What we used to do in the late seventies was wake up bright and early on Saturday mornings, before the network programming started, and begin our days with what WTGC-17 (later TBS) would show. They’d have Speed Racer and Ultraman first thing in the morning and all was right in the world.
In Japan, Ultraman was the latest evolution in a decade-plus tradition of superheroes saving the planet from alien menaces. His black-and-white live-action antecedents, among them Super Giant / Starman, Planet Prince / Prince of Space, and Moonlight Mask, had been thrilling kids on TV and in the movies throughout the late 1950s. They’re all deeply dopey shows, with fight scenes that look like incompetent ballet in fields. Whenever Mystery Science Theater 3000 got hold of one, it was like a mercy killing.
But in the mid-sixties, things took a quantum leap forward when the other TBS – Tokyo Broadcasting System – ordered Ultra Q from Tsubaraya Productions. Eiji Tsubaraya had been the biggest name in miniature special effects in Japan for years, working on monster and war movies for Toho since the early 1950s. I’ve seen only two episodes of Ultra Q, ages ago, but the difference in this sci-fi show and its predecessors is like night and day, or like the difference between Captain Video and The Outer Limits. Since Tsubaraya assembled a team who knew how to light a set and work with the best available special effects, Ultra Q looked like a show that wasn’t exclusively for little kids.
Apparently, the original idea had been to have a Doomwatch-like team investigating all sorts of paranormal and extraterrestrial menace, but this was quickly lost in favor of giant monsters, since those were guaranteed to keep the younger viewers hooked. This did put a huge limit on the sort of stories they could tell, and after about two dozen episodes, produced during 1965, they began thinking about how to have an actual character, rather than the military, actually fight the monsters. Ultra Q debuted in January of 1966 and was an immediate, mammoth hit, but its fate was already sealed, and preproduction at an advanced stage for the follow-up, filmed in color.
The first episode of Ultraman aired on July 17, 1966, just two weeks after the final installment of Ultra Q. As far as made-in-color shows with giant monsters fighting brave superheroes, it was actually beaten to the airwaves by a TV version of Osamu Tezuka’s fun comic Ambassador Magma, but that’s another story and this post is going to run very long, so I’ll write a bit about that some other time. Magma is certainly charming and I’d call it fantastic, but it didn’t change everything quite the way that Ultraman did. Fifty years later, there have been more than two dozen different Ultra-world TV series, another two dozen feature films and direct-to-video movies, and a pile of TV specials and mini-series, not to mention all of the countless imitators and also-rans that have Ultraman in their DNA somewhere.
So, the time is the far-flung future of the 1990s, and Earth is defended by the Science Patrol, a team of five agents led by Captain Toshio Mura (played by Akiji Kobayashi). Mura’s best agent is Shin Hayata (Susumu Kurobe), who has the biggest secret on the planet. He was accidentally killed by Ultraman, a policeman from space who was pursuing a monster called Bemular. Ultraman restores Hayata’s life in a convenient shared arrangement. Ultraman’s life force lives within Hayata’s body, and then, using a “beta capsule,” Hayata can become Ultraman for a few short minutes at a time. Earth’s atmosphere is so polluted that Ultraman can only receive a little of the solar energy that he requires before collapsing. A warning light in his chest reminds him that he needs to quit monkeying around and get the job done; if the light goes out completely, it’ll mean that he will never rise again.
Okay, so that’s a bit tortuous, but it’s not that much sillier than Captain Scarlet’s origin.
So how’d our son Daniel do? Well, mercifully, Ultraman showed up, because this was weird, tense, and just a little bit alarming to him. The bit where Hayata’s body floats away and is surrounded by the strange red sphere really is odd, and the initial shots of Bemular’s head popping out over the surface of the lake had him intrigued. When Hayata takes a submarine underwater to attack the beast, he hid behind the sofa for much of it. Then Bemular climbs out of the lake and Daniel saw through it. “I think that monster is rubber,” he said, and the fear passed.
Unfortunately, the arrival of Ultraman is, to adult eyes, the least interesting thing about any of these shows. It just looks like wrestling after that point, but try telling him that. He was grinning ear-to-ear and shaking fists in happiness at the mayhem on the screen. Just wait until he fights a monster in a city instead of a forest.
I believe there are many better episodes of this show than its debut, but give Tsubaraya’s team credit: they had a heck of a lot to introduce and a lot of special effects to throw at the screen in a hurry, and the first episode of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons was, similarly, a fast-paced blur of ideas thrown at the wall. There are flops in this show, but there are also some episodes that everybody remembers. I reckon one’s coming up in just a few days, actually.