Ultraman, Episode Six: “The Coast Guard Command”

My comments and observations from watching through this classic Japanese TV series.

One type of story Ultra Q featured was the children’s adventure — by which I mean rambunctious children having an adventure of some sort. Ultraman continues that tradition. This episode is the classic trope of youngsters uncovering a gang of criminals up to no good. They are left to investigate on their own, since the grown-ups won’t believe or listen.

It begins with Hoshino and his pals playing and watching ships unload at the bay. The youngest, Chiro, claims he’s spotted a monster, but Hoshino is distracted when he spots a couple of wanted criminals. As a responsible kid, he calls his friends in the SSSP to report it — but smugglers are not their jurisdiction. And Hoshino is able to pick up on the fact that Arashi didn’t take him seriously anyway.

While the kids are wondering what to do, the monster of the week does shows up. Guesra is another suit that probably looked better on paper than it does on screen. While it has some nice details, with all its fins and spines and bulbous protrusions, it’s also a little… familiar looking, being constructed out of bits of other monsters, including Ragon from just a couple episodes ago. The monster vanishes after sinking a ship, but the kids are excited about this new adventure and run off to investigate where cacao beans are stored — those being Guesra’s food source. It’s pretty common theme that the kaiju of Ultraman are not malicious, just animals after their next meal.

In a wacky twist, the criminals spotted earlier have been hiding their smuggled diamonds in the cacao shipments, so the kids end up running afoul of them after all. Kidnappings, escapes, chases, and other hijinks ensue. If Guesra was actually some sort of hoax, a boat fixed up with fake monster parts to act as a distraction from the smuggling, this would be an episode of Scooby-Doo.

But it’s a real monster out there. The SSSP arrive. They’ve requested information on Guesra from the Brazilian branch of the Science Police — a reminder that there is a large, international organization out there dealing with Unbalance. Guesras are known animals that feed on cacao, but this one has been mutated by… “stuff.” Miscellaneous pollution in Tokyo Bay is enough explanation for giant monsters in these times. Even your normal everyday Guesra is dangerous, and able to take on a Jaguar, according to, not the Brazilian Science Police, but the pipe-smoking sailor who has been hanging around. They will die though if they loose what the subtitles calls their “antennae” but is actually the big fin on their neck. Why this is such a weakness is not explained, or why the translation calls them antennae — unless somebody is sneaking in a reference to the giant ant movie THEM, where those mutant insects also had that weakness. “Shoot the antennae!” is a catch phrase most atomic monster movie fans would recognize.

Is it too much of a coincidence that the smugglers have their hideout just where Guesra smells the largest collection of cacao beans? I don’t know. Hiding diamonds in beanbags was their main scheme, so it isn’t too unreasonable that they be operating out of that warehouse. The situation brings monster, beans, kids, the smugglers, and the SSSP all to one place. The crooks make the unwise decision of shooting the monster, which enrages it into attacking and destroying the building. The SSSP get the kids out in time, but Hayata, once again has the bad luck of being caught in the middle of the destruction — though of course it’s good luck for Ultraman’s secret. Unfortunately, Ultraman has a second weakness besides his limited power supply: Hayata must hold the Beta Capsule to trigger the transformation. Frequently the very misadventure which separates him from his comrades, so he can become Ultraman in secret, knocks the Beta Capsule out of his hands — as happens here. The others, typically thinking Hayata has been killed, turn their weapons on Guesra (they don’t lower their blast visors this time I note).

This distraction gives time for the struggling Hayata to grab the capsule, become Ultraman, and in the nick of time save the team from being stepped on. There’s a nice shot of Ultraman holding the car, with the switches between miniature and live vehicle being very effectively. The only drawback of the sequence is seeing Ultraman very close up and noticing that the Ultraman suit, particularly the helmet, is roughly made, uneven, wrinkled, and with very prominent eye holes for the actor. It looks cheap, which it was, since this show did not have Ultra Q’s big budget.

