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?