found a lot to examine and think about. So I’m writing my thoughts about each of the 12 stories that make up the series. I’ll be repurposing some comments, particularly in this introduction, from an earlier overview about the show, so my apologies for that repetition. Expect major spoilers for the series throughout. I’ll be talking about each episode in their release order, though there is no real continuity between episodes, and each stands alone narratively.

There’s a lot of critical discussion over the differences and similarities in the overlapping genres of science fiction and horror. It is especially hard to construct meaningful definitions when examining films and tv series. Is Alien horror or sci-if? Which is The Creature From the Black Lagoon? Or Godzilla? I have doubts about how useful it is to try staking out such boundaries. I prefer usage of the term “weird” as a label that embraces a range of stories that partake of both science fiction and horror elements. The weird tale can mix, shift between, and explore the contrasts between the two within the same story.

Ultra Q in 1966 and Neo Ultra Q in 2013 were both anthology series of weird stories. The first series was as fundamental to Japanese science fiction television as The Outer Limits and Star Trek were to the genre in the United States. Neo Ultra Q is a 21st Century follow-up. In form and content they are rather like The Outer Limits, or The Twilight Zone, and to some degree, The X-Files. They tell a very wide range of stories, all “weird,” in many styles and tones, and can be scary, humorous, or tragic. There’s an overall leaning towards science fiction, with little that’s explicitly supernatural. Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum about any sufficiently advanced technology appearing as magic is always there as an explanation for the weird.. Not that “explaining” is, as these posts will show, a high priority in what the Ultra Q series are try to do. Neo Ultra Q we will see is particularly defiant to the convention of giving easy answers and explanations.

Similarities between the Ultra Q series and the X-Files come up because, though they are anthologies, they do have casts of reoccurring characters who (sometimes) investigate the weird events of the stories. The 1966 series featured airplane pilot and part-time science fiction author Jun and his partner, the clownish, comedy relief Ippei. They were joined by spunky and fearless newspaper reporter and photographer Yuriko. In 2013 we have a new, revamped trio. Emiko is a more mature, though still adventurous reporter. Shohei is the funny one this time, though a competent enough businessman to run his own trendy bar named, with thematic appropriateness, “The Door.” Then there is the brooding, Benedict Cumberbatch-like Dr. Jin Haibara. Like Jun, he is the most proactive of the characters, but he is also the most distinct from his predecessor. Currently working as a counselor and clinical psychologist, to me he comes off as, if not a reformed Mad Scientist, at least as someone who was heading down that path before realizing, “Wait a minute… maybe there are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.” Again, as in Ultra Q, while these characters sometimes are active investigators, sometimes they just encounter the weird during their normal activities, and sometime are just witnesses or background characters that frame the narrative.

The premise of Ultra Q was that the psychic decline of humanity, the increase of pollution, the growth of technology, and just the overall progression of civilization, had led to a time of Unbalance, which gives birth to Monsters, unexplained phenomena, extraterrestrial incursions, and other weird events. There was no one specific cause; Earth had entered an Age in which such things happened. Only the narrator, who occasionally introduced the stories, directly mentions this. Everyone else is just living through Unbalance. Neo Ultra Q seems to be about what comes after that. I call this the time of Post-Unbalance.

The 21st Century is full of wonderful, scary, and inexplicable things: radiation, terrorism, climate change, social media. You add to that monsters, space aliens, and inexplicable mutations. It’s all just part of what we have to wake up and deal with on a daily basis. Neo Ultra Q presents a nonjudgemental gaze at this world, and asks us to consider if it is all that unlike the world we live in.

Ultraman, Episodes 32, 33, 34, & 35

Some quick thoughts as I watch through this classic Japanese Special Effects TV series.

The Endless Counterattack

This is about as conventional as an Ultraman episode gets: a natural disaster is reported; turns out to be caused by a monster; the SSSP fights it; Ultraman finishes it off. The stars of the episode are the special effects, which are given both the time and budget to go all out. The flash fire rushing across the detailed scenery is authentically terrifying. We get two complete sequences of the SSSP dealing with an inferno and thoroughly fighting it to the last flame. There is also an extensive tank battle and many building crushing scenes. I felt some real concern for the suit actor, since the Zambolar costume itself appears to catch on fire a couple times…

The thought that human activity has driven this monster to go berserk is becoming a reoccurring theme in the series, along with the team’s regret at having to destroy it.

The one unusual element in the episode is the visit from Patty, an SSSP member from the India branch. The strangest thing is just why she is in the episode at all, as she doesn’t do anything besides provide a brief obstacle to Hayata transforming. It seems a odd waste of a guest star. I always suspect in these cases that an earlier draft of the script had more for her to do and rewrites or schedule problems got in the way. Her main justification for being in the story is to give her closing zinger about seeing Japan’s three specialties: earthquakes, monsters, and Ultraman.

The Forbidden Words

After the last very formulaic episode comes one that is anything but the usual. It’s also one that you can watch and just be thinking: okay another tricky alien, Mefilas, trying to temp Fuji’s brother into trading him the Earth and… wait a minute! “Mefilas” as in… Mephistopheles maybe? Mefilas is certainly an impressive, ominous design (no re-used monster bits here) who comes across as demonic without any of the usual visual short cuts.

