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?

Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 20-23

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

The Undersea Humanoid Ragon

Ragon

It would be fascinating to see a natural history textbook from the world of Ultra Q. The existence of giant monsters seems an accepted part of things. People are surprised at the appearance of a kaiju, but not shocked and horrified. In the 1954 Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Gillman is a discovery that overturns every conventional theory of biology and evolution. In Ultra Q, a geologist can casually pick up a text book that explains, with illustrations, about the race of aquatic humanoids that existed 250 million years ago — and continue to thrive today, beneath the sea. Supposedly they only have the IQ of “a gorilla,” but it is hard not to think of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Deep Ones,” who, immortal and vastly more advanced that we apes, have been the true superior life forms of Earth for eons.

As other episodes have shown —with the week’s monster appearing in the opening credits — Japanese shows have a different sense of mystery and suspense than we are used to in the West. Fans of anime from the 80’s and 90’s are used to major “spoilers” being given away in just the title of an episode. If Citizen Kane had been an anime, its title might have been: “Rosebud: the Mysterious Sled of Nostalgic Youth!” So with Ultra Q we are used to episodes begun with titles such as “The Undersea Humanoid Ragon,” which kind of gives away a lot.

Space Directive M774

Bostang

If you had a friend who started going on about seeing a UFO and how a voice starting talking to them through a doll, warning of alien invasion, you’d probably be justified in suspecting a joke, mind-altering substances, or mental disturbance. But given what the characters of Ultra Q have experienced so far, I think Jun and Ippei are a little too quick to dismiss Yuriko’s account of such things. Those are not the strangest things that have happened to these characters so far in this show.

Despite ominous warnings, the monster Bostang is that most unusual of mysterious creatures, one that is easily dealt with by human military power. The would-be invaders from Planet Keel didn’t do due diligence in researching Earth’s defenses. The true creepiness in this episode comes from the “good” alien Zemi, who can hijack our technology, instantly create a false human identity, and reveals that extraterrestrials have thoroughly infiltrated Earth society and live among us everywhere, enjoying the paradise our planet appears to be.

Metamorphosis

Either for budgets reasons or just because it’s an idea that’s hard to resist, this series featuring giant monsters decided to have an story about a giant… giant — that is, a human who grows to Godzilla proportions. What’s interesting visually is that this episode does much more with low camera angles, lenses, and slow motion to create the effect of an enormous creature than is usually done when featuring a ”normal” monster of the same scale. The “realism” of the giant required more careful cinematography than the fantasy of a 50 meter tall lizard, ape, or weirdo space alien. Contrast this with the early “giants” in “The 1/8th Project,” which were shot with more conventional camera work. Even though their proportions relative to their environment were exactly the same as here, they came across as normal human in a miniature world, rather than as giants.

Also this was anther episode where I wondered if the English translation left something out of the script, such as some more explanations about why Prof. Ichinotani had so conveniently invented a weapon that could counter-act the butterfly gigantification poison almost immediately just before it was needed to save the day.

Fury of the South Seas

Though it might not seem that way from our contemporary media experiences, Ultra Q was an expensive program for its time. Even with that budget, in this episode we have some fairly obvious stock footage, both of soldiers, and of reused effects shots from another film. There are pretty good effects though, including an actual octopus photographed to look gigantic — these come off better than the iguanas used as dinosaurs you seem in many American monster films.

Some sociopolitical issues get raised but glossed over in this story, with how casually outside forces decide to try and kill the “god” that has been protecting an isolated island culture from the rest of the world. But that’s a wide-spread mythic form, with a local group sacrificing of lives (either deliberately or through complaisance) to a dragon or other beast, in return for its beneficence. Until, that is, a hero arrives to reveal the monster’s evil, and then slay it

If you are interested in the popular culture aspect of Ultra Q, I recommend checking out the website Black Sun. Among other things they have some fun images from Ultra Q manga adaptations.

Ultra Q Manga