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.

Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 4-7

Seven episodes in and Ultra Q has established itself as a show where just about anything can happen. When you start an episode there’s no telling what kind of story might be coming, other that it will probably involve a giant monster of some sort. Here are a few comments and observations. Assume some Spoilers for each episode.

Ultra Q

Mammoth Flower

The original title of the series was “Unbalance” and this episode is an expression of that theme. Humanity has unbalanced nature and events such as a giant blood-drinking flower blossoming in downtown Tokyo are just going to happen. “It’s a time when you don’t know what will fall from the sky,” a character says.

Some different special effects techniques were used in this episode. Eiji Tsuburaya, whose company produced Ultra Q is known for miniatures, pyrotechnics, and monster suits, but this episode experimented with stop motion, photographic backdrops, and compositing. It’ll be interesting to see if the show continues to try new approaches to depicting this out of balance world.

Peguila is Here!

This is the first episode so far that really doesn’t make much sense. There’s a mishmash of ideas that don’t fit together or are ever adequately explained. In some scenes it’s just unclear what is actually happening or even where characters are and what they are seeing. Some of the blame might go to poor translation, but this could be a script that never had a clear idea of where it was going from the start.

Tarō

Grow Up! Little Turtle

Occasionally Ultra Q will remind you that it is a show from the 60’s. Trippy is how you’d describe this mixture of reality, child’s fantasy, slapstick comedy, and fairytale. Our usual crew of Jun, Yuriko and Ippei make a cameo appearance, suggesting that at least some of what is happening is “real” but since the main character of the episode is named after a well-known figure from Japanese folklore, things get “meta” quickly.

S.O.S. Mount Fuji

This episode seems written around two distinct ideas, but the half-hour format doesn’t have enough room to fully explore either. There’s a monster awoken by volcanic activity at Mt. Fuji and a regional “Tarzan” who has been living in the woods on his own since infancy. It’s mostly plot convenience that two ever cross paths. But I’ll give this episode points for something I thought only occurred in 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, that is, a human being taking out a kaiju in direct hand-to-hand combat. The episode also features a bungling but well intentioned rural policeman, who I suspect is a stock comedic character that Japanese viewers would be familiar with.