Wednesday 20 June 2018

Series REVIEW: The Return of Ultraman

The Return of Ultraman

Although Ultraseven was originally intended to mark the end of the Ultra Series, Ultraman's popularity was just too much for Tsuburaya Productions to ignore and the franchise eventually returned in 1971 with its fourth instalment – The Return of Ultraman. However much had changed in the three years since Ultraseven's conclusion, with Eiji Tsuburaya passing away in 1970 and his son Hajime taking over the company until his own death in 1973. Originally planned to see feature the original Ultraman returning to Earth, The Return of Ultraman was later restructured to star a new hero – Ultraman Jack, though he would not actually receive this name until much later in 1984. The change also allowed for both the original Ultraman and Ultraseven to appear in the show, marking the first time a shared universe was introduced into the Ultra Series canon.

Hideki GoUltraman Jack

Restructuring the previous series so that they both took place during the time they originally aired, The Return of Ultraman takes place in 1971 – a new age of monsters where Japan is constantly under attack from rampaging giants. During a fight between two monsters, race-car driver Hideki Go is killed trying to rescue a child and a dog from falling rubble. Noticing his valiant sacrifice, Ultraman Jack ("New Ultraman") chooses to combine his life force with Hideki to revive him much as the original Ultraman had done with Shin Hayata. Hideki is then offered a place in MAT (Monster Attack Team) – a highly specialised team of operatives formed to deal with these attacks.

As both part of MAT and as Ultraman, Hideki Go continues his work to defend the planet from these unknown threats. However with invading space aliens also marking the Earth for conquest, both Ultraman and MAT must prepare themselves for a different kind of fight as well.

The MAT TeamKen, Saki & Jiro

Despite how nearly all of the early Ultraman shows can be summed up as some sort of specialised attack force fighting aliens/monsters with the help of the iconic silver giant, when it comes to the specifics of each show it's amazing just how much they can vary. The original Ultraman set the template, and then Ultraseven aimed to go bigger to with a far more established organisation and a slightly different take on its hero. The Return of Ultraman offers an approach that's much more in line with the original series (which is unsurprising given they were originally intended to be the same character), but there are still more than enough differences between the two to make it feel unique even when following the same basic formula.

For starters Hideki Go is a very different protagonist from both Shin Hayata and Dan Moroboshi. Whereas those two were skilled, disciplined and regimented members of their respective teams from the very beginning, Go starts off as brash, cocky and disobedient. Even as he eventually accepts his place and duties within MAT he's still often teased or reprimanded for being lazing about while on duty. Qualities like these instantly make him more engaging and relatable to the audience, as does the involvement of the friends he has outside of MAT - Ken, Saki and Jiro Sakata. But in spite of all these flaws Go is still dedicated to his job, which we see time and time again as he puts himself on the front line.

Unfortunately compared to Go the rest of MAT is a bit of a disappointment. Unlike the previous shows Return of Ultraman isn’t so fixed on giving them all specific roles within the team, instead choosing to establish their characters through the odd bit of focus they get over the course of the series. However this development is extremely minimal, and with the way Go is almost always at the forefront of the story they come across as especially forgettable. Female presence is at an all-time low as sole female member Yuriko is woefully underdeveloped, despite the few times she is shown in action she manages to prove herself more capable than the rest of the team combined. But despite how largely forgettable MAT seem to be, the addition of a civilian cast adds a good balance to the show. Ken and Saki inclusion culminates in one of the show’s most shocking arcs, while even the most harsh critics of ‘child mascot’ characters should find something to like about Jiro.

