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.