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, 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.