Ultraman 1.39 – Farewell, Ultraman

Ultraman’s final adventure was first shown in Japan on April 9, 1967. It starts with a long special effects sequence in which a massive invasion force of UFOs is repelled, but, as is often the way, this just gets in the way of the meat of the episode.

“This is not the show for me!” said our upset son, huddled under cover as the alien Zetton critically damages Ultraman’s warning light and leaves him powerless. Or at least that’s what the English dub claims. Ultraman Wiki transcribed the original dialogue, which is a little different. The English dub has Ultraman and a “chief” called Zoffy talking about the need to go back to the home planet to have the light repaired. Originally, they discussed that by leaving the planet, Ultraman would be condemning Hayata to death. Zoffy is moved by Ultraman’s willingness to sacrifice himself and gives Hayata life on his own.

Ultraman was a big enough hit for a sequel to be greenlit immediately. As fans of the modern Power Rangers (“Super Sentai”) programs know, it’s common in Japan to make a sequel with different casts and costumes rather than continue with the same stars and premise for additional seasons. Ultra Seven debuted in October 1967 and was probably even more successful than this show. Nevertheless, Eiji Tsubaraya seems to have declined the opportunity to immediately continue with the superhero vs. monster formula, and instead devoted resources to a new franchise called Mighty Jack.

After Tsubaraya passed away in 1970, his company resumed production on Ultra series along with quite a few other live-action sci-fi television serials. The Return of Ultraman started in 1971, and three others followed it. There were only a handful of Ultra shows throughout the eighties and early nineties, some of which were made in Australia and America, but the franchise came back in a huge way with 1996’s Ultraman Tiga. This was the first of what I count as nineteen television series, fifteen feature films, and twenty-eight direct-to-video movies. Devotees know these things inside and out. It all seems fascinating, if just a little confusing.

Along with Ambassador Magma, which I wrote about last year, the original Ultraman was perfectly poised to ring in the era of color TV in Japan with kid-friendly sci-fi melodramas. Within a year, both programs would have a positive avalanche of imitators. I’ve seen very little of these, and most of what I saw, years ago, was “raw,” neither dubbed nor subtitled. But there’s such a neat sense of design across all these many and disparate programs. In part that’s because a famous comic artist named Shotaro Ishinomori co-created a pile of them, such as Kamen Rider, Kikaider, and Robot Detective, and you can sense some thematic continuity in some of his designs.

But also there’s just a great sense of place to these programs of the late sixties through the mid-seventies with their bold color and grainy 16mm film. Even at their dopiest – and Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot is too dopey even for me – there’s an incredible energy to what I’ve seen with these old shows. Even when they’re completely mired in topical issues, like Spectreman and its obsession with pollution, there’s still such fun experimentation as the shows’ producers pushed the special effects teams to do anything and come up with crazy creatures and wild situations.

Unfortunately, almost none of this material is presently available, dubbed. We may circle back to Ultra Seven and a couple of the Ultra imitators, which are available in the United States, although subtitled, when our son is a little older and can read them. This blog has a “pay for play” policy, so we won’t be watching some of the other period shows like Robot Detective which can be downloaded with fansubs from known torrent sites.

But I mentioned that Tsubaraya Productions was making some other sorts of science fiction TV series throughout the seventies, not just Ultra-related. These, as edited into feature films and dubbed by Sandy Frank Productions, tend to play best with a lot of riffing from Joel, Crow, and Tom Servo, but there’s one that Tsubaraya made which we’re going to risk looking at in a couple of months. Stay tuned!

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