When Ultraman grapples with Guesra the Color Timer, as usual, is used as an device to increase tension — but it also once again seems extraneous. Guesra is a powerful foe and Ultraman has trouble with its poisonous spines. He eventually gets the better of it and rips off its fin/antenna (the continuing the trend of Ultraman maiming his opponents). Guesra dies in apparent agony — another characteristic of many battles. Despite the ever increasing blink of his timer, Ultraman strikes a pose for his cheering fans and then flies off.

The others are saddened by the death of Hayata — of course not only is Hayata not dead, he has somehow had time to subdue the two smugglers and drag them to justice.


Ultraman, Episode 05: “Secret of the Miloganda”

My comments and observations from watching through this classic Japanese TV series.

Much of this episode could have been a story from Ultra Q. I can easily see the gang from that series rushing around digging up clues about the mysterious murders that make up most of the plot. Instead it is the SSSP on the job, investigating the killings. Such detective work appears part of their duties, with the team being called in to handle “abnormal” cases.

The police procedural story plays against some authentically scary scenes that go beyond what you’d seen in an American kid’s show. There is a montage of quick cuts of an out of control car, an agonizing death shown only in shadows, and green slime that wipes across the screen from one scene to another. The horror movie feel of the killings is another element that seems like Ultra Q, which could shift between nightmare and child’s playtime from episode to episode. You get both here. It’s hard to reconcile the gruesome monster murders with Ide’s slapstick and silly faces.

There is a real mystery to be pieced together from the information the SSSP collect. Five men just returned from an expedition are being killed off one by one. The first being a scientist using radiation to genetically alter plants. A rare plant from the expedition is missing. Strange plant-like slime is found at the crimes scenes. It’s not exactly Sherlock Holmes difficulty (Arashi actually accuses Ide of playing at being Holmes as he tries to figure it all out), especially in a world where monsters and mutations are far from unknown. But you have to gather your facts though before you can act.

Optical compositing continues to be the star special effect here. At one point the investigation takes Ide and Arashi to a futuristic greenhouse. I believe the spherical building and surrounding complex are a real location, but the aerial camera work, along with adding the VTOL into the live action shots blends everything together.

They reach the reasonable conclusion that the surviving fifth member of the exhibition that brought back the flower will be the next target. It’s a little unclear if the monster is motivated to kill out of revenge for being taken from its natural environment and being subjected to weird science, or if it is just is seeking the rare nutrients it needs that the victims also unknowing brought back in their bodies. When the plant monster does show up, Arashi has a rough time, but the team manage to zap it with their weapons. We also see another function of those uncomfortable helmets: they have visors to project their vision from the bright light of the Super Guns. Each takes a safety first moment to lower the eye shield before firing — not that they did that in previous episodes. I’ll try to remember to watch for them ever doing it again.

The episode also introduces a new secondary character, science advisor Dr. Iwamoto, played by Akihiko Hirata, a veteran of Toho’s giant monster films, with his most notable role being Dr. Serizawa in the original 1954 Godzilla. Is this episode, besides advising about science, his main function is to provide the exposition that, far from being killed by the team’s Super Guns, the monster plant has likely to mutated further. And the plant monster (named Greenmons, literally “Green Monster”) has indeed grown to enormous size, conveniently for this to fully become an Ultraman episode for the last 6 minutes or so.

As a kaiju I find Greenmons works well, though that seems to be a minority opinion. Being a plant, it isn’t intended to have animal, let alone humanoid, proportions. It surges and flails around convincingly, and only when actually grappling with an opponent do we get glimpses of the human actor inside the suit. Plant monsters are rare in the genre. Biollante being one of the most memorable. It is also reminiscent of Hedorah, the Smog Monster, in its leafy floppiness.

Arashi tries to fight it single handedly to make up for his earlier defeat. He dials his Spider Shot to flame mode (our first glimpse that the weapon has multiple capabilities) but it has little effect. He’s injured again by Greenmons’ poison spray, which gives Hayata the opportunity he needs to, after taking his friend to safety, to transform into Ultraman.

There is a very atmospheric scene of the two giants squaring off in a city plaza, chimes ringing out the late night hour. I’m sure this is probably a well-known location in Tokyo, but I haven’t been able to identify it.

