Quick Thought: Ultraseven

I just finished watching the second Ultraman series, Ultraseven, and felt I should say at least a little something about it. The goal of my posts is to mostly write about the things I like or find interesting in shows, rather than go negative, so I’ll just mention a few of the issues I had with this series. Overall I was kind of lukewarm about it through most of the run, though I did start to enjoy it more as the later episodes got stranger and more unpredictable.

Predictably was the main problem. Since every episode was about some race of space alien trying to invade Earth, the only potential surprises came from finding out what crazy scheme that week’s bad guys would try to pull off. I wondered a lot about what was so great about Earth that everybody in the galaxy was so keen to come here. There certainly were some very imaginative ideas for these invasions — stealing entire city blocks, making giant robots out of old battleships, microscopic vampire insects, and so on.

The show was clearly taking inspiration from Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, but for all that I admire Tohl Narita’s monster designs, the Ultrahawk aircraft never achieve the personality of the Thunderbirds, which is a problem given how much screen time is devoted to the ships flying around and attacking the alien spacecraft.

My understanding is that Ultraseven was a big hit when in it debuted in 1967 and remains one of the most popular shows in the franchise. I can see they were going for a more straightforward and serious tone than the previous series, yet that often led to some cognitive dissidence with fundamental elements of the premise, such as the bizarre aliens, the crazy schemes, and of course the presence of a size-changing, red-costumed superhero, whose origin, goals, and true nature are never questioned.

I know the different Ultra series all have their own styles and ways to the arrange and present the core concepts they all share, so I’m curious to see where The Return of Ultraman takes things.

For an episode by episode review of Ultraseven, I recommend checking out the write-ups at Scrapbook Infinity.

Kaiju & Competency in Gamera II: Attack of the Legion

Please see my introduction to this series in my previous post.

For a summary of this film see the write up at Wikizilla.

After the success of Gamera: Defender of the Universe, the same creative team of director Shusuke Kaneko, screenwriter by Kazunori Itō, and special effects director Shinji Higuchi quickly went on to make a sequel, Gamera: Attack of the Legion (or Advent of Legion, as it was first called) in 1996. The movie is a direct follow-up, though the connections are mainly through short appearances by a few characters from Gamera: Defender of the Universe, a glimpse of a un-repaired Tokyo Tower, and mentions of the earlier Gamera vs. Gyaos incidents. In my previous post I described the ways the first Heisei Gamera film distinguished itself from the conventions of Godzilla kaiju eiga. Legion, in those terms, is a return more a traditional approach to the genre, though its visuals and artistic design progress beyond anything that had been done before in portraying a world beset by gigantic, fighting monsters.

Gamera: Attack of the Legion has some of the elements of body horror I described as a feature of the previous film. The Legion swarm is certainly terrifying on a human scale, and they make some bloody attacks in the early parts of the movie. The horror is lessened a little as we learn the monsters are going after people’s electronics rather than their flesh, as the hungry Gyaos were. Gamera himself takes the most physical abuse, as he is bitten, stabbed, and even has chucks of his body blown away, green blood pouring out and spraying across the screen. The image of a writhing Gamera, entirely covered by the Legion swarm, is certainly nightmarish. It is all in the Gamera tradition though, as he suffered this kind of abuse frequently in his Showa films as well.

Explosion effect in Evangelion

The mythological and supernatural themes are also minimized in this story. There are a couple biblical allusions, staring with the opening titles where a cross appears in a burst of fire only to transform into the katakana character “me” in “Gamera.” And of course the name “Legion” comes from a soldier quoting Mark 5:9. I don’t think these Christian references really mean much in context of this film.  Like their use in the Neon Genesis Evangelion anime, they are just there to broadly suggest the scale of the situation and its apocalyptic danger. Asagi Kusanagi, who shared a spiritual bond with Gamera in the last movie, makes a reappearance, but their link is greatly weakened now. The supernatural side of Gamera only appears in the last act of the film, where he is almost literally prayed back to life by crowds of worried children, and when he calls on the life-force of the planet itself to make a final attack on the Legion Mother. That whole sequence is very manga/anime like, resembling the climax of a Dragonball Z story where Son Goku channels spiritual energy from all living things to finish off a foe through an ultimate special move.

JSDF at work

The plot of Gamera: Attack of the Legion has few surprises for long-time viewers of monster movies. The first half of this film reminded me greatly of the 1954 American monster film Them. Not just from the menace being a swarm of insects (Them, with its giant-sized puppet ants, is very much in a kaiju tokusatsu style) but that the focus is on the military dealing with the problem. Once the danger is identified, the human response is science, reason, careful strategy, courage, and effective tactics. In Legion it is the Japanese Self-Defense Force at work and they do their job pretty darn well. During the first Legion attack on Sapporo, the JSDF have a handle on things. While it is Gamera who shows up to destroy the first giant flower, it isn’t clear that the humans really needed his help.

In contemporary American monster films the military often makes dumb decisions, gets in the heroes’ way, or might even be secretly the real villains. In most daikaiju films from Japan, the military is, at worse, just ineffective, their weapons useless against the monsters. Often, in fact, they get things done. Sometimes there is an escalating back and worth of weapons and tactics, as in the struggle against the extraterrestrial invaders in Ishiro Honda’s 1957 The Mysterians. In the Ultra Q and Ultraman shows, human military (sometimes with the aide of advanced super-weapons) manage to fight off and defeat monsters effectively. In Legion, by the time the Legion Mother shows up, the humans are indeed outclassed. The military still acts with efficiency and organization, putting the safety of civilians first. Legion contains many of the classic kaiju eiga scenes of civilians being evacuated. Even when the entirety of the city of Sendai is wiped off the Earth (in a very anime-styled blast) the impression is that no one was actually killed, thanks to the military’s efforts.

The question of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution comes up again in this movie and we are given a scene of the Prime Minister making an official statement. Legion’s attacks are ruled as fully justifying the military acting in self-defense. Cue the montage of tanks and jet fighters. The Gamera films were made in cooperation with the JSDF so it isn’t too surprising that they, in this film particularly, are shown in a positive light.

While on the whole, the plot and characters in Legion don’t stray far from the conventions of kaiju eiga, it is the visuals and special effects of the film that make it stand out from anything else in the genre. Just opening the movie on the snowy, cold island of Hokkaido is an almost unheard of choice. The original Ultraman TV series had a couple episodes in Winter settings but it is very rare location to use. Even when other movies have shown the city of Sapporo being destroyed, the weather has been temperate (the product placement of Sapporo Beer is also amusingly blatant in the early sequences).

Legion concept art by Mahiro Maeda

Shinji Haguchi and his team’s special effects are what make this film what it is. He developes the style used in Gamera: Defender of the Universe even farther. The fundamental artistic approach is to keep everything on the human level. Most shots look upwards toward the monsters, often with a human point-of-view at the titans above. The kaiju are also frequently seen at a distance, across wide views of countrysides or houses. The camera will sweep over or through the environment as well, a shocking reminder of how a fixed, unmoving camera is so often the norm in special effects shots (and a requirement for techniques such as stop-motion animation, until recent times when sophisticated, computer driven motion-control cameras were available). Keeping everything in motion is vital to the look of the monster scenes. Gamera is a very active, kinetic monster, compared to the limbering Godzilla. The Legion Queen is designed to always be moving, all claws and feelers and mandibles. It is such a non-humanoid and alien creature a viewer’s mind struggles to even grasp its overall shape. The Legion swarm too scuttles and buzzes around. They are often portrayed by Haguchi’s increasing use of computer graphics. Even when the cgi doesn’t measure up to 2021 standards, it contributes to what makes the Heisei Gamera movies so memorable. After over 40 years of giant monster movies we were seeing images that we had never seen before.

Ultraseven episode: “The Marked Town.”

While the Gamera films make bold artistic innovations, they are also part of a strong artistic tradition. I thought about that a lot during my recent rewatch of these films. Since the last time I’d viewed the Gamera films, I have watched a lot of Ultraman and seen the artistic experiments and designs explorations of those series. There are plenty of visual homages and references to the Ultra series in the Heisei Gamera — as there are in Neon Genesis Evangelion, which was being made at roughly the same time by some of the same people! Gamera and Evangelion are siblings in many ways. And then, looking at what came after, Shin Godzilla becomes more clearly the artistic follow up to the Gamera series. While still an astonishing achievement in kaiju eiga, Shin Godzilla’s visuals fit well in an artistic continuity of Ultraman -> Gamera/Evangelion -> Shin Godzilla.

While Godzilla’s status as villain or hero changes from film to film, era to era, Legion strengthens Gamera’s position as a heroic figure. Much of the injury he suffers in the movies comes holding off Legion while humans try to escape. He is willing to fight to the end and to defend… well, the movie ends with the warning that Gamera is the defender of the Earth as a whole, and that if humans threaten the Earth, Gamera could become our enemy as well. The themes of the relationships between individual human, kaiju, humanity, and the planet as a whole continue in the next Gamera film in this series.