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: Introduction

In 1966, after the success of the Weird Science Fiction TV series Ultra Q, Tsuburaya Productions was tasked with creating a follow-up show, one that would be focused even more on the most popular feature of Ultra Q: giant monsters. They developed the premise of a alien space warrior whose life becomes merged with a human host, granting the human the power to briefly transform into the titanic superhero Ultraman. The concept worked. The 32nd Ultraman series, Ultraman Z is schedule to air in June 2020. The monsters from the series, and from Ultra Q, remain so popular they’ve had their own cartoon series.

Ultraman is in a category referred to as “tokusatsu” or special effects shows and movies. Tokusatsu also includes Godzilla movies, Super Sentai (aka, Power Rangers) shows, the Kamen Rider series, and their endless variations and imitations. Aside from Godzilla, the style didn’t take off in the United States until Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and its popularity is still a shadow of what it is in Japan. An English dub was produced of the first Ultraman series, so it has been around, but as a campy cult program, rather than the phenomenon it became in Japan and elsewhere in the world. I managed to see some of it on cable the 1980’s. I enjoyed it, but even as I learned more about Japanese pop culture, Ultraman remained something I only knew about, without much chance to ever really see it, especially in its original form and language.

Only in 2019 has a high quality, subtitled blu-ray edition of Ultraman been released in the United States, from Mill Creek Entertainment. And not just the original series, but the entire run of the franchise is planned. Ultra Q was the first to come out, followed by Ultraman, then Ultraman 7, and so on in chronological order, along with another line of releases of the more recent Ultraman series, starting with 2015’s Ultraman X.

Much of the core premise of Ultraman, the visual motifs, the plot structure, the gadgets, and sci-fi premises are established in the very first episode, and have gone on to endured for decades. To start with, there is the origin Ultraman himself: a Space Warrior, pursuing a literally monstrous criminal, crashes his UFO into a human jet. The crash has left the jet’s pilot, Shin Hayata, dead or dying. To make up for the accident, the Warrior merges his life with Hayata’s, granting him both new life and the ability to transform into a super being. We immediately have several important existential questions: is Hayata Ultraman, or is he replaced by the original alien at the moment of transformation? As someone who grew up reading American superhero comics and science fiction, those are important questions (is Superman the alien Kal-el pretending to be Clark Kent, or is Clark Kent, an extraterrestrial adoptee brought up as a human, taking on the costumed identity of Superman?). Given that we see nothing of Hayata’s personal life, or how this incident has affected him, do we have any reason to think this still is Hayata, or is it some new entity, pretending to be a human? Seems like there are a lot of questions on the table here from the get go.

Hayata did not get involved in all this merely by chance. He is a member of what is described as “The Japanese Branch of the Paris-based International Science Police Organization.” Specifically, they are the Science Special Search Party. That’s quite a concept. International Science Police that utilize advanced high-tech weaponry and aircraft, and appear answerable to no other authority, and have full sanction to act as they wish, whenever they wish, wherever they wish. One must assume that there are an awful lot of political treaty negotiations, maneuvering, deals, and furious arguments over sovereignty and sanction going on in the background, somewhere, that allow the Science Police to exist. The world certainly appears to need them, with alien intrusions being common place, weird phenomena abounding, and of course the 50 meter tall monsters roaming everywhere.

According to an Ultraman video game (the 1992 Ultra Strategy, Mobilization of the Science Patrol!) the Japanese branch was found by none other than Dr. Ichinotani, the gray-haired scientist who advised and supported the investigating characters of Ultra Q. So if one considers that game “canon,” Ultraman is set some years after Ultra Q. A “Science Patrol” or anti-monster defense force of some kind is a reoccurring element in most, if not all, incarnations of Ultraman shows.

The exact year this show is set in is not immediately clear. For the most part it seems modern day (1966 Japan) but the SSSP have access to advanced technology. These are not things in everyday use, though the military can call out giant projected energy weapons and extrapowerful explosives. It is not unreasonable that such things would advance quickly with the frequent need to battle monsters.