Greenmons’ gas attack is strong enough to even effect Ultraman, poisoning and weakening him — and making the flashing Color Timer seem extraneous. Our hero is able to gather his resources enough for a Specium Beam, which ignites the poor creature, not only setting it aflame, but reducing it to ash, which blows across the watching crowds. Another night’s work for the SSSP — though once again it is Ide who notices that Hayata had mysteriously vanished during the fight.

Ultraman, Episode 04: “Five Seconds Before the Explosion”

My comments and observations from watching through this classic Japanese TV series.

The episode opens with something of misstep in worldbuilding. Six nuclear weapons have been lost due to an accident with the spacecraft taking them to Jupiter. Umm… It is easy to accept that the world of Ultraman, beset as it is with giant monsters, has developed advanced weapon technologies. But regular interplanetary travel..? That’s a bit much, and I’ll be surprised if that kind of space sci-if gets mentioned again as being within Earth’s technology.

One bomb exploded deep in the ocean, and four have been successfully recovered. The retrieval of a batch of lost atom bombs scattered over the world would make a great episode of Thunderbirds, so I’m going to pretend that it was International Rescue handling that. Unfortunately one bomb is still missing under the Pacific and the SSSP is called on to help find it.

Akiko won’t be along on this mission, since she’s got the day off! Even though we don’t see the home or personal life of these characters, there is now and then the reminder that being on the SSSP is, after all, a job. Unluckily for her, the place she’s chosen for her relaxing trip (along with Hoshino and a little girl they are pressured into looking after) is the landfall of this week’s giant monster. And it’s the familiar form of a Ragon, from the Ultra Q episode “The Undersea Humanoid Ragon.” The Ragon will continue to be reoccurring creatures throughout the Ultraman franchise. This Ragon though is not 2 meters tall, female, and searching for a lost egg. He is 50 meters tall, and not happy about being mutated by radiation. This missing atomic bomb is also stuck to his neck.

When we first see this Ragon it is a nighttime sequence where the creature rises from the ocean and sinks a large ship. It is moody, scary, and impressive. But when he comes ashore in the daytime, the bright green rubbery skin, vivid red lips, and prominent breathing holes for the suit actor are not well presented in brilliant sunlight. There are though several well done compositing shots with humans and monster appearing in the same shot.

The series’ monster of the week formula gets some complications since Ragon can’t be attacked directly, out of concern for setting off the bomb. Ide suggests luring the monster off with music (he must of have seen the Ultra Q episode) but that doesn’t work since the radiation also has mutated its musical tastes!

Hoshino-kun twice bravely puts himself in danger to save others, which gives one hope he won’t just be an incident-triggering pest for the whole of the series — though he does almost fall of a cliff here. Hayata ultimately arrives (delayed by having to a ferry) but Ultraman is hampered by both his Color Timer and that troublesome bomb. Ragon fortunately is no match form him and Ultraman manages to defeat him and take the bomb into space before both its, and his own, time run out.

Ultraman, Episode 03: “Science Patrol, Move Out”

My comments and observations from watching through this classic Japanese TV series.

A pretty straightforward episode for the show. A monster shows up, the SSSP investigates, does its best, then Ultraman arrives to finish things up.

We do see more of another character whom I haven’t mentioned yet: Isamu Hoshino, the team’s kid sidekick/mascot. I don’t know if a reason is ever given for why this young boy is allowed to hang around this super-advanced, international monster-hunting organization. In the old English dub he was, at least, Akiko’s younger brother, though even that questionable justification is lacking here. Hoshimo and Akiko find the monster, Neronga, while checking out the legends surrounding an old well. This isn’t the first time, if you include Ultra Q, that a creature from folktales manifests as an active monster. The Unbalanced Zone seems to bring inner fears and demons to life.

Neronga is an invisible creature, until it appears to feed on power stations. It makes me think of the Id Monster from Forbidden Planet. We get some nice rampaging, though one notices the fact that Ultraman was put into production faster, and with a lower budget than Ultra Q. The monsters tend to be more rubbery and more garishly painted (some of that may be due to getting used to shooting in color). Also the buildings are just hollow shells, with no interior structure. The explosions and flames still look cool though. The episode also has some decent compositing shots, putting the live actors in front of and even in the middle of the miniature sets of burning ruins.

