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.

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.