It’s been a long time coming, gang! I’ve teased it the last few months, did a dry run (of sorts) with Redman, and even did some special scheduling and pre-planning to boost my chances of even pulling it off: this month, I’m
punching myself in the wiener as hard as I can reviewing the original Ultraman series! All thirty-nine (Jesus Christ) half-hour episodes!
Or at least, that was the original plan!
The hectic holiday season and the sheer volume of content at hand means I bit off way more than I can chew here. To give Ultraman his due, MONSTERS CONQUER THE WORLD is gonna do something a little different for the next couple months. To start, this post will provide a brief intro/background on the series and then take an in-depth look at the first episode. In the coming weeks I’ll nibble away at the monumental first series in bite-size chunks until I’ve devoured every single episode of Ultraman! (Too many food metaphors, sounds like you’re going to eat him.-Ed.)
Considering my time management skills, am I still biting off more than I can chew? Maybe! Is it ridiculously overdue and absolutely worth it? You bet your beta capsules, baby!
Alongside Batman and Star Trek, Ultraman forms a triumvirate of hugely influential science-fiction/fantasy television shows that exploded into homes in 1966. Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects warlock that gave us Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidorah (and therefore the Japanese monster boom of the 60s) birthed this bionic bad-ass and redefined the giant monster genre in the process. It’s a big ol’ slice of TV history… and a still-thriving multimedia/merchandising empire that rivals (and in some cases surpasses) Godzilla’s! Let’s find out what exactly is so Ultra about this man!
Tsuburaya was practically in the middle of his legendary run with Toho when he had a blockbuster idea: what if the larger-than-life movie monsters everybody loves came straight to your motherfucking living room every week?
Ultraman is (pun intended) a huge deal, but he wasn’t actually Tsuburaya’s first attempt at bringing kaiju to the boob tube. That honor belongs to the much spookier, black-and-white, Twilight Zone/Outer Limits-inspired Ultra Q:
Ultra Q starred a cast of recurring characters who investigated strange happenings and supernatural phenomena, which often included a monster-of-the-week. If that sounds familiar, it’s because I also just verbatim described The X-Files, which for my money is a pretty fucking cool connection and a rock-solid recommendation to go watch either one.
Ultra Q was a hit, but Tokyo Broadcasting System knew the score: “More monsters!” they cried out, somehow reading my mind through the void of time and space. Two weeks after Ultra Q’s final episode, Ultraman was launched in bold, beautiful color!
Tap into your inner (delighted, late 60s/early 70s) child by checking out the intro sequence! Here it is in its original Japanese:
And in English:
I love how they re-did the paint swirl effect to spell out Ultraman in English! That catchy little ditty was written by Kyōichi Azuma and composed by series composer Kunio Miyauchi. Miyauchi also did music for Godzilla’s Revenge and Toho’s non-giant monster flick The Human Vapor.
The Ultraman score brings that brassy bombast you know and love from golden-age kaiju films, but it’s a little jazzier and a little hipper. You get some surf rock guitar in there. The horn section is having a little fun, and it just feels like a natural bridge between the thundering chaos of giant monster movie music and snappy, victorious superhero music. Don’t take my word for it, take your ears’ word for it!
There’s a lot of cool stories and behind-the-scenes tidbits about the creation and production of Ultraman, but rather than unspool those all at once like some kind of… awesome… unspooler (What is it with you and metaphors today? -Ed.) (How about you get off my fucking back, Ed! -Matt.) I think it’ll be more fun to just dive in to the first episode and explore those anecdotes as they pop up throughout the series!
Ultra Operation No. 1
This recap will be a longer than the rest, there’s just way more to unpack our first time out! We’re introducing characters, their world, and maybe most importantly, the Ultraman formula!
