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 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.