Sunday 17 July 2016

Series REVIEW: Ultraman


Out of all the big tokusatsu anniversaries happening in 2016, this one is definitely the biggest. 50 years ago on July 17th 1966, the first episode of Ultraman aired - properly introducing Japan to a superhero who would go on to become one of their biggest pop culture icons. Following on from Ultra Q, this was the first entry in Tsuburaya Productions' Ultra Series to include a regular hero - with future iterations introducing their own editions of the red and silver giant. Over the years this series has spawned countless sequels, spin-offs and movies, as well as parodies and homages from across the globe. As we celebrate the hero of light from Nebula M713's 50th birthday, there couldn't be a more perfect time to look at one of toku's greatest champions.

Ultraman prepares a Specium Ray

With the Earth under threat from both giant monster attacks and alien invasions, branches of the Science Special Search Party (SSSP) have been set up across the globe to investigate and act as a first line of defence. Based in Tokyo, Japan's branches is made up of Captain "Cap" Toshio Muramatsu, marksman Daisuke Arashi, inventor Mitsuhiro Ide, communications operator Akiko Fuji and their most capable member - Shin Hayata.

When Shin encounters a battle between red and blue orbs of energy while out on patrol, the red orb crashes into his ship and causes it to crash - killing him in the process. Guilty for the accident, Ultraman - the being in the red orb, revives Hayata and chooses him as his host whilst he stays on Earth. Hayata can then use the Beta Capsule to transform into the giant in times of need, appearing when the SSSP are overwhelmed and then flying off in a flash. From that day forwards Ultraman became Earth's new protector - defending humanity from all manner of monstrous and extraterrestrial threats.
A hero for all

Although Ultraman marks the first time a proper superhero was brought into the fold, one aspect from Ultra Q that makes a return is a group of investigators - now reformed into a supporting investigative/military organisation that would be repeatedly used over the course of the Ultra Series. However it's worth bearing in mind that while this show is named Ultraman, Ultraman himself usually doesn't show up until the last five minutes or so of each episode - with the bulk of it taken up by the SSSP investigating, trying to solve the problem themselves or getting into various other scrapes. As such the human element is still one of the most prominent parts of Ultraman, and its cast are able to fill their time up excellently without too much agonising over when Ultraman himself is going to show up. Each cast member fills up their role in the team nicely, and the different personalities all bounce off of each other well. You have Hayata as the everyman, Cap as the bold leader, Ide as the comic relief, Arashi as the tough guy and then Akiko adding level-headedness as well as some necessary gender diversity. She doesn't get to do quite as much as she perhaps would had this show not been made in the 60s, but she never feels sidelined or unimportant. Also rounding off the regular cast is Hoshino, "child mascot" of sorts who later becomes an unofficial member of the team. He sort of disappears after a while, but while he is around he adds a nice extra layer to the group.
Super Secret Science Party

But when Ultraman shows up, that's when the real action starts. It might not be for very long each episode, but the raw monster brawling Ultraman has become known for really injects some extra energy into those final moments. The shortness of the fights is explained adequately in-show by the fact Ultraman can only sustain that form for so long (something iconically displayed by his colour timer), even if the sense of urgency it creates does feel a tad forced at times. Though Ultraman may be a hero of the people, that doesn't necessarily means his or the SSSP's actions are always agreeable - which adds an interesting (if possibly entirely unintentional) depth to the show. Many of these monsters are simply creatures that have been inadvertently disturbed or wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time, and for every monster that's successfully ushered away or relocated there's one that's blown up or has its limbs ripped off. There are plenty of alien threats that deserve such levels of brutality, but when a gold covered monster is killed and its body is gutted for riches you have to wonder how many of the options the SSSP take are beneficial to all parties involved. As I say - most likely unintentional, but viewing the show from this angle as well adds so much more to it.

Given that it was made in 1966 it's only natural that some of Ultraman's visual effects have dated over time, but that doesn't stop the viewer from simply being captivated by how great it would have looked at the time. The Ultra Series' charm has been just how much is embraces the craft since day one, with plenty of impressive miniatures on show that emphasise just how this show went on to become so iconic. The episodic nature (there's only one two-part story in the entire 39 episode run, and no ongoing arcs) and a few hokey effects might be enough to deter anyone not used to older style tokusatsu, but for anyone interested in how its evolved over time Ultraman is an integral piece of viewing to witness the "Master of Monsters" first-hand.

Alien Baltan
Fear the space lobster

Then of course there's the monsters, which haven't only played a huge part in Ultraman's success as a standalone series but continued on to do so in future Ultra instalments as well.  Unlike other popular franchises where monsters of the week rarely make repeat appearances, the Ultra Series has built itself up on a back catalogue of popular monsters it can call on at any time. From the very beginning all the big names where right here, including the likes of Red King, Pigmon, Gomora, Zetton and of course the Alien Baltan. Immediately you can tell why certain monsters have appeared again and again, with their episodes serving up the series' biggest highlights. Kaiju fans will also undoubtedly cite episode ten (The Mysterious Dinosaur Base) too - and with good reason, given that it features a repurposed Godzilla suit as the frilled dinosaur Jirass. Some suits have stood the test of time better than others, but much like the miniatures all of them ooze the same level of craftsmanship and imagination that stay with you even when you can't recall the monster's name.

The (No) Face of Death

But it isn't all about the fights when it comes to monsters either. Between the alien invaders and rampaging giants, there's also elements of both comedy and tragedy. Poignant moments like Ultraman's moment of silence for a fallen Jirass leave a lasting impression, but even those seem small compared to episode 23, My Home is the Earth. If Jamila's tragic backstory isn't enough to guarantee an emotional impact, the suit's facial design and accompanying roar (created from low-pitch baby cries) hammer it home all the more. However even when the episodes aren't doing it intentionally there's always that underlying element of sympathy for the monsters, many of whom are only going about their business when they come into contact with humans. 

Godzilla's cosplay adventures

For fans of tokusatsu, Ultraman is more than just a great series - it's a piece of history. Some elements of it have naturally dated over time, but between the great stories, memorable characters and exciting fight scenes there's more than enough to make up for it. Not to mention that the craftsmanship itself is timeless - if you ever want any indication of just how much Eiji Tsuburaya and Tsuburaya Productions did for tokusatsu you don't have to look much further than here. 50 years later, Ultraman is just as captivating as ever and a must-see for anyone with more than just a passing interest in tokusatsu or Japanese superheroes in general.


duagrentia said...

Ultraman was shown in 1966, not 1967.

Alex said...

Well I clearly knew that since I said that right at the beginning, but thanks for pointing out the typo!

Joseph Kool said...

I loved Ultraman as a child, but hated Johnny Sakko and his stupid robot