The SSSP commonly get around in their jet-powered Vertical Take Off and Landing craft, launched from the roof of their futuristic HQ complex (where, one guesses, there must be fairly extensive support team, as well as office workers handling all the legal and international issues the existence of the SSSP must constantly engender). I am struck by a thought that came up several times in Ultra Q: the extraordinary similarity between the vehicle and model work Eiji Tsuburaya was doing with that being done far away in Great Britain, by Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation programs, such as Thunderbirds. They were on TV at pretty much the same time in the 1960’s. I know Thunderbirds was very popular in Japan. There must be some interesting connections between the two men and their work.

At any sign of menace, the SSSP draw their Super Guns, multi-purpose energy weapons. They can be surprisingly effective. From most Godzilla movies, we are used to all human efforts being futile against monster enemies. Another piece of the team’s equipment are lapel pin sized radio communicators, which in 1966 might have seemed as futuristic as ray guns. In 2020 it can take a moment to recalibrate what is or is not super science in a show this old. The original Star Trek series, which has both those kinds of gadgets, would be debuting in the United States just a month or so later.

The SSSP, their investigations into mysteries and colossal threats, their weapons, their puzzling political and military status, immediately become secondary when Ultraman ultimately is needed at the climax of each episode. Next time I will look in detail at the very first episode, “Ultra Operation No. 1.” I have a lot to say about it in particular, but when we get up and running, I’ll propably just have a few observations about each episode, much as I did when watching through Ultra Q.

Ultra Q: Final Thoughts

blu-ray box

I had some general knowledge of Ultra Q before I started watching the actual episodes. I knew about its historical significance in the Japanese science fiction and monster genres, the way it was a transition between the Godzilla movies of the 60’s and the Ultraman TV shows (though still not that well known in the West, Ultraman remains a thriving superhero franchise, with new series being produced to this day).

My biggest surprise when I began watching was how much the show swung being the poles of science fiction, humor, and horror. Some episodes were light children’s entertainment, while others I do not think were appropriate for children at all. The best episodes for me were ones that developed from the central theme of “Unbalance,” the original concept for the show, before giant monsters became such a feature. The modern world has come unbalanced both as an external realm and an internal experience. From this are monsters born. To me it seems a very East Asian concept. In the West, we tend to expect specific answers, clear cause-and-effect. Aliens are invading. The government is hiding a conspiracy. A gate to Hell has opened up in a small town. But in Ultra Q’s “Zone of Unbalance,” an invasion of space aliens is not the cause of things going wrong, but a symptom. That’s a strong premise for an anthology show of weird stories. There have been two follow up/remakes to the series: Ultra Q: Dark Fantasy in 2004 and Neo Ultra Q in 2013. If I ever get the chance to see them I’ll be curious where they take the “Unbalance “theme.

Neo Ultra Q

Ultra Q is most known for its monsters. Tsuburaya Productions was founded by Eiji Tsuburaya, the man who created the special effects for the Godzilla franchise, and the series is a showcase for their style. Ultra Q episodes included both Tsuburaya monsters than had been built for other films (including a recycled Godzilla costume) as well as new monsters who went on to becomes “stars” themselves and appear in laters shows (such as Pigmon, the Kemur Man, or Kanegon). The monsters, either people in monster costumes or puppets, can (literally) overshadow the intricate miniature landscapes, buildings, or entire cities. These models are amazing creations and it can be sad to see them be crushed, incinerated, or blown to bits at the climax of episode, for all that they were created for just that purpose. The painstaking detail and the fiery pyrotechnics remind me of what was being done two continents away in Great Britain by Gerry Anderson, with with “Supermarionation” puppet shows such as Thunderbirds, which was being produced at roughly the same time. I wonder about what connections and influences there might be between these special effects pioneers.

Thunderbirds explosion

As I have mentioned in my Quick Thoughts about the series, Ultra Q had a very high budget for a Japanese TV series of its time, though in our computer graphics saturated era we think of monster suits and miniatures as low budget. I imagine a lot of the money went into those miniature buildings and props (and into blowing them up). There is also some interesting and effective optical composite work, for instance miniature vehicles and sets appearing in the background of live actors. Sometimes it isn’t used so well, such as where a character vanishes from a scene but parts of their body leave a “hole” in the shot from where the matting didn’t quite work. The more artist and stylized use of opticals are always a treat. A lightning bolt splits a shot in two. A missing person becomes an empty silhouette, which gets filled with clambering reporters asking questions. Credits for an episode might spin across the screen, roll past, or appear in the reflection of a sports car’s hubcaps. Likewise the theme music might be a played as a jangling surfer’s guitar or a bouncy children’s march. The show’s sense of freedom to experiment and try new ideas keeps each episode a surprise.

Within the constraints of half-hour format the show frequency manged to tell quite a complete story. There are a few scripts that leave you scratching your head, but more often a premise, a mystery, a monster, and a resolution unfold. The plots of many giant monster films, from both side of the Pacific, can be a little thin — filler between cities being demolished or titanic creatures in wrestling matches. Condensed down to this format and scale those kinds of outlandish tales can be satisfying mini-epics.

Our heroes

From the perspective of what 21st Century television has become, where Ultra Q seems the most dated is in characters. There is a small cast of continuing characters, particularly the trio of Yuriko, Jun, and Ippei. The series is from an era when there was no continuity between episodes. Aside from the two stories that are direct follow ups to earlier episodes, the various tales of Ultra Q are intended to be viewable in any order. With so many modern shows essentially being serials, we can forget that was once the norm. TV was meant to be broadcast once, maybe have a rerun, and then go into syndication where local stations had no constraints about what episodes were shown or in what order. There was no point in having character arcs or narrative growth. Yet even with that limitation, characters of Ultra Q are little more that quick sketches. We hardly learn anything about their lives outside their work or adventures. Rare details, such as that Jun is an aspiring science fiction writer, have almost no relevance. They and their relationships are always in a “now” and they don’t even seem affected by the bizarre experience they endure. It is almost shocking when the last episode “Let Me Out!” Suggests Jun and Yuriko are dating. Again I wonder how the relationships for the apparent parallel characters in Neo Ultra Q compare. For all the monsters, weird events, and conspiracies of The X-Files, probably the most memorable and lasting parts of that series were the personalities and interactions between Fox and Mulder. Our trio of heroes are sometimes background characters to the main action, even just cameos in some episodes. It’s the scientist who gives his life to stop the monster his jealousy created, the lonely child who befriends a 4-dimensional time-travelling prehistoric bird, or the magician whose conflict between protecting his daughter and having a successful stage show unleashes a demon — these are the characters we really remember, even if they appear for only a single outing.

Tsuburaya and friends

Of course Ultra Q never claims to be a character based drama. Even the thematic warnings about Unbalance are only heard in some of the episodes. The series is an exercise in imagination. What crazy ideas can we come up with this week? An alien invasion? A mole exposed to super nutritious honey? A folktale come to life as a schoolboy’s adventure? Climate change? A salaryman’s soul crushing angst? It’s all there. Somebody came up with a cool optical printing trick? Use it! Look at what we did with this leftover monster suit! Great, use it! That is the impression I get of what developing this show must have been like. Much of the background information on the show is still not that widely available in English. The Eiji Tsuburaya biography “Master of Monsters” by August Ragone is high on my reading list. The website Vantage Point Interviews does have an interesting interview with Yashuhiko Saijo, who played Ippei.

As mentioned, Ultra Q set the stage for the monster-fighting giant superhero Ultraman, which has developed over the decades into an expansive universe of TV shows, comics, movies, and endless merchandise. I have seen a little Ultraman, since the first series did, unlike Ultra Q, get an English version distributed to the United States. I’m excited to see the original episodes, and follow the franchise’s developed, especially now that I’ve experienced its origins.

I plan on doing more commentary on Ultraman, but we’ll see if I have enough to say to do a series of posts, or if I’ll just reflect on each season as a whole.

Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 24-28

Finishing up my series of comments and observations on this classic 1960’s Japanese tokusatsu, or “special effects” series. Assume some Spoilers for each episode.

I’ll follow this up with an overview of my thoughts on the series as a whole.

The Idol of Goga

Ultra Q steps into the waters of yet another genre: this time with a secret agent story involving international art thefts, kidnapping, and lots of James Bond gadgets and plot twists. It’s a particularly violent and scary episode too, with several onscreen deaths, both from guns and from snail monster flesh melting eye beams. At first our usual trio of investigators seem in over their heads once they get caught up in it all, but even Ippei demonstrates he can be an action hero when necessary.

Speaking of “necessary,” the giant monster in this episode might not strictly have been needed, but it did increase the tension, with an escalating threat in addition to the main plot’s chases, fights, and gunplay. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many of the kaiju in the series have been puppets, giving it some nonhumanoid variety, rather than every threat being a man in a monster suit.