Shin Hayata meets Dan MoroboshiUltraman Jack meets Ultraseven

While Return of Ultraman doesn’t have any overarching story as such, it is structured in a way that makes it feel quite different to the previous shows. Whereas the SSSP and Ultra Garrison had experience in dealing with both monster attacks and alien invasions from the very beginning, it’s firmly established very early on that MAT’s expertise lies solely in monster attacks from Earth-based threats. So when the team face their first extraterrestrial kaiju in the form of Bemstar 18 episodes in, the stakes are immediately high as we get to see just out of their depth MAT (as well as Ultraman himself) suddenly are. Then finally later when alien invaders finally turn their attention to Earth these stakes are amped up yet again - resulting in not only some of the finest episodes in the series, but also some of the most shocking moments the franchise had put out by this point. The arrival of aliens marks a big turning point for the show as the stories also begin to reflect the wider commentary some of the most popular episodes in the franchise are known for, such as 'The Monster User and the Boy''s coverage of discrimination, bullying and mob psychology. Of course the big moments of the show are also propped up by cameo appearances by both Ultraman and Ultraseven, which are expectedly significant but never take the focus away the show’s main cast. The appearances themselves are brief but between the reuse of both theme songs, Ultraseven handing Jack a new weapon as well as Susumu Korobe (Hayata) and Kohji Moritsugu (Moroboshi) reprising their roles and appearing onscreen together they sufficiently provide the emotional response that the creation of a shared continuity demands.

But in developing this unique layout for how MAT’s exploits unfold, The Return of Ultraman in turn creates its biggest problem. Without the alternation between monster rampages and alien invasions that kept Ultraman and Ultraseven constantly on its toes, it isn’t long before The Return of Ultraman falls into a repetitive monotony. While the episodes still have their own unique properties that lead to some standing out more than others (‘The Forgiven Life’ by ShinichirĊ Kobayashi is notable for featuring an animal/plant hybrid monster, 18 years before he would pen Godzilla vs Biollante), but the absence of a sentient foe definitely takes away some of the show’s edge. Proper alien invasions don’t come into full-swing until episode 37, by which point the more than halfway over - leading it to cram as many alien storylines in as quickly as it can.

Ultraman Jack vs Twin-TailAlien Nackle

The show's visual quality is another area where the good also seems to roll with the bad. Despite his absence all the special effects techniques that Eiji Tsuburaya helped revolutionise are still present in The Return of Ultraman, with the miniature work in particular as impeccable as before. What has suffered here however seems to be the overall suit design, with many of the monsters/aliens lacking the same timeless feel as the creatures that had preceded them. There are of course stand out designs such as Alien Nackle, Bemstar, Twin-Tail or the distinctly unorthodox Prisma, but overall there's definitely both a closer similarity and more dated aesthetic to the various creatures Ultraman Jack faces off against. The dip in quality doesn't just affect the new designs either, as even returning foes Baltan and Zetton don't feel quite as polished as they did back in 1966. Whereas both Ultraman and Ultraseven both had creatures that look just as impressive today as they did 50 years ago, The Return of Ultraman's feel much more reflective of the time they were created. Not necessarily a bad thing depending on personal taste, but it just emphasises how ahead of their time the previous two shows felt.

That said, one area The Return of Ultraman shows remarkable improvement in and subsequently revels in is its miniature vehicle work. By this point Gerry Anderson's would have become fully ingrained in Japanese popularity and its influence is definitely present here, along with all the work Toho and other studios were doing with their various tokusatsu works. The MAT Arrows and Gyro all ooze that glorious retro kitsch when it comes to vehicle design, and combined with the authoritative charge of MAT's orchestral theme the numerous aerial dogfights often prove as thrilling as Ultraman's own eventual showdown with the creature of the week.

Zetton returnsThe MAT Arrows

As the first series without Eiji Tsuburaya at the helm and the beginning of a shared canon, The Return of Ultraman is definitely an important turning point in the Ultraman mythos. However while this is series that produces some extremely notable highs, it is also one that often falls victim to its structure – holding back those much needed alien invasion episodes for big ticket moments when they'd serve far better peppered around those often formulaic monster rampages. The noticeable downgrade in monster design in unfortunate, but thankfully propped up by the usual high standard of action and miniature work the franchise became known for. While The Return of Ultraman may not have the status or the consistency of its predecessors, its wonderful lead and standout episodes are more than enough to make it another successful entry in this landmark franchise.



Anonymous said...

Why did you stop putting captions on the images ? It was so funny.

Anonymous said...

Where did you find it in english?

Anonymous said...

You can find fully subbed in english on Nyaa torrents.

Alex said...

As the person above said, there's an English subbed version floating around online. It is however from a HK bootleg source, so the quality of said subtitles....isn't great at times. Its more than adequate enough to follow the show!

As for the lack of captions, I stopped doing it because I was finding them more difficult to do as it went on so just kinda stopped. Nice to know some people liked them though - maybe I'll bring them back in the form of hover text or something.

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