For this first episode we have Eiji’s son, Hajime Tsuburaya in the director’s chair! At this point he had two Ultra Q episodes under his belt and had even done some effects work on Gojira! We’ll see more of his directorial work later in the series. Even more exciting, Shinichi Sekizawa co-wrote the episode! I talked about him a little bit in my review of Mothra vs. Godzilla: dude-man wrote many of the best, most fun, most influential films in the genre. His unbridled imagination and relentlessly positive disposition allowed giant monsters to stretch out from grim atomic horror into surreal fantasy, colorful adventure, clever comedy, out of this world sci-fi…
The episode opens with an introduction to the Science Patrol. They’re a dangerously dapper-looking crew of adventure scientists who are constantly on the lookout for paranormal phenomena and days to save (in the original Japanese, they’re called the Scientific/Science Special Search Party). Most impressively, they can rock the shit out of some tight orange jumpsuits:
These lovable fuckers are basically the kaiju-centric equivalent to Ghostbusters. They even pack lightning-spewing sci-fi blasters:
Unlike the G-busters, they’re a (I assume) government-funded organization in near-future (1993!) Japan, and can therefore afford their own huge, crazy looking HQ:
And a Chevy Corvair:
It is adorably ’60s. After meeting the team designated to handle supernatural tomfoolery, we see some supernatural tomfoolery!
But not just any balls! Space balls! A strapping young Science Patrol officer named Shin Hayata spots them and calls them in during his night-time jet patrol. The blue one sinks into a nearby lake and freaks the shit out of a bunch of campers! The red one murders Hayata.
The park rangers contact the Science Patrol about the disaster (Science Patrol’s phones make Ghidorah noises when they ring?!) and three more Patrol members suit up for action:
Stern but kind Captain Mura, goofball tech whiz Ito, and hot-head hot-shot Arashi zip out in another Science Patrol jet to investigate these funked-up goings on. Little do they know just how weird shit is getting.
The onlooking campers are understandably making like bears who practice masonry: shitting bricks in the woods. As insane as it looks on the outside, it’s even weirder on the inside:
The being inside the red orb is Ultraman, and he was transporting the space-criminal Bemlar (later renamed Bemular, sort of a Ghidrah/Ghidorah situation) inside the blue orb to a point in space to be executed. Bemular broke loose, and Ultraman accidentally crashed into Hayata’s jet trying to reclaim him. To atone for this grave accident and to better protect the people of Earth, Ultraman declares they will merge life-forces. This process will resurrect Hayata and grant him access to Ultraman’s incredible size and superpowers… but only for a few minutes at a time.
It’s a really cool origin story and one that will sound familiar to Green Lantern fans. Before explosively disappearing Ultraman tosses Hayata the beta capsule, the doo-dad that allows our human hero to transform into an ass-kicking alien! It’s a simple prop, but an effective and iconic plot device as well. It’s always exciting when all seems lost and Hayata busts that thing out, strikes a dramatic pose, and turns into a gigantic red and silver space alien.
We meet the last two members of the Science Patrol, plucky young cadet Fuji and her little brother, the even pluckier younger Hoshino. They’re cool kid characters: Fuji’s one of the most level-headed and competent members of the team, and Hoshino manages to be precocious without being obnoxious. They’re holding down the fort at HQ and Fuji calls in for a status update with her bitchin’ shooting star communicator badge:
Oh except Fuji and Hoshino aren’t actually brother and sister. This blew my mind. They’re bro and sis in the English dub I’m watching, but in the original Japanese they are jack shit. For consistency’s sake I’ll go with the English dubs’ decision to make them siblings. In my opinion it makes the most sense for their dynamic, especially in an episode coming up.
But when you’re a convicted space criminal alien monster like Bemular, you’re not about to just chill out at the bottom of a lake while us little wieners carry on our lives!
Bemular sticks his big ugly dino-pug face out of the lake, and promptly gets the shit lasered out of him by the Science Patrol members on hand. The onlooking campers bail and Bemular does too. It’s a fun, brief moment of action, but it says a lot about the world of this show. Humans to some limited extent can hold their own against giant monsters! Generally in kaiju movies (especially the Godzilla series), the only things that can defeat a kaiju are other kaiju or fantastic super weapons… often both. It makes me wonder what crazy missions the Science Patrol went on prior to this episode. That’s some pretty effective and effortless world building.
Hayata comes around and calls Fuji, he needs another jet at the lake. They got a shit load of jets, but have to share that one Chevy Corvair? Jokes aside, this gives Fuji a real chance to show how much she pulls her weight: without a second thought she hops in the jet and flies it out. And it’s not just any jet, it’s a jet carrying a submarine!