Devil Child

The Devil Child

Episodes have been getting kind of grim lately. Alien invaders or giant monsters are one thing, murderous ghost children are something else. There’s not only the child in danger aspect, but there’s almost a cruelty in the glimpses into the lives of victims just before their untimely ends. Characters make a couple puzzling references to “the ghost girl and the doll,” which I’m guessing is a well-known legend or folklore ghost story. What’s happening in the episode may be a modern, sci-fi update of that story. Ultra Q is sometimes compared with The X-Files, but this is really the first story that could easily be made to work for either show.

Ultra Q’s occasional narrative framing uses a phrase commonly translated as “Your eyes will leave your body,” but in these subtitles is “You will experience a separation of mind and body.” That is literally what this episode is about, so maybe it is based on an older script from before the show became so monster focused. It also emphasizes that these events are occurring due to the Unbalance that fills the modern world. Unbalance that can make even an innocent child into a devil.

Blazing Victory

Some episodes of Ultra Q have a monster inserted in them for less than justified reasons. This one might get described that way — but I don’t think it should. Joe’s pet lizard is a reflection of the Unbalance that comes to haunt him. He at first he is using “Peter” to reinforce his own confidence, by claiming the animal is predicting the outcomes of his fights. When doubts begin to haunt him and he runs away, hiding as a stage show clown, Peter’s own form becomes unstable. The crisis of Joe’s internal conflict is what brings about the crisis of Peter escaping and becoming a rampaging kaiju. The connections between the Unbalancing of mind, body, and nature is the central theme of the show.

If I was a producer of this episode what I’d be wondering is not why the script needs a giant monster, but do we really need to spend all that money to build this intricate miniature dock and marina, just to incinerate it in a huge fire just because it’ll look cool?

Manga cover

The Disappearance of Flight 206

The above manga cover makes this episode look quite a bit more exciting that it actually is… An airliner disappears into a time-space vortex and gets attacked by a giant walrus. Not much else to say about this one, try as I might. I kind of think somebody in the Tsuburaya special effects department developed some impressive looking vortex techniques with a cloud tank and they needed some excuse to use them. Plus there was this walrus suit lying around left over from another movie. Maybe this series’ lavish budget was running low?

Trapped onboard

Open Up!

The final episode comes with no giant monster in sight, though with lots of unnerving optical effects. It’s haunting note to end on — that the only escape from the pressures and anxieties of the Unbalanced, modern world is into fantasy and imagination — and perhaps madness (reminiscent of Terry Gillian’s Brazil, nearly 20 years later).

This story is the only one to suggest that Jun and Yuriko have a romantic relationship. In the past Ippei clearly has a crush on Yuri-chan, but otherwise the gang has just been good friends and adventuring companions. And I felt bad that the couple were so mean to Ippei, ditching him with his arms full of groceries. I rather hoped the episode would end with him playing some trick on them to get his revenge. Maybe there was an intent to show the consequences of thoughtlessly running away from responsibilities?

Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 20-23

Short comments and observations on this classic 1960’s Japanese tokusatsu, or “special effects” series. Assume some Spoilers for each episode.

The Undersea Humanoid Ragon

Ragon

It would be fascinating to see a natural history textbook from the world of Ultra Q. The existence of giant monsters seems an accepted part of things. People are surprised at the appearance of a kaiju, but not shocked and horrified. In the 1954 Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Gillman is a discovery that overturns every conventional theory of biology and evolution. In Ultra Q, a geologist can casually pick up a text book that explains, with illustrations, about the race of aquatic humanoids that existed 250 million years ago — and continue to thrive today, beneath the sea. Supposedly they only have the IQ of “a gorilla,” but it is hard not to think of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Deep Ones,” who, immortal and vastly more advanced that we apes, have been the true superior life forms of Earth for eons.

As other episodes have shown —with the week’s monster appearing in the opening credits — Japanese shows have a different sense of mystery and suspense than we are used to in the West. Fans of anime from the 80’s and 90’s are used to major “spoilers” being given away in just the title of an episode. If Citizen Kane had been an anime, its title might have been: “Rosebud: the Mysterious Sled of Nostalgic Youth!” So with Ultra Q we are used to episodes begun with titles such as “The Undersea Humanoid Ragon,” which kind of gives away a lot.

