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.

Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 8-11

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

Sweet Honey

Terror of the Sweet Honey

In less than a half-hour this episode tells a complete kaiju story: scientific experiments appear to create a giant monster. Human foibles and passions are revealed as the true cause of the disaster. Remorse and self-sacrifice (along with military firepower) end the menace. That the situation occurs at all is due to the zone of unbalance that modern humankind has created both in the world, and in our hearts. This is the central idea of Ultra Q as a concept. We also see why this was such an expensive TV show in its day. Not only is there a giant mole monster and consequences, but the episode also presented a catastrophic train crash, a barrage of rockets destroying a hillside, and a volcanic eruption – none of which were strictly necessary to tell the story.

Baron Spider

In many of the episodes so far, our three continuing characters have been little more than observers to the unbalanced events going on around them. This time they are right in the middle of it – it being a classic haunted house story, one with giant spiders and a bit of Edgar Allen Poe. Once again you never know what genre Ultra Q will put us in each time. The episode also shows their typical disregard for western traditions of suspense and concealment of a menace until a climactic moment: if an Ultra Q episode is going to feature a giant spider, then they are going to show you a giant spider in the opening credits! That life-sized puppet was expensive so they are going to give it as much screen time as they can.

M1

The Underground Super Express Goes West

It’s just my opinion, but I think the development of a completely synthetic life form capable of accelerated growth and human level intelligence is a bigger deal than a very fast underground train. Yet in this episode the latter gets big press coverage, while the former is just casually mentioned. It’s treated a bit too casually it turns out. With a high tech transportation system and elaborate miniatures that exist mostly to explode spectacularly, much of this episode felt like the British puppet show Thunderbirds — which was very popular in Japan. We also get two boys in a trench coat pretending to be a adult, so this episode has a lot going on, to say the least. The featured monster here is said to be modeled on a popular Japanese comedian of the day. Maybe that is a clue that could explain the cryptic lasts words as the monster flies into space: “I am seagull!” It could be as if this had been an American show, and the monster had white hair, an arrow through its head, played a banjo and said “I’m a wild and crazy guy!” Or it could be an Anton Chekhov reference.

Balloonga

From the comedy of last episode, we quickly jump back to a dangerous monster story tinged with personal lost and grief. I wonder sometimes about the clarity of the English translation of Ultra Q. This episode gets kind of fuzzy in its timeline, with events sometimes seeming to have occurred recently and sometimes years ago. Our three heroes are again directly involved in the action, with poor Ippei-kun getting badly injured, and thus establishing a personal connection between the characters and the plight of hospitals dealing with patients who can’t be evacuated away from monster danger. Balloonga is itself an interesting monster, since it is not malevolent or intentionally destructive. Its energy absorbing metabolism is its natural biology, just one that is incompatible with our civilization.