Another SSSP member starts to get some definition here: Daisuke Arashi. He’s the tough guy, the soldier, the one who always wants to rush into the fight, brandishing his signature weapon: the Spider Shot, a two-handed beam weapon that can emit a variety of energy attacks.

Since Hayata has decided to adopt the Western Superhero troupe of having a secret identify, each episode has to give him some reason to separate from his teammates in order to become Ultraman. Last episode he was conveniently knocked aside by Baltan. This time he… well, just runs off by himself towards the monster, moments before Ultraman just happens to appear. Hayata’s going to have to try a bit harder to keep this up. Another superhero thing is that Ultraman has his weakness: that he only has energy to fight for a few minutes. The Color Timer on his chest flashes faster in warning and the narrator warns of the dire consequences of it going out. So far though, there haven’t been any consequence, nor does it affect Ultraman’s actions.

The conflict between Ultraman and Neronga is another brutal one. Neronga has already had an eye blasted by the Spider Shot, and then Ultraman snaps his horn off. He next gets lifted up above Ultraman’s head and hurled to the ground. If that alone didn’t kill him, Ultraman unleashes a beam attack that blasts the creature into tiny, smoking, rubbery bits. Ultraman continues to take his job seriously.

Everyone cheers, though Ide seems just a little bit curious about the whole Hayata leaves/Ultraman appears, Ultraman leaves/Hayata comes back situation.

Ultraman, Episode 02: “Shoot the Invaders!”

My comments and observations from watching through this classic Japanese TV series.

This episode introduces one of Ultraman’s most iconic foes, Baltan (or rather the Baltan species.) These lobster-like space aliens are nearly the equivalent of Dr. Who’s Daleks in their popularity. To me they seem inspired by Ultra Q’s Kemur Man, in their unnerving weirdness and proclivity to laugh in your face as you oppose them. They also appear to have some unusual relationship to Spacetime. They can be microscopic or huge, as if moving nearer or farther along a 4th dimensional axis. They seem able to exist in more than one place at the same time, and are can suspend other beings, freezing them in an unending split second — something the show’s special effects depicts efficiently and cheaply by clever use of lights.

We also get complete 4th Wall breaking by Ide (unless he too is operating in some higher dimensional system) as he directly addresses the audience. Effectively the narrator for this episode, he doesn’t portray himself in a flattering light. He’s Jerry Lewis, mugging and pratfalling and playing the scaredy-cat. Ide gets established as the clown of the team now — though that plays against his other main trait, revealed over upcoming episodes: he’s the team chief technician and the genius inventor of a lot of their equipment.

The Baltans are here on Earth as refugees from the destruction of their own planet. Captain Muramatsu, in a very Jean-Luc Picard move, actually offers them sanctuary here, if they will learn Earth’s laws and customs. Two problems: first, there are 2.3 Billion Baltan in microform on their ship; second, they are a bunch of big jerks.

Negotiations go downhill and Baltan turns giant and attacks the city. When Ultraman shows up we get another new type of battle for this genre: an aerial dogfight with both combatants zooming through the sky. After defeating Kaijū Baltan, Ultraman spots the concealed spacecraft, flies off with it and, presumably, destroys it. As in, blows up the space ark with 2.3 billion sentients on it. Yikes!

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.

Ultraman, Episode 01: “Ultra Operation No. 1”

In my previous post I wrote in general about Ultraman and the world the first series presents us with. Now I’ll look in some detail into the debut episode. Since the Ultraman franchise is just staring out, there is a lot to comment on. For future episodes I’ll just present my main observations and questions.

Ultraman opens with the familiar swirling logo of Ultra Q (though in color for the first time) immediately staking the claim for Ultraman to be a continuation of its predecessor. Different episodes will feel sometime more, sometimes less than episodes excerpted from the progenitor anthology. It’s easy to accept that Ultraman is set in the Unbalanced Zone that Ultra Q theorized the world entering. Humanity’s actions have loosed the blood-dimmed tide. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world — and there are monsters now.