Space Directive M774

Bostang

If you had a friend who started going on about seeing a UFO and how a voice starting talking to them through a doll, warning of alien invasion, you’d probably be justified in suspecting a joke, mind-altering substances, or mental disturbance. But given what the characters of Ultra Q have experienced so far, I think Jun and Ippei are a little too quick to dismiss Yuriko’s account of such things. Those are not the strangest things that have happened to these characters so far in this show.

Despite ominous warnings, the monster Bostang is that most unusual of mysterious creatures, one that is easily dealt with by human military power. The would-be invaders from Planet Keel didn’t do due diligence in researching Earth’s defenses. The true creepiness in this episode comes from the “good” alien Zemi, who can hijack our technology, instantly create a false human identity, and reveals that extraterrestrials have thoroughly infiltrated Earth society and live among us everywhere, enjoying the paradise our planet appears to be.

Metamorphosis

Either for budgets reasons or just because it’s an idea that’s hard to resist, this series featuring giant monsters decided to have an story about a giant… giant — that is, a human who grows to Godzilla proportions. What’s interesting visually is that this episode does much more with low camera angles, lenses, and slow motion to create the effect of an enormous creature than is usually done when featuring a ”normal” monster of the same scale. The “realism” of the giant required more careful cinematography than the fantasy of a 50 meter tall lizard, ape, or weirdo space alien. Contrast this with the early “giants” in “The 1/8th Project,” which were shot with more conventional camera work. Even though their proportions relative to their environment were exactly the same as here, they came across as normal human in a miniature world, rather than as giants.

Also this was anther episode where I wondered if the English translation left something out of the script, such as some more explanations about why Prof. Ichinotani had so conveniently invented a weapon that could counter-act the butterfly gigantification poison almost immediately just before it was needed to save the day.

Fury of the South Seas

Though it might not seem that way from our contemporary media experiences, Ultra Q was an expensive program for its time. Even with that budget, in this episode we have some fairly obvious stock footage, both of soldiers, and of reused effects shots from another film. There are pretty good effects though, including an actual octopus photographed to look gigantic — these come off better than the iguanas used as dinosaurs you seem in many American monster films.

Some sociopolitical issues get raised but glossed over in this story, with how casually outside forces decide to try and kill the “god” that has been protecting an isolated island culture from the rest of the world. But that’s a wide-spread mythic form, with a local group sacrificing of lives (either deliberately or through complaisance) to a dragon or other beast, in return for its beneficence. Until, that is, a hero arrives to reveal the monster’s evil, and then slay it

If you are interested in the popular culture aspect of Ultra Q, I recommend checking out the website Black Sun. Among other things they have some fun images from Ultra Q manga adaptations.

Ultra Q Manga

Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 16-19

Short comments and observations on this classic 1960’s Japanese tokusatsu, or “special effects” series. Assume some Spoilers for each episode.

Garamon Toy

Garamon Strikes Back

Ultra Q has not been widely viewed in the United States, even by monster movie fans. In 1967 CBS licensed the series, and even produced an English dub, but did not pursue it further. In Japan though the series was foundational to the science fiction and special effects genre, like Star Trek had been in America and Dr. Who in England. Several monsters from the show have become stars themselves, appearing in other programs and continuing to be popular toys. One of these is Garamon, also know as Pigmon from when it became part of the Ultraman monster menagerie. So Garamon returns for an episode that follows up the earlier “Garadama.” There is also another new element: an enemy with a human face — or at least the appearance of one. We meet the specific extraterrestrials that are using the Garamon creatures to attack Earth. At least that is what we can only assume they are doing, as they no interest in communicating their goals and motivations. Space aliens concealing themselves among humans, hidden flying saucers, and remotely controlled monsters reoccur in the genre throughout the decades.

