Monday 31 July 2017

Series REVIEW: Ultra Q

Ultra Q

Back in 1966 before the days of Kamen Rider, Super Sentai or even Ultraman, there were still kaiju. Thanks to the success of the original Godzilla in 1955 and the subsequent films that followed, giant monster fever was about to hit an all-time high. While continuing his work on the Godzilla films with Toho studios, special effects legend Eiji Tsuburaya and his company Tsuburaya Productions teamed up with the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) to create Ultra Q, an episodic fantasy series pitched as Japan's answer to The Twilight Zone and The Outer LimitsUltra Q was the very first entry in the long-running Ultra Series, with the original Ultraman starting only two weeks after it's 28-episode run. The rest of course is history. 


"For the next 30 minutes, your eyes will leave your body and arrive in this strange moment in time..."

Ultra Q is a series of episodic adventures, each presenting their own mysterious fantasy setting. From uncovering giant monsters and alien attacks to alternate dimensions and futuristic worlds, investigative skill and scientific prowess is needed in a world without superheroes. Bearing witness to it all are journalist Yuriko Edogawa, pilots Jun Manjome and Ippei Togawa as well as renowned scientist Professor Ichinotani. Each episode they'll stumble onto a new phenomenon - some personal, and others far more threatening. 

Jun and IppeiGaramon

The joy of Ultra Q, or any anthology-style series for that matter, lies in the fact that you never quite know what you’re going to see next. While each episode is connected via their descent into the weird and wonderful, just how they choose to present this can vary greatly. One week it can be a good old fashioned monster rampage, the next it can be an abstract piece involving flying trains. It can be a somber, it can be comedic and it can also be everything in between as well. The result of this is a series that runs wild with imagination, reinforced with the craftsmanship and production values that Eiji Tsuburaya built his name on. 

For monster fans Ultra Q is a well of classic kaiju action, with early appearances from many creatures who would eventually go on to become Ultra Series regulars. Among the most obvious of these are of course Garamon (who would be repurposed into Pigmon in Ultraman) and Kemur Man, who in addition to directly appearing in Ultraman was also modified into the Alien Zetton. A more curious example is the Cicada Human of "Garamon Strikes Back", whose suit would later be modified into the far more recognisable Alien Baltan. It isn't just Ultra history fans should keep an eye out for though – Tsuburaya’s links with Toho Studios also means that some of their kaiju alumni make an appearance too. These include Baragon, Maguma, Manda and even heavy-hitters like Godzilla and King Kong (all slightly modified and with different names of course). Ultra Q may have a fair few great episodes that don’t involve monsters, but nevertheless they are what made the show such a hit – so much so that TBS asked Tsuburaya to include more monsters in the second half.

Kemur ManThe Cicada Human

But while the draw of the show is undoubtedly the monsters, Ultra Q is equally impressive with its human characters as well. Given the format it would have been so easy for the show to just feature an entirely different cast each week, but the inclusion of four recurring characters works to glue the episodes together as part of a bigger thing. It’s also very good at balancing the characters in terms of exposure and involvement. Quite often they won’t even appear altogether, with the shifting dynamic doing a great job of keeping their inclusion fresh. The fact they all come from different backgrounds is a big asset too, allowing them all to possess different skills in addition to personalities. But most importantly the balance between them is struck perfectly, and it never feels like one member of the group is more significant than the others. Yuriko for example is never sidelined by her male co-stars, and actor Hiroko Sakurai gets to do far more sleuthing than she later did as Akiko in Ultraman

What really makes these characters work though is the fact that they don’t just show up in order to fix things. Sometimes they’re there simply to witness these events, either just watching them playing out to their natural conclusions or working alongside the guest cast to reach a solution. The times that they do play an active part in things are important too, as it highlights how resourceful these characters are. There’s no Ultraman to swoop in and defeat the monster – here they have to rely on their wits and ingenuity to solve the problem.

The 1/8 Project M1

As an anthology series Ultra Q unfortunately has very little to offer in the way of development. With each episode following a different adventure the stories and events heavily rely on guest characters, and even though the recurring cast are on hand to tie everything together their memories and experiences are effectively reset with each new mystery. The one real exception to this is the episode "Garamon Strikes Back", which follows on from earlier episode "Garadama". The episodic format also means that the plots don't have much time to go into any great detail, so more often than not resolutions come relatively swiftly.

A more personal criticism is that, unlike the American shows it's often compared to, Ultra Q seems to have a much softer outlook on life. Episodes are often resolved with minimal casualty or tragedy, and it's rare for the events to end with any lasting consequences. There are exceptions however, such as "The Gift From Space" or "Space Directive M774", the latter of which ends on the Men In Black-style note that aliens may already be living among us. It's certainly no stranger to giving out morals either, with the likes of "Grow Up! Little Turtle" and "Blazing Victory" both having strong messages within their narratives. The fact Ultra Q can do these things so well when it tries to makes it all the more disheartening that it doesn't do it as often as it could, as these are the stories that are able to stand out from the others even in the absence of a popular Ultra Series monster. One could of course justify the lighter tone with the fact Ultra Q was aimed at children as well, but in a show that thrives on variety and experimentation it might have been great to see narratives with a little more meat to them.

Goro"Grow Up! Little Turtle"

Without an Ultraman to call its own many fans may look at Ultra Q as something of an oddity, however it's importance and influence should not be understated. At 50 years old the series may be beginning to show its age, but the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the special effects remain as impressive as ever.  While it's themes and morals may not be quite as biting as the American shows it attempts to emulate, its stories are just as mesmorising. As cornerstone of both tokusatsu and the kaiju genre, Ultra Q is a piece of history that fans should definitely take the time to appreciate.


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