Ultraman, Episodes 36, 37, 38, & 39

Finishing up my quick thoughts from watching through this classic Japanese Special Effects TV series.

Don’t Shoot Arashi!

We can take as given that there is a lot in this episode that is outlandish and makes little sense from a conventional narrative point of view. We’ll just move ahead with that out of the way. Monster appears, causes trouble, has to be dealt with. Okay.

This is might be the only episode that touches on the SSSP’s position in any larger organization or chain of command. There are, it turns out, people overseeing their activities and who can give them orders. This episode is all about following, and not following, orders. The focus is on Arashi, who, as a man of action, can’t deal with the command to not attack the monster Zaragas when they discover it adapts to attacks used against it, and it grows more aggressive the more it’s confronted.

The episode does a good job of putting Arashi into a personal dilemma. It’s not just his own shoot first attitude, but his authentic heroism and desire to help those in need that get him in trouble. With innocents in danger, and the potential to help them — Ide’s newly invented QX Gun — being the person who he is gives him no choice but to disobey orders and attack Zaragas, even if it means throwing away his career at the SSSP.

It’s a strong premise, but unfortunately lacks a good resolution. Without Ultraman’s intervention it would have been a disaster, since all the warnings about attacking Zaragas are accurate. Arashi’s disobedience does help Ultraman, but he still did disobey direct orders. I wouldn’t want him kicked off the Science Patrol, but I think even if I had seen this story when I was the age of its target audience, I would have felt some dissatisfaction at how few consequences there were to Arashi’s actions. He gets reinstated with barely a punishment, despite how severe his crime was supposed to have been. In this and the next few episodes I have some objections that might seem curmudgeonly, but which I think my 10-year old self would have agreeded with.

The Little Hero

Why does Pigmon unexpectedly appear at a department store? Why are there Pigmon toys on display on the shelves behind him? Why, for that matter, is Pigmon alive at all, given his death back in “The Lawless Monster Zone”? That lasts question is one the SSSP should have asked, because it turns out to have a rather significant answer.

Pigmon has something important to say and at least they grasp the importance of figuring out that message. Both Dr. Gonda, a linguist studying dolphin communication, and Ide get to work on translating Pigmon’s language. It’s unclear if they are working together on the project, or competitively. In any case eventually Pigmon’s warning is understood: he and other kaiju have been return to life by Geronimon, a psychic monster who is resurrecting an army of 60 defeated monsters to destroy the SSSP!

There are internal issues to face as well. The usually cheerful Ide hasn’t been keeping up with weapon maintenance because of a deepening depression. Why should he be working so hard when most of the Science Patrol’s efforts are futile? Isn’t it Ultraman who always saves the day? Why even bother with the Spark Bomb, his newest super weapon invention? The teammate he confesses these doubts to is of course Hayata, which is awkward to say the least.

There are monsters out there to be fought though: a resurrected Telesdon and Dorako. Dorako puzzled me at first, since he’s physically changed from “The Mysterious Comet Tsuifon.” The reference to 60 monster brought back to life did suggest that the SSSP has killed a lot of monsters, even before Ultraman showed up, so I wondered if Dorako was just one of them. Telesdon goes down when when Cap, Fuji, and Arashi combine the power of their Super Guns in a, sigh, previously unrevealed tactic. I know, I know, the idea is to start reinforcing the fact that the SSSP does not always need Ultraman to save the day. I just wish they could have established more things earlier on, rather that pulling them out of a hat so suddenly.

Hayata and Ide are going after Dorako, but Ide doesn’t want to do anything but wait for Ultraman to show up. As Dorako is about to get them, it’s brave Pigmon who rushes out to act as a distraction, and gets crushed by much larger and annoyed kaiju. Shocked by the courageous sacrifice and Hayata’s berating, Ide finally acts and uses the Spark Bomb to utterly annihilate Dorako. Ide was not kidding around when he came up with this super weapon.

The feathered Geronimon himself finally appears, as does Ultraman. The two engage in a battle of both strength and telekinesis. It ultimately takes cooperation between Ultraman and Ide to save the day. The victory has come at a cost though: for the second time Pigmon meets his end. I don’t want to be too harsh, but the death kinda was Ide’s fault, since he could have taken out Dorako if he’d had the courage. At least he seems to have learned a lesson.

The Spaceship Rescue Command

Even the most straightforward adventure focused stories in Ultraman usually have something unique about their approach. This time it’s rocket powered mission to Space! This episode seems a loving homage to sci-fi adventure movies of the 50’s such as Rocketship X-M, Red Planet Mars, or Angry Red Planet.

A strange phenomenon related to a probe exploring “Planet Q” sends the SSSP (except for Fuji, who gets “Uhuru-ed” and stays behind to run communications) out to investigate. They hop aboard an actual interplanetary spacecraft — not just a boosted VTOL — and blast off to a remote space station. The series has now, I believe, achieved a perfect 0% consistency about what space flight technology exists in its world. Along the way they must survive a sudden meteor swarm — something that always happens in these space adventures!