The 1/8 Solution

When Ultra Q was being developed, and still with the working title of Unbalance, it wasn’t intended to be so focused on “kaiju” — mysterious creatures. Early testing showed that people liked giant monsters quite a lot, so they became the central feature of the series. This episode though seems like a script from the earlier vision of a Twilight Zone or Outer Limits like series. Through most of the episode you’re thinking: hmm, an Ultra Q without giant monsters — but then at the end it turns out there are, after a sort. Seeing ordinary humans clomping around a typical Godzilla-scale miniature city is a weird bit of cognitive dissonance. Another aspect of the crazy world Ultra Q puts us in (“experiencing a parting of mind and body” as the show’s introduction puts it) is that you can’t make predictions about what its reality will consist of. If we were watching an episode of I Love Lucy and she was shrunken down to doll-size, we’d be expecting it to turn out to be a dream. In Ultra Q you never have that reassurance…

The Rainbow’s Egg

If you are transporting enriched uranium, I don’t know which is the most irresponsible: using an ordinary moving truck without additional security or military escort, or not preparing for the possible appearance of a giant monster with a molecular destruction beam known to be digging through the earth searching for radioactive food. This episode once again shows us a monster in the opening credits, giving the audience what the came for. There is also a rich mix of folklore, super science, charming kiddies, mass devastation, and a weapon nearly as apocalyptically destructive as the Oxygen Destroyer from the 1954 Godzilla, but without the angst.

Kemur Man

Challenge from the Year 2020

An episode exploring the dangers of toxic social media and of the rich and powerful exploiting people’s fears and insecurities to entrench their privilege and… Oh, sorry… that’s not this particular nightmare of the 1966’s future. This episode is almost at a Philip K. Dick level of reality warping, with an alien invasion following the plot of a science fiction novel written by a scientist whose research discovered too much. What is the the X-Channel Light, and does it bring life, death, or visions of a future where our super-advanced descendants have warped themselves into bizarre horrors on a mad quest for immortality? And once you’ve been transmitted through the X-Channel, can we trust that you are ever truly “you” again? Probably the scariest Ultra Q yet, with a suit performance that highlights how weird body language is what it takes to make a truly creepy monster. Also a guest appearance by Japanese Lt. Columbo.

Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 12-15

Short comments and observations on this classic 1960’s Japanese tokusatsu, or “special effects” series. Assume some Spoilers for each episode.

I Saw a Bird

Many episodes of Ultra Q reveal their premise immediately, as when that week’s monster appears in the opening credits. This time there a real mystery. Some aerial phenomenon leads to zoo animals bursting from their cages and disappearing. A 1000 year old sailing ship appears in a fishing harbor. A young boy runs away to his private island playground. They are all linked by a small white finch — which is also giant prehistoric bird that maybe is moving through time and space along an unknowable 4th Dimensional journey. Maybe. Just because there is a mystery doesn’t mean there is a solution.

Garamond

Garadama

Even in the 1960’s when Ultra Q aired, we were already sending automated probes into space. Since it does not get much headline news coverage it’s easy to forget that a plutonium powered robot is prowling around poking at things on a Mars this very minute. If there was primitive life on Mars, what would it make of such an entity? And what would we make of a probe sent to Earth by a species vastly more advanced than us? Could we only comprehend it as a bizarre monster with inexplicable goals and behaviors? We might, with our human ingenuity, manage to damage or deactivate it, but could we ever understand it or its purpose?

Tokyo Ice Age

Something of a new phase begins for Ultra Q, with the return of Peguila, a monster from an earlier episode. Ultra Q can be very efficient in telling a story in a half-hour episode, but occasionally ideas show up that could have worked in a longer format. A boy walks to Tokyo in search of his father, a seasonal worker who never returned home. This man is actually an ace Zero pilot from the War, who has turned to drink and become a jewel thief. At first he cares little about the giant monster destroying the city, but a reunion with his son inspires him to take up his old skills and defeat the monster, at the cost of his life. In what time the episode actually has to work with, the plot points of that story are only briefly touched on. And that’s not even getting into topics such as how climate change was already a concern back in the 60’s. We do get to see Yuri-chan busy at her job as reporter and photographer, which is always fun.

Kanegon

Kanegon

The opening credits of an episode are often our only clue as to what kind of story is heading our way. They might empathize the scary, go for the surf-music jive of the show’s usual main theme, or as in this case, a playful march with prancing ragamuffins. The earlier “Grow Up! Little Turtle” mixed a child’s fantasy with reality and folklore, but this time almost everything could be attributed to an elaborate let’s pretend — except the surreal sequence when Kaneo transforms, which is like something out of Dali. The Japanese folklore tradition of “yokai” seems important to comprehend the craziness of this episode, with Kameo’s parents warning him that his misbehavior would turn him into a living, cursed money purse — which is exactly what does befall him. Neither Jun, Ippei, nor Yuriko appear at all in this episode, a first for the series so far.