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.