It makes me think that at this early stage they were toying with the idea of not just being a monster show, but also a Thunderbirds-style “vehicles are cool!” type show. As of now I’ve seen about half the series, and if I remember right they mostly stick to their jets and Corvair. It’s a winning combination!
Fuji drops the sub in the lake, Hayata hops aboard and attempts a drive-by (float-by?) shooting at the submerged saurian.
Hayata’s no lone wolf though: the whole time this is happening the rest of the Science Patrol are divebombing Bemular, trading missiles for Godzilla beams. Of course there’s no chance of them defeating Bemular (presumably he’s all jacked up on adrenaline now?), but they provide a useful distraction and it builds tension before Hayata super-sizes himself. WHICH HE DOES NEXT!
FUCK. YES. Now we’re talkin’! The narrator quickly recaps the beta capsule and Ultraman’s sacrifice (sort of a proto-version of the spiel he’ll give in every episode from here on), and UM and the Bemster get to wrasslin’!
Let’s break these two dudes down for a sec! On the left you have our villain Bemular. Being a dinosaurish bipedal monster with a breath beam and a roar that’s partially Godzilla’s, it’s really easy to strictly write him off as a thinly veiled Godzilla clone.
Look at them little baby arms! They are strange and I love them, partially because they remind me of T-rex’s vestigial little nubbers. That, and his very lizard-y texture make him feel surprisingly real, even with (or maybe even because of) his goobery posture and funny flat face. Plus he’s played by Teruo Aragaki! Depending on who you ask Aragaki either played Gamera in the first four movies (per the Ultraman wiki) or the first three after the original (per IMDB). Either way, that’s a damn solid resume to join the Ultraman cast! Aragaki goes on to play numerous Ultra foes, including Red King (A.K.A. “Corn Godzilla”), Jamila, Zetton, half of the two-man suit for Dodongo, half of the two-man suit for Pestar, and a bunch more!
Oh yeah, and Bemular was originally going to be the hero of the show.
Yep, one of the early drafts of the show revolved around him. Titled Bemlar or Scientific Special Search Party: Bemlar, it had a nearly identical premise to the show we ended up with. We’d follow the adventures of a super science rescue team, and one of their members would secretly have the power to turn into a giant humanoid bird monster to fight off evil kaiju and aliens. Supposedly the concept was scrapped because the title monster was too visually similar to Gappa:
But how about our main (Ultra)man?! He’s played by a dude named Bin Furuya, who was selected due to his height and his “perfect proportions.” He worked with legendary Godzilla suit actor Haruo Nakajima to develop Ultraman’s unique fighting style. They decided that traditional martial arts alone would be too familiar to Japanese audiences and would make him seem less alien, so they devised a unique blend of wrestling and martial arts moves. Furuya even mixed some tap dance techniques into his movements too.
In this first episode we see Ultraman Suit A. This initial design actually started life as the final Ultra Q villain, but was pulled in the eleventh hour. The designers were inspired by the classic Roswell “grey” aliens and the face was originally intended to have an opening and closing mouth. I have no idea why, but I feel like that would have looked fucking horrifying. The latex coating they put on the mask killed the mouth’s functionality (thank God) and is also responsible for the face’s kinda lumpy look.
Ultraman’s body is simply a painted wetsuit, so Furuya racked up his fair share of injuries shooting the series. Furuya claims the first suit didn’t fit very well and caused him to hunch over, but to me his hunched-up posture makes him look more alien and seems like a natural part of his grapple-focused combat style. Suits B and C fit better and add padding to make Ultraman look like he’s been hitting the Ultragym, and presumably were a hell of a lot more comfortable for Furuya. No matter which suit is on screen, Ultraman looks cool as shit. His slick, colorful design and flashy powers make him the perfect space age TV hero.
But yeah, these two are trying to murder each other! After some wrasslin’, UM’s chest-light (the color timer in Japanese or the warning light in English) changes color! In the Japanese version, we get a scene of the Science Patrollers trying to figure out what it means instead of the narrator’s explanatory spiel that we’ll get in every episode. It’s cool to see the SPs deduce this (light turns red: red means danger, it blinks faster and faster: UM starts moving quicker/more urgently: it must be some kind of time limit) so I don’t really get why it didn’t get translated. Are western audiences too dumb to follow the Science Patrollers’ train of thought? Did broadcasters really need to squeeze in another Swing Wing commercial?
