Ultraman, Episodes 28, 29, 30, & 31

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

Human Specimens 5 & 6

After the Baltan and Pigmon, arguably the most recognizable alien/kaiju in the Ultraman franchise are the Dada. I was very curious for them to show up here, in their first appearance. They were not what I expected, but this show constantly messes with your expectations.

Before we get to that: imagine you are on your way to a work conference, or to pick up an important report. But you get delayed by a nightmarish bus crash. You wake up on a barren hillside, the burning wreckage of the vehicle below you. Your next action? Well, if you really take your job responsibilities seriously, you stand up, dust yourself off, climb the rest of the way back up the mountain, and go get that darned report!

You see, the SSSP have been looking into a series of mysterious bus accidents. How do you investigate such occurrences? You get on a bus and see what happens of course. No sense wasting time by, like, warning people and shutting down the bus service before anybody gets hurt. Captain Muramatsu and Ide are on this assignment. Right on schedule, the bus crashes. And by crash I mean, tumbles of a cliff and bursts into flames. Ide breaks his leg but he and the other passengers are rescued, except for Cap, and the aforementioned employee of the year, Akigawa, both of whom were thrown from the accident and left there.

Akigawa is there to pick up a late report from the Cosmic Ray Institute at the top of the hill. But the institute has been taken over by extraterrestrials who are shrinking humans as specimens. The Dada are, appropriate to their name, strange looking. The humans are at first confused, thinking that there is a whole group of invaders. Actually there is just one, whose face occasionally shifts between three different forms. Why not? It’s only from our human perspective that having one face is the norm.

This poor guy, rather than being a trickster such as Baltan, or a manipulator such as Zarab, is really just a harassed salaryman, being ordered about by his demanding boss. He’s not even that good at his job. Before even Ultraman shows up, he’s being kicked and chased around by Cap. Dada has the usual space alien powers to take over humans, grow to giant size, fly, and teleport around, but he’s pathetic in combat with Ultraman. I know Dada shows up a lot in later Ultraman series and I wonder how much of this interpretation carries through.

Challenge of the Underground

The direct influence of the British puppet/special effects show Thunderbirds on Ultraman is something I’d like to look at more closely sometime. This is another episode where that influence is at work. They don’t mess around with the premise this time: within the first minute of the episode a giant monster is bursting out of the ground and the SSSP’s phone is ringing. Fortunately Ide has just finished a subterranean vehicle, the Mole! No, wait that’s Thunderbirds. This is the Vellucidar. It gets loaded onto Thunderbird 2, I mean onto the Jet VTOL, and the team heads out.

A straightforward monster fight ensues, complicated by this and that, such as a crazed miner who thinks the monster Goldon is after the gold that is rightfully his, Fuji getting injured, and Cap and Ide struggling with the malfunctioning Vellucidar. The team manages to defeat the monster, and that would have been end of a day’s work, if it wasn’t for a second Goldon.

That means Ultraman gets to take a turn. While watching this show I have also been going through the 1990’s series of Godzilla films, where the primary conflicts between kaiju consists of them standing at a distant from each other and shooting energy beams and missiles. It is quite a contrast to the physical wrestling, pounding, choking, and frequent dismemberment of an Ultraman fight.

Phantom of the Snow Mountains

Another snowy mountain setting and another giant snow creature, though a very different story than “The Mysterious Comet Tsuifon.” There’s a lot of Japanese myth and folklore behind this one, with tales of Snow Women, mysterious orphans, and ghostly winter spirits, but there’s enough universality in such tales that I don’t think I’m missing too much.

It’s a spooky episode that makes the most of the remote location. A reoccurring motif are chases through deep snow, with a nightmare quality to the slow motion pursuit. There is also the repeated danger of a trap or pit suddenly opening in the snow beneath you, sending you to a frozen death.

Given the hard sci-fi flavor of most episodes of this series, it’s unusual to see the classic monster movie subtext of fear and superstition being the true danger at work here. Woo is not seen to do anything violent when not protecting the Snow Girl. Yet this a world where destructive monsters are out there and, since way back in the first episode, the SSSP’s policy has been to kill on sight. So there’s some real conflict over what is the correct action here. As is becoming common, it’s Ide who has the most doubts, particularly since he starts to identify with the Snow Girl, as they both lost their mothers as children.

But let us not overlook the gleefully silly scenes of the SSSP zipping across the slopes in the helmets and uniforms — but I guess they are designed to provide protection in battle and from all sorts of hostile environments, so maybe they do make great snow gear.

Given the small details I go on about in these posts, it sometimes feels like this show is deliberately messing with me. When Hayata, recovering from an injury, transforms into Ultraman to fight Woo, we cut from inside the ski lodge to Ultraman standing outside it — contrasting from other episodes where Ultraman has erupted out of the building Hayata was in. You think, okay, I guess he wanted to avoid destroying the building this time (they were there to help out the ski resort after all) — but then Ultraman immediately dodges Woo’s charge so that the creature crashes into the lodge, flattening it.