The Ultra Q title burns away to the stylized credits of the main show. A chorus of children sing admiration of the valor of their hero Ultraman. The message is loud and clear that this is a children’s show, more than Ultra Q ever was. The colors are bright and the lyrics to the point.

As the titles roll on we see silhouettes of Ultraman and various monstrous foes. Several have quite familiar outlines, as they are creatures prominently featured in episodes of Ultra Q, such as the money hungry star of “Kanegon’s Cocoon.” Several beloved Ultra Q monsters will end up famous guest stars and reoccurring menaces of the Ultraman universe. And speaking of stars, the opening always ends by introducing, by name, the featured creature of the episode: Space Monster Bemular this time. Every “kaiju” is the series has its personal name, a name which the public often knows when it appears to rampage through a city. It’s an extraordinary aspect of Ultraman’s world that giant monsters not only exist, but are known, recognized elements of that world. Just as we name hurricane and other major storms, or how large scale disasters become stuck with monickers. When someone speaks of “Chernobyl” they are most likely referring to the nuclear meltdown event, not the region it took place in. Ultraman’s monsters are such named events.

The episode proper opens with shots of red and blue Orbs flying through space, observed by a rocket vehicle. This craft is piloted by Shin Hayata, the man who will become our hero. Next, we cut to SSSP Headquarters and another connection with Ultra Q: we see the familiar face of Hiroko Sakurai, only in this show she is playing not spunky reporter Yuriko, but an entirely different character, Akiko Fuji. The other members of the Japanese branch of the Science Police are also on duty. We will get to know them only very gradually. Throughout the series there are a lot references and homages to “kaiju eiga,” the giant monster movies that Eiji Tsuburaya and his team did the special effects for. One of the first, and strangest, is that the phone at SSSP headquarters chimes with the sound of King Ghidorah, the three-headed archenemy of Godzilla.

Hayata is investigating the two UFOs when the primary event of the Ultraman franchise occurred: one of the Orbs collides with his ship in a fiery explosion. It turns out that the Orb was the vessel (or a transformed manifestation, maybe?) of a Space Warrior who was pursuing a extraterrestrial criminal, Bemular.

This is still a mystery to Hayata’s comrades, who only know that there has been a serious accident. As they prepare to rush to his assistance, they under go their own transformations: zipping off their bright blue jackets and gray pants to reveal their bright orange mission uniforms (also changing gray ties for darker orange ones at some point). These uniforms, in their way, are as iconic as Ultraman himself. They, and their accompanying helmets, can seem silly or campy from our perspective today, but I’ll say as a middle-aged man who remembers being a boy of the target age for this show, a distinct uniform, something that established for the world, and the narrative, that this was the Science Police, on the job, was a big deal. Even today, allowing for 50+ years of fashion, these suit make a statement. And after all, given the extraordinary authority and jurisdiction the SSSP have as law enforcement agents, you’d want common citizens to be able to spot them quickly and recognize their authority. My only practical concern is their having to wear those heavy duty flight helmets most all the time, driving in cars, or just walking around.

Arriving at the crash site the SSSP find burning wreckage and terrified picnickers who say Hayata’s body lifted into the air by a glowing sphere. The team are quick to dismiss this as impossible. I wonder why they are so doubtful. Their raison d’etre is investigating weird phenomena after all. We ran into that in Ultra Q as well, when characters would react with completely disbelief at somebody who was reporting what could only have been the strangest thing that had happened that week. Captain Muramatsu is at least willing to consider that aliens are involved.

The next morning everyone is still looking for Hayata. The military is also on hand. Interestingly the SSSP members salute them in greeting. Unlike your typical American hero team, the SSSP have good relations with the other authorities. Joint operations, as we will see throughout the series, seem to be put together efficiently, with no squabbling over jurisdiction. The search is iterupted by strange lights and boiling water on the lake. Part of the team’s equipment are tie tacks that alert them to danger. It’s not clear how they work other that being general purpose “monster detectors.”