The station is in danger and needs a special part from the space probe on Planet Q for repairs, with only a limited amount of time before it explodes! A tense ticking clock mission unfolds and the heroes must face hazardous alien terrain and two giant monsters to reach the probe in time. One, Kiyla, they can handle, but the second, Saigo, is a bigger problem since it produces blinding flashes on light. A lot of injury to the eye stories recently. That would have been upsetting to me as a kid. Even Ide’s newest weapon — yep, another one — doesn’t help (though it is a cool looking one, a sort of rapid fire handheld rocket launcher). The characters’ bravery and ingenuity keeps them in the game until Ultraman arrives. Even he has a hard time, as Saigo shrugs off his usual attacks and blinds Ultraman for a time. Fortunately, his list of superpowers is extensive, and Ultra Psychokinesis final wins the day.

Farewell, Ultraman

If you look for it, you can find a certain amount of narrative escalation in the later episodes of Ultraman. There has been the increasing sense of unease and doubt about the killing of so many monsters. There have been some meta-threats such as the Monster Graveyard, or the kaiju-resurrecting Geronimon, that refer back to previous stories. Now there is a space armada heading towards Earth, targeting the SSSP specifically. Has this been building behind the scenes for some time? Have recent monsters that have appeared out of nowhere, such as Skydon or Zaragas, been initial scouts or feints to test the Earth? The Zetton are revealed to have advance agents and have worked to infiltrate the Science Patrol HQ. The actual invasion seems to be the culminating strike of a careful plan.

And it’s a plan that works well. The Zetton know how and where to strike and their kaiju has a weapon that attacks Ultraman’s weaknesses and defeats him without a lot of difficulty. Given that this is the concluding episode, and that Japanese shows can get a little harsh, I wasn’t 100% certain that Dr. Iwamoto and Fuji were even going to survive!

The ultimate resolution is little spoiled for me by the two story conceits that it depends on. First is that the Zetton monster was taken out by yet another new super weapon that suddenly appears on the scene. That’s the fourth in four episodes. Developing a super monster killer might have made for a good ongoing storyline, which would have contributed to the theme that the Earth shouldn’t rely on Ultraman always being there. Some connection with Ide’s weapon in “The Little Hero” would have worked well. As is, it just becomes a convenient story device.

The other problem is actual resolution to Ultraman’s story. The debate between Zoffy and a Ultraman is a touching one, with Ultraman maintaining that Hayata’s life is more valuable than his, and, if only one of them can survive, it should be Hayata. That sentiment is then undercut by Zoffy conveniently having two lives with him, so they can both survive. You know he could have mentioned that at the start and avoided all the angst. I suppose that the show’s creators thought it would be too distressing (or confusing) if Ultraman did die, leaving Hayata back to normal — again I think even 10-year old me would have found that way out of the dilemma to be a cheat.

I didn’t intend to wrap up these comments on a negative note, but that is where the conclusion left me. There will be one final post summoning up my thoughts on the series as a whole.

Ultraman, Episodes 32, 33, 34, & 35

Some quick thoughts as I watch through this classic Japanese Special Effects TV series.

The Endless Counterattack

This is about as conventional as an Ultraman episode gets: a natural disaster is reported; turns out to be caused by a monster; the SSSP fights it; Ultraman finishes it off. The stars of the episode are the special effects, which are given both the time and budget to go all out. The flash fire rushing across the detailed scenery is authentically terrifying. We get two complete sequences of the SSSP dealing with an inferno and thoroughly fighting it to the last flame. There is also an extensive tank battle and many building crushing scenes. I felt some real concern for the suit actor, since the Zambolar costume itself appears to catch on fire a couple times…

The thought that human activity has driven this monster to go berserk is becoming a reoccurring theme in the series, along with the team’s regret at having to destroy it.

The one unusual element in the episode is the visit from Patty, an SSSP member from the India branch. The strangest thing is just why she is in the episode at all, as she doesn’t do anything besides provide a brief obstacle to Hayata transforming. It seems a odd waste of a guest star. I always suspect in these cases that an earlier draft of the script had more for her to do and rewrites or schedule problems got in the way. Her main justification for being in the story is to give her closing zinger about seeing Japan’s three specialties: earthquakes, monsters, and Ultraman.

The Forbidden Words

After the last very formulaic episode comes one that is anything but the usual. It’s also one that you can watch and just be thinking: okay another tricky alien, Mefilas, trying to temp Fuji’s brother into trading him the Earth and… wait a minute! “Mefilas” as in… Mephistopheles maybe? Mefilas is certainly an impressive, ominous design (no re-used monster bits here) who comes across as demonic without any of the usual visual short cuts.

And, as in Faust, Mefilas likes to show off his power with spectacular if pointless stunts. The most impressive of which is turning Fuji into a building destroying giant, switching the usual human to monster scale. It’s only fair to Hiroko Sakurai, who, back when she playing Yuriko in Ultra Q, was shrunk down to miniature size in one episode. A whole episode of Kaiju Fuji smashing away at Tokyo would have been cool.

An even stranger and more unnerving scene follows when Mefilas confronts Hayata. Not only does he directly address him as “Ultraman” but Hayata answers and accepts that address. “Are you a human, or an alien?” a confused Mefilas asks, with Hayata responding that he is both. For the first time in the entire series I feel he is not pretended to be Hayata, or acting the role of Ultraman. We are seeing the “real” composite entity — and it’s a little scary.

Fortunately this being is on Earth’s side, defending it along with Fuji’s brother Satoru, who knows with a child’s perception Earth should not be traded away for Mefilas’s promises. The most devilish thing about Mefilas is that, for all his claims to desire it, he doesn’t really want the Earth, literally; he wants Satoru to commit the sin of giving it away. His true goal, as he says, is to “test the human spirit.” One wonders if, like the Adversary of the Old Testament, he is not truly evil himself, but is an agent of a higher power…

He’s still not a nice guy. Mefilas has a temper, and even while protesting about despising violence, he’ll try and kick you in the head if he looses control. The thing that makes him unique from every other enemy so far is that when he calms down, he realizes the pointlessness of physical conflict (and it isn’t cowardice in any way, since he appears Ultraman’s equal in power). Satoru had already beaten him after all…

Present From the Sky

From the start, as this episode gets underway, one might start suspecting that Akio Jissoji is at it again, along with screenwriter Mamoru Sasaki. When we get to the shot pictured above, it’s pretty obvious that this another one of theirs.

I’d describe this one as being a self-parody skit that the Japanese branch members are putting on themselves, as part of the SSSP holiday party or something. There are bits, such their being awoken in the middle of the night and scrambling around in their pajamas, that are funny, but are probably hilarious to the team themselves (we spend so much time on duty it’s like we live here!). Add to that their constant eating — and drinking beer — on the job, the increasingly outlandish solutions to the Skydon problem, and the Scooby-Doo-like chased by the monster scene. Even Ultraman gets in on the self-roast, with Hayata trying to transform with a spoon, and being completely ineffectual fighting the monster.

Skydon itself is just a monster that happened to crash to the Earth one day. Snow, rain, umbrellas, (and suicides) at are all shown as falling things that shape our terrestrial life, disrupting whatever we might be planning for as well crawl across the ground. Even something as refined as a formal tea ceremony is under the whims of cherry blossoms and lark droppings. Or was the whole thing just setting up a reason for Fuji to wear a kimono?

The Monster Graveyard

Creative teams on Ultraman seem to have often worked on pairs of episodes, so this is the second of a set of Jissoji and Sasaki romps.

Recent episodes have brought up the Science Patrol’s regret at having to kill so many monsters. Their remorse is heighten by the discovery of “The Monster Graveyard,” a zone in space containing the bodies of kaiju that Ultraman hurled into space after defeating them — a thing he definitely does not do in the show, save for Gavadon, whom he made into a constellation. The normal end of a monster is to be blasted into flaming bits by a Spacium Beam. I wonder if there is some translation looseness in the English subtitles, and that the forms seen floating in space are actually meant to be ghosts, not literal bodies (they are presented as translucent images).

So saddened is everyone, Ultraman included, that the decided to hold a Buddhist funeral service for the monsters. And then you start wondering how serious this is really meant to be, when an alarm sounds and we see that the ceremony is being held right in the middle of the SSSP control room…

It seems a space rocket has crashed to earth carrying a weird skeletal monster called Seabozu. In another example of this episode’s jumbled continuity, that rocket is described as being Japan’s “first lunar rocket” — despite missions to Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn being prominent in earlier episodes. The 1960’s of course didn’t have our obsession with story “canon.” Even facts such as what year this series is taking place in are at the whim of whoever is writing that particular script.

Seabozu itself just wants to get back to the Monster Graveyard, as the SSSP realize after causing considerable collateral damage attacking the harmless kaiju. This premise pairs oddly with “Present From the Sky” which was also about attempts at returning a monster to space. None of the schemes from that story are tried here. What they do try — just tying Seabozu to another space rocket — is even less effective and well-thought out than any of those.

Fundamentally the problem is one of communication. Seabozu doesn’t understand that people, and Ultraman himself, are trying to help. Their initial attacks when it first showed didn’t make a good impression or earn much trust. Even building a rocket in Ultraman colors doesn’t get the message across too well, and Ultraman has to bully and strong arm Seabozu into accepting the rocket-powered lift.

“Present From The Sky” and this episode are not as visually experimental as some of Jissoji’s episodes. His striking camera work and unexpected compositions still make them stand out. Where he does go over the top are a few later shots where a colored gel is put over the lens, making it seem like the early attempts to colorize black-and-white films. Why does he do this in these shots, one might ask? Maybe he just found the gels lying around and wanted to use them? Or maybe it’s some deep reference to the history of Japanese cinema. There’s a lot of online information about the show’s monsters, the history of the suits, what sounds are used to make their roars, etc., but it isn’t easy to find, in English, more extensive information about topics like that. I’m still a newbie in Tokusatsu knowledge and lore.