RIP Masanari Nihei, 1940-2021

Rewatching the original Ultraman a few years ago, I was struck by just how remarkable that original cast was. Maybe assembling the Science Patrol was like catching lightning in a bottle, because while the next three shows in the series assembled perfectly good casts of talented actors, none of them had the fun chemistry and individual, sparkling personalities as the first. When I wrote a little about Masanari Nihei in a 2017 post, I wondered about his post-Ultraman days. He struck me as being really talented, a great physical comedian who makes it all look easy and mastered double-takes and elongated faces, and I hope he had a really successful career beyond silly kids’ sci-fi. Masanari Nihei passed away last week from aspiration pneumonia. Our condolences to his family and friends.

Ultraseven 1.4 – NS Max, Respond!

I’ll be darned. I literally mentioned Kenji Sahara just yesterday, and here he is in a guest star part in the fourth episode of Ultraseven. I knew he was in a whole mess of monster movies, but it didn’t occur to me that we might see him in more of the Ultra-shows as well.

My son and I are, of course, watching Ultraseven once a week or so. Mill Creek’s releases are just lovely, cleaned up and colorful. No dubs, subtitled only. The cars remind me of the “saloons” from Captain Scarlet and the secret base is basically Tracy Island, with three separate launch areas for the “Hawk” ships. Ultraseven gets to interact with the cast at human size in this episode, which is nice. It’s more interesting seeing our hero beat his way through corridors of aliens on a cruise ship instead of having everything stand or fall on a single giant wrestling scene. I mean, there is one, of course, but I like it when the show gives us a little more than that.

Ultra Q 1.1 – Defeat Gomess!

While this won’t be joining our regular review rotation, I wanted to note that something I wouldn’t have predicted a year ago has happened, and you can get all 28 episodes of Ultra Q on Blu-ray and they look amazing. Even wilder, you can get them from Mill Creek, which has a quite deserved reputation of not minding the quality and feeling the width, if you take my meaning, but they are doing this project right. They have released the first five in an ongoing series of Ultraman reissues, along with seven of the more recent movies and shows, cleaned up and presented in gorgeous packaging. (Well, the packaging of the classic shows is gorgeous; the modern ones look cluttered and awful.) The restoration is extremely good, and the picture quality is jawdropping; home releases of 54 year-old black and white TV shows don’t often look as good as this.

When we watched and reviewed Ultraman (the second of the fortysomething series in the franchise) three years ago, I noted that the climactic wrestling match was invariably the least interesting part of the program to me. Ultra Q was made before they figured out they could wrestle. The stars are three humans, a news reporter and two pilots, who get in the thick of each new monster attack. In the first episode, they get caught between the latest resurrection in a centuries-long cycle between two thirty-foot beasts: an acid-spitting bird called Litra and a redressed Godzilla costume called Gomess.

Also new since we watched Ultraman: our son’s willing to read subtitles. That opens up all kinds of possibilities. My only complaint about this presentation, and it’s a stubborn and personal one, is that I wish they had gone with yellow text rather than white. Otherwise I am very, very happy with this purchase and look forward to enjoying the rest of the show over the next year or so.

Our kid wasn’t quite as taken as I was, but he’s looking at things from a very different perspective. Basically, my interest in the Ultraman franchise diminishes rapidly with each installment, and is gone completely by the disco era. It’s not about the hero or the powers for me, it’s the design and the place, the look at Japan in the sixties and early seventies, and the practical effects. The seventh series, Ultraman Leo, from 1974-75, is the last of the programs that I have even a sliver of interest in seeing, and of course the giant superhero himself is the least appealing aspect of the show.

But on a whim, I had my son look at a four minute clip that Mill Creek released from series five, Ultraman Ace, the other day. It’s the four minutes with the wrestling, it turns out, and while I was looking at it with a combination of boredom and bemusement, he was riveted. I also checked and the 2019 Ultraman cartoon is available on Netflix. He said “Ooooooo.” So to him, an Ultra-show without a giant silver guy doing flying kicks is like a book without pages. He thought “Defeat Gomess!” was an interesting distraction, but he really just wanted to indulge his old man’s nostalgia. There’s a cartoon that he could be watching and I believe that he intends to spend as much of Sunday as he can doing that.

Image credit: The Hannibal 8

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. Ultraseven 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 Ultraseven 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!

Ultraman 1.38 – The Spaceship Rescue Command

With production on Ultraman winding down, and thoughts at Tsubaraya Productions and TBS most likely turning ahead to the show that would replace it, Ultra Seven, six months later, it looks like the team went all