A monster does appear then, rising out the lake. Tsuburaya and his effects team have quite the mastery of using water in their monster movies, going back to the original Gojira in 1954. You’d think that water would be a major obstacle and complication with live-action filming of actors is cumbersome costumes, but Tsubaraya seems to relish the challenge. The SSSP members immediately pull out their Super Guns and fire energy beams at the creature. “Shoot First” is clearly their standard operating proceedure. The beams seem to drive the monster back underwater. I can’t help but note that all the monster did was appear. It hasn’t attacked anyone or anything to. I guess we can give the SSSP the benefit of the doubt that monsters are to dealt with without hesitation. This is life in the Unbalanced Zone after, all and monsters are a fact of life on Earth now.

Hayata mysteriously reappears, claiming to have been saved by some inexplicable entity and that the monster, named Bemular, must be destroyed. The team then carries out a very well thought-out operation. Hayata, aboard the SSSP mini-submarine, blasts Bemular underwater. When it arrises, the other attack from the air. It goes back underwater where Hayata waits with more torpedoes. It’s efficent, if brutal, tactics — until Bemular gets its jaws on the sub and comes ashore. The team continues to blast it with missiles, causing the enraged creature to hurl the sub through the air — they didn’t quite think that out so well. Hayata has his second crash landing of the day.

Bemular itself, now that we see in entirety, is an interesting kaiju. It’s a man in a suit of course, but the design attempts to hide those human proportions, with a thick neck, no shoulders, and forelimbs that aren’t joined like arms.

Despite the crash and Bemular setting the surrounding woods a blaze with a breath ray, Hayata is still alive — though wounded. Actual red blood on a characters would have been striking difference between Japanese and American children’s shows of the era. He manages to clamber out of his burning submarine and, holding forth the Beta Capsule, does the thing. The space being he saw in the last flickering moments of his life never told him what would happen, in fact made a point of not telling him. Yet Hayata, with only some apprehension on his face, does not hesitate and is transformed (?) in the silvery giant Ultraman. As I wondered before, is this Hayata transmogrified? Is it the space being fully existing in our world for the time being? For now, we have no idea. If it is somehow Hayata, he knows exactly what to do — which is attack the giant monster. For we viewers, a narrator now speaks up and explains something of what is going on, including some of Ultraman’s capabilities and strengths.

Over the years of seeing Godzilla movies (there had been six or seven by the time Ultraman debuted), we’ve seen kaiju fight many times, but fans of the genre had never seen what goes on next. Ultraman does not mess around. He is a grappler, a wrestler, a brawler who grabs his opponents and hurls them to the ground. He headbutts, kicks, and punches. It’s a viceresal, close-in struggle. It’s with almost a sinking feeling that Ultraman’s plan for victory is to just to beat his foe to death with his hands.

The SSSP are observing this beat down, and are in no way nonplussed by the giant’s appearance. He’s fighting the monster, so they are on his side 100%. They also do a good job at figuring out the meaning of another key element of the Ultraman premise: the flashing light in his chest. The Color Timer activates as a warning that Ultraman only has a limited amount of energy. The details of this will be elaborated on future episodes.

We are spared seeing Ultraman reduce Bemular to a bloody pulp. The monster, desperate to escape, transforms back into Orb mode and attempts to fly away. Ultraman then, relatively cleanly, blasts it with a ray from his hands, striking one his enduring poses, with his hand positioned more like the mundra of a Hindu deity that a typical superhero shooting a laser beam. But like a classic superhero, Ultraman flies off into the sky before anyone can arrive question him about just what his deal is.

Moments later Hayata himself reappears, for the second time unscratched by his deadly crash. This begins another trend that Hayata shares with his western hero counterparts; somehow he is always elsewhere when Ultraman shows up. He keeps his new dual identify secret, even from his monster-fighting comrades. Why is a, I think, a reasonable question. The tactical advantage of the SSSP knowing that Ultraman was, more-or-less, on their team would be huge. And it is not like Ultraman’s very existence is kept secret (hard to do for a 50m giant). Hayata explains that Ultraman (he gives him the name) is an alien trapped on Earth who wants to help protect it. Can we assume it is some compulsion from the Space Warrior that keeps Hayata from telling the whole truth? You might say that, and the other question I’ve raised, are a lot for a children’s monster show to have to worry about explaining. I only know that if 8-year old me had been watching the show I would very much have wanted answers to those kinds of mysteries…