And, as in Faust, Mefilas likes to show off his power with spectacular if pointless stunts. The most impressive of which is turning Fuji into a building destroying giant, switching the usual human to monster scale. It’s only fair to Hiroko Sakurai, who, back when she playing Yuriko in Ultra Q, was shrunk down to miniature size in one episode. A whole episode of Kaiju Fuji smashing away at Tokyo would have been cool.

An even stranger and more unnerving scene follows when Mefilas confronts Hayata. Not only does he directly address him as “Ultraman” but Hayata answers and accepts that address. “Are you a human, or an alien?” a confused Mefilas asks, with Hayata responding that he is both. For the first time in the entire series I feel he is not pretended to be Hayata, or acting the role of Ultraman. We are seeing the “real” composite entity — and it’s a little scary.

Fortunately this being is on Earth’s side, defending it along with Fuji’s brother Satoru, who knows with a child’s perception Earth should not be traded away for Mefilas’s promises. The most devilish thing about Mefilas is that, for all his claims to desire it, he doesn’t really want the Earth, literally; he wants Satoru to commit the sin of giving it away. His true goal, as he says, is to “test the human spirit.” One wonders if, like the Adversary of the Old Testament, he is not truly evil himself, but is an agent of a higher power…

He’s still not a nice guy. Mefilas has a temper, and even while protesting about despising violence, he’ll try and kick you in the head if he looses control. The thing that makes him unique from every other enemy so far is that when he calms down, he realizes the pointlessness of physical conflict (and it isn’t cowardice in any way, since he appears Ultraman’s equal in power). Satoru had already beaten him after all…

Present From the Sky

From the start, as this episode gets underway, one might start suspecting that Akio Jissoji is at it again, along with screenwriter Mamoru Sasaki. When we get to the shot pictured above, it’s pretty obvious that this another one of theirs.

I’d describe this one as being a self-parody skit that the Japanese branch members are putting on themselves, as part of the SSSP holiday party or something. There are bits, such their being awoken in the middle of the night and scrambling around in their pajamas, that are funny, but are probably hilarious to the team themselves (we spend so much time on duty it’s like we live here!). Add to that their constant eating — and drinking beer — on the job, the increasingly outlandish solutions to the Skydon problem, and the Scooby-Doo-like chased by the monster scene. Even Ultraman gets in on the self-roast, with Hayata trying to transform with a spoon, and being completely ineffectual fighting the monster.

Skydon itself is just a monster that happened to crash to the Earth one day. Snow, rain, umbrellas, (and suicides) at are all shown as falling things that shape our terrestrial life, disrupting whatever we might be planning for as well crawl across the ground. Even something as refined as a formal tea ceremony is under the whims of cherry blossoms and lark droppings. Or was the whole thing just setting up a reason for Fuji to wear a kimono?

The Monster Graveyard

Creative teams on Ultraman seem to have often worked on pairs of episodes, so this is the second of a set of Jissoji and Sasaki romps.

Recent episodes have brought up the Science Patrol’s regret at having to kill so many monsters. Their remorse is heighten by the discovery of “The Monster Graveyard,” a zone in space containing the bodies of kaiju that Ultraman hurled into space after defeating them — a thing he definitely does not do in the show, save for Gavadon, whom he made into a constellation. The normal end of a monster is to be blasted into flaming bits by a Spacium Beam. I wonder if there is some translation looseness in the English subtitles, and that the forms seen floating in space are actually meant to be ghosts, not literal bodies (they are presented as translucent images).

So saddened is everyone, Ultraman included, that the decided to hold a Buddhist funeral service for the monsters. And then you start wondering how serious this is really meant to be, when an alarm sounds and we see that the ceremony is being held right in the middle of the SSSP control room…

It seems a space rocket has crashed to earth carrying a weird skeletal monster called Seabozu. In another example of this episode’s jumbled continuity, that rocket is described as being Japan’s “first lunar rocket” — despite missions to Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn being prominent in earlier episodes. The 1960’s of course didn’t have our obsession with story “canon.” Even facts such as what year this series is taking place in are at the whim of whoever is writing that particular script.

Seabozu itself just wants to get back to the Monster Graveyard, as the SSSP realize after causing considerable collateral damage attacking the harmless kaiju. This premise pairs oddly with “Present From the Sky” which was also about attempts at returning a monster to space. None of the schemes from that story are tried here. What they do try — just tying Seabozu to another space rocket — is even less effective and well-thought out than any of those.

Fundamentally the problem is one of communication. Seabozu doesn’t understand that people, and Ultraman himself, are trying to help. Their initial attacks when it first showed didn’t make a good impression or earn much trust. Even building a rocket in Ultraman colors doesn’t get the message across too well, and Ultraman has to bully and strong arm Seabozu into accepting the rocket-powered lift.

“Present From The Sky” and this episode are not as visually experimental as some of Jissoji’s episodes. His striking camera work and unexpected compositions still make them stand out. Where he does go over the top are a few later shots where a colored gel is put over the lens, making it seem like the early attempts to colorize black-and-white films. Why does he do this in these shots, one might ask? Maybe he just found the gels lying around and wanted to use them? Or maybe it’s some deep reference to the history of Japanese cinema. There’s a lot of online information about the show’s monsters, the history of the suits, what sounds are used to make their roars, etc., but it isn’t easy to find, in English, more extensive information about topics like that. I’m still a newbie in Tokusatsu knowledge and lore.