The tussle between Ultraman and Woo is interrupted by the sad death of the Snow Girl, who has been chased to exhaustion by the angry villagers and left to perish in the cold. Woo slowly fades into nothingness. The SSSP and ourselves are left to ponder just what the truth was. Was Woo, as Ide thought, the spirit of the Snow Girl’s mother? Was it a projection of her mind? Was she herself just a spirit? I wonder about the white rabbit that played with her. Where it and Woo both manifestation of the Snow Mountain Phantom? A sad and downbeat episode, and one where the good guys did not win, even if the monster menace was removed.

Who Goes There

Some episodes of Ultraman are traditional kaiju stories condensed down to 25 minutes. Some are well constructed mysteries, or satires, or experimental art projects. And sometimes it seems like the writers listened in on a group of eight year-olds playing make-believe and took down an exact transcript of the kids’ game and used it for a script.

The episode title might be a clue to getting a handle on just what is going here, since it seems a direct call out to John W. Campbell’s short story by that name — adapted multiple times into movies as The Thing. The alien of the short story was a shape changer that duplicated and replaced humans, but the 1951 movie made it a plant-based vampire. Keronia is a mixture of both — though its origins are in the jungle and there’s no extraterrestrial involvement this time.

That’s a solid starting point for a story. And we get some odd but believable details from the world of this show. Such as Bolivia having an SSSP branch, and that the strange visitor, Goto, was recruited as a child (like Hoshino was). After that, things just get nuts. I usually try to use a summary of an episode as a framework for my notes and commentary, but there is so much crazy in this story that I wouldn’t know where to start. Maybe with the advice that the SSSP check on the usually usage of the English term “Rest Room”? After that I’m flummoxed.

I think the biggest problem is the sudden change in trajectory the plot takes in the last act. We go into it being told that this is a vampire story — it “Features Vampire Plant Keronia” in the credits. A lot of vampire stuff, a lot of Dracula stuff, goes on, with Goto infiltrating human society, planting seeds of infestation, stalking people at night, etc. And then there’s an abrupt pivot. It’s like, say Van Helsing, Mina, and company are about to close in on Dracula’s lair when he swoops out and says: “Ah-hah! You didn’t count my… fleet of flying saucers!” And he then grows in a 50m giant.

All the puzzling activity in this story may have been part of the subtle master plan of the super intelligent Keronia, yet in the end though it appears they forgot to put any weapons or defenses on their invasion fleet, as a single VTOL was knocking a lot of them out of the sky.

Earlier episodes would set up circumstances where Hayata would be separated from his teammates, giving him the chance to transform. Now he replies on the technique of just running very fast and hiding. And note, this time he bursts out the building Hayata was in, the opposite of what happened last time in “Phantom.” I think Ultraman just decides to appear in whatever way he thinks will look cool. Giant Goto holds his own for a bit, until Ultraman pulls out yet another superpower, the Ultra-Attack Ray, which is just showing off at this point.

Ultraman, Episodes 24, 25, 26, & 27

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

The Undersea Science Center

The British special effects series Thunderbirds, in many ways a similar show to Ultraman, had a running gag that is painfully awkward to watch from a modern perspective. The joke? Women are bad drivers! Even the otherwise super-competent spy Lady Penelope is hopeless behind the wheel. Hilarious…

I had a little concern that things might go that way in this episode of Ultraman, but thankfully it doesn’t, at least in the English translation. Fuji faults herself for hitting the pipeline, but nobody openly calls her out on it, or blames it on her being a woman. Throughout the series Fuji has always seemed equally competent as anyone else piloting the various SSSP vehicles. Hayata of course must have the worst record. I do wish someone had gotten around to mentioning that the accident was 100% monster related, that Fuji never hit anything.

With people trapped in a dangerous situation, and all sorts of special gear and vehicles needed to rescue them, this does seem like a Thunderbirds story. The underwater diving scenes add a new element to the team’s range of skills and capabilities. They are the Science Special Search Party after all.

They also fortunately have Ultraman around to deal with the giant monster side of things. Note, if you are keeping track of such things — like I am — that Hayata transforms from inside the submarine and then returns to it when the monster is beaten. Though Arashi seems suspicious for some reason, which is odd given he was mostly unconscious during Ultraman’s appearance this time.

The Mysterious Comet Tsuifon

Sometimes episodes start throwing out so much crazy stuff so quickly that it’s hard to get your bearings. Comet on it’s way to hit the Earth. It’s not going to hit the Earth. It’s emitting “Cosmic Rays” that might trigger hydrogen bombs. Some missing bombs are uncounted for, though a monster probably ate them… I’d be so befuddled I might serve coffee with salt too. That’s the second time the salt gag has been used in the show. Is that a cultural thing where coffee with sugar is a less familiar drink in 60’s Japan?

All that seems to be just a convoluted setup to get the team to the snow covered Japanese Alps to fight a giant abominable snowman and a giant praying mantis kind of thing that appears to have come from the comet. Actually, the SSSP gets the monsters to fight each other, something that again leaves Ide questioning the ethics of what they do.