Whatever the case, we get the gist: Ultraman can only survive in our atmosphere for a few minutes at a time. If the light goes out and he hasn’t transformed back into Hayata, he’ll
turn into a pumpkin fucking die forever and ever no take-backsies.
The color timer was a last second addition and a pretty genius one. First and foremost, it gives Tsuburaya and co. a narrative excuse for why Ultraman doesn’t just show up in act one and kick ass for 25 minutes straight. As awesome as that would have been, it would have cost way too much money, and they were stretching their pennies as-is (I am so psyched to track down every time they recycled Godzilla and Baragon suits to create Ultra monsters!). It also added a ton of fun drama and story possibilities to the show. Unlike Godzilla and Gamera, every one of Ultraman’s fights is also a death-defying race against time! Later we’ll find out that the color timer is linked directly to UM’s heart (so baddies can seriously fuck him up by targeting it) and over-exerting himself can drastically reduce the amount of time he has to work with.
The color timer starts beep-beep-beeping, but Bemular is still on Earth being a big asshole! With the Dethklok ticking, UM ups his monster-punching ante, and we get the dopest action yet:
It’s awesome pro wrestling-style action, and it’s more wild and over-the-top than what we’d seen from Godzilla at this point. Ultraman hucks Bemular’s scaly ass into the lake, so Bemmy re-energizes his blue travel orb and tries to make a run (fly?) for it. How can they top the outrageous battle they’ve brought us?
Hand-lasers that do explosion murder. It is wonderfully, almost comically, excessive. As charred chunks of Bemulard rain down on the once-idyllic lake, Ultraman takes to the sky. With precious few seconds left, he has to fuck off to somewhere secluded so as not to (WARNING INCOMING PUN) give away Hayata’s big secret (PUN HAS PASSED RESUME YOUR DAILY BUSINESS) . It gives Hayata/Ultraman a really fun Clark Kent/Superman dynamic: Hayata will just always suspiciously happen to miss Ultraman’s monster murdering mayhem. The episode ends on a cheeky note: Hayata catches up with his fellow Science Patrollers, dubs the silver space giant Ultraman, and reaffirms to his seemingly suspicious colleagues “Of course I’m Hayata and nobody else, is that clear?”
I like to think that Captain Mura sees through Hayata’s charade immediately and keeps it on the down-low because Ultraman is such an incredible ally to have. There’s nothing really in the narrative of the show to back it up, but Mura’s wise and wily, and always seems to be giving knowing looks. The formula of the show and its episodic nature doesn’t really allow for anything like that, but I’d love to be wrong! But yeah, that’s the first episode! It’s great!
In 25 tight minutes, we’ve effectively established the world, our characters, and the show’s formula, and we had a damn good time doing it! What more do you want out of a pilot? For future reference, here’s the formula:
Strange phenomena manifests->Science Patrol investigates->Tries to solve it without Ultraman->Can’t->Ultraman beats the shit out of a giant monster->Everybody’s safe and happy and we all had a great time!
Now what’s cool and what makes the show work is all the different things they can do within that framework. Formula or not, episodes like “My Home is Earth” and “The Little Hero” stand out not just as great Ultraman stories, but two of my favorite pieces of television period.
Ultimately it is a kid’s show: gripping on-going story arcs, deep symbolic themes and long-term character development are nowhere to be found while whimsical science-fantasy, kick-ass action and charming cornballery reign supreme. This is A-O-fucking-K with me, especially since we’ll find out in the very next episode that kid’s show or not, Ultraman didn’t stray that far from it’s surreal monster-horror roots.
That’s it for MONSTERS CONQUER THE WORLD for this year! I’ll be back soon with the first batch of normal (brief!) episode reviews. Thanks for reading, and I hope you decide to plow through this whole crazy-awesome show with me! If you need more Ultraman right this very second (who can blame you?!) take a peek at “Birth of Ultraman,” below! It’s a live stage show that introduced kids to the character and technically serves as “episode 0” of the series! It’s only available in Japanese, but it’s cool to see a proto-version of the show before a live studio audience: