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.

Ultraman, Episodes 22 & 23

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

Overthrow the Surface

This commentary is going to be more pictures than words because… well, there are things you have to see to believe. I couldn’t have been more than five minutes into this episode before I had to stop, go back to the beginning, and call my wife into the room to confirm that what I thought I was seeing on the screen was really there.

Even after all the episodes of Ultra Q and Ultraman I’ve watched so far, I wasn’t expecting to be seeing a French New Wave art movie, as if Jean Luc Godard was guest director this week. But it’s just our boys, screenwriter Mamoru Sasaki and director Akio Jissoji at it again. Somehow Jissoji was completely unleashed in this episode, surpassing what he’d done with Pearl Defense Directive and Terrifying Cosmic Rays.

We have uncomfortably too close close-ups:

Whip pans, jump cuts, and freeze frames:

Tables and walls blocking shots:

Multiple characters talking and shouting at once:

Hand-held cameras and strange compositions:

The SSSP control room has never been lit like this before:

And why are we suddenly in a TV studio?

And then there’s the eyeless subterranean humans who are the baddies here. I wonder if they might be the descendants of the ancient civilization who imprisoned the monsters in Demons Rise Again?

As the title suggests, these guys are out to take over the surface of the Earth after their long concealment underground. The plan includes disrupting communications and unleashing a giant monster. By the way I take back my earlier theory about the origins of the plastic monster toy that became the Dungeon & Dragons monster the Bullette. Telesdon is clearly the inspiration. Even he gets an uncomfortable close up

But their master stroke is capturing Hayata, since they have discovered he is Ultraman! There’s just the flaw that they don’t know Ultraman is an extraterrestrial and, though he shares life with his human half, mental control over Hayata does not carry over to Ultraman. So it doesn’t go well for then subterraneans when he transforms.

Ultraman burrows out of the Earth and finishes off Telesdon, not even taking long enough to trigger the Color Timer. Then there is a motionless close up of a SSSP helmet that sits on screen for nearly 4 silent seconds.

What is going on here? Isn’t this a kid’s superhero TV show? The dutch angles from the Batman TV series and the lighting designs from Star Trek used to seem avant-garde before this. All these shows were on the air at the same time in 1966, weirdly enough. Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner was being filmed at this time, but wouldn’t be on the air until the next year. Thunderbirds and Dr. Who were also on, though they’d already been running for a couple seasons.

My Home is Earth

Akio Jissoji and Mamoru Sasaki are still onboard for this episode. While it isn’t quite as visually over-the-top it still goes places we are not prepared for.

You have to wonder from the start about how many accidents (by accidents read “planes suddenly exploding in midair”) involving representatives to a peace conference have to occur before somebody decided to, like, maybe stop sending them? I guess they have to make the point clear. It’s interesting that the possibility of space aliens being involved is considered early in the investigation.

I won’t comment much on the order to watch for an invisible rocket. I’m sure Fuji was rolling her eyes back at HQ. There’s a lot of procedural problem solving in this episode. Ide really demonstrates his competency, though Cap doesn’t appreciate it. The script is setting up the theme that the officials in power don’t understand the sacrifices that those with ability make to accomplish their goals.

There are some interesting visuals throughout these sequences, such as a top down perspective on the control panel of the VTOL, or what is presumably the hanger at SSSP HQ. These are locations, or at least point of views we haven’t seem before, though not quite as radical a presentation as last episode.

The real twist is the revelation that the trouble causing monster is not an alien, but Jamila, a human astronaut who was lost on space and was abandoned by “a certain country” who did not want to publicly admit the failure. Now the strange rigors of space have turned Jamila into a creature hungry for revenge.

This is all explained during a spotlight illuminated outdoor meeting, something Akio Jissoji seems fond of, though now he takes in farther visually than ever before.

Ide is having none of this. Nobody before has considered the consequences of having a job such as being on the Science Patrol. On a regular basis they get involved in forces humans can barely comprehend. They fight and kill entities that are so dangerous there’s not time to even consider the ethics or ramifications. There’s only so much denial a sensitive person such as Ide is capable of.

But these are people who have joined a system, have for some time been complicit in the actions of their superiors. This is for the greater good… isn’t it?

Jamila manages to damage the Peace Conference location, but of course he is ultimately defeated by Ultraman. Dying, Jamila seems to be reaching out to something. I wonder which that “certain country” who wanted him dead and forgotten was?

Jamila didn’t stop the Peace Conference, but he did succeed in being remembered — at least as a brave explorer who sacrificed himself for the advancement of humankind. That is what his memorial proclaims to posterity. Others have learned a different lesson:

So some very heavy and dark content for what was, again, a children’s superhero show from that era. There are themes that one might expect in shows of today, such as The Legend of Korra or Steven Universe. But then this was the 1960s and issues of war, the violence of society, and the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy were on people’s minds. Even a giant monster show wanted people to be thinking about such questions.