And then a third monster shows up — Red King is back. It’s the one that actually ate the bombs. As much as they’d like to let these fight-crazed kaiju kill each other, the risk of setting off the bombs is too high. So Hayata runs off, by himself, to (somehow) draw one of the monsters away so they can be dealt with individually. And he succeeds! Though he does get knocked off a cliff by Red King, a fall (a big fall) he survives long enough to summon Ultraman. I don’t know quite how he lives through this, unless Ultraman’s life force can revitalize him as needed, as did back in the original accident that bound them together.

Ide and Arashi go after Guigass, the snowman, who seems like he just wants to go home. The previously contemplative Ide looses all hesitancy once he gets an opportunity to use one of his new weapons, the Powerful Drying Missile, to utterly obliterate the poor monster. Meanwhile, Ultraman and Red King are going at it pretty seriously. There’s concern that Ultraman will use his Specium Beam and set off the bombs, but the Warrior of Light is on top of things, pulling out a new superpower that can levitate and freeze a enemy long enough for the him to be sliced up by the Ultra-Slash. The head and neck chunk, which contains the bombs is carried safely into space.

After the monster-melee, the whole comet subplot was seeming unnecessary. Then Cap closes things off with a optimistic speculation: that, a thousand years from now, when the comet returns, that not only will humanity be advanced enough in technology so that Tsuifon can be diverted, but also wise enough to not endanger itself with its own weapons. So there was something of a point in all this, even if the final script was a mish-mash of ideas, padded with monster wrestling.

The Monster Highness, Parts 1 & 2

As a kid, a two-part episode of a show seemed a big deal. “The Menagerie” from Star Trek had a real sense of the epic about it. I’m not quite sure why this story warrants two episodes of Ultraman, other than that structure lets them show the extremely rare occurrence of Ultraman loosing a fight.

The title and the double-length of this story might suggest we are in for an exploration of the background and origins of the kaiju plaguing the Earth. Maybe we’ll meet the King of Monsters? But… no. The script for these episodes was co-written by Bunzo Watatsuki, who also wrote “The Mysterious Comet Tsuifon.” As in that episode, we get some humorous insights into the life of ordinary folk, struggling to get by in the era of Unbalance. The episode name ironically refers to Osamu, a young boy whose obsession with monsters has earned him that title among his friends.

Though the nickname is meant mockingly by the kids who, amazingly, don’t believe in monsters. I don’t know what’s up with that. Are they from families of Kaiju-truthers who think all the havoc and rampages are Fake News? That idea fades away quickly though, as we see that the kids don’t just know about the SSSP, but follow their adventures closely enough to recognize them by name.

The plot of this episode is set in motion by people breaking Rule Number One of dealing with kaiju: do not capture one and bring it into town to appear in a show. No need to detail what happens when this is tried — though it was cool to see multiple Jet VTOLs, presumably requisitioned from other SSSP branches, working together as monster transport. Once the monster Gomora is loose, the military can do nothing to slow it, and the SSSP’s hand weapons are no better. Even worse, it can burrow underground and potentially show up anywhere without warning.

Where is does pop up is near Osamu’s apartment complex. His Highness essentially summons Ultraman — this being the rare occasion when we don’t see Hayata transform. This variation on the routine does not go well. He’s stomped and pummeled by Gomora’s powerful tail. For the first time in many episodes, the narrator gives the entire speech about the Color Timer running out and Ultraman is forced to flee, letting the monster burrow away. Also the Beta Capsule gets knocked away, because I guess Ultraman normally has it in a tiny pocket somewhere? The capsule is found by Osamu, though having it does not allow him to Ultraboy or anything. That might have been fun, but I guess things don’t work that way.

We’re into the second part now and everybody’s desperate to stop Gomora before it destroys Osaka Castle. A lot of focus is still on Osamu and his family, with household comedy and the lazy reluctance of the boy’s father to take monster menaces seriously. It’s striking how bleak and barren their apartment complex is. Kids throughout this series are seen playing in junk yards and construction sites. Was this considered acceptable suburban life in 60’s Japan, or is the show still presenting the dangers of Unbalance that Ultra Q warned about?

Ide’s weapons and gadgets once again are saving the day, particularly since the Mars-133 manages to blast off Gomora’s tail — which then has to be dealt with almost like a separate monster. Hayata finally notices that he’s missing the Beta Capsule. With no Ultraman, they then completely fail to save Osaka Castle. The SSSP is good at fighting monsters, but not so much at preventing collateral damage, as with the oil refinery back in “Oil SOS.” Fortunately Osamu meets up with Hayata and returns the Beta Capsule. Lacking its tail, Gomora does poorly in the rematch with Ultraman.

This time it’s Arashi who is having regrets about their actions. I’m guessing Osaka Castle gets quickly rebuilt, as do so many landmarks crushed by giant monsters in Japan. I think Godzilla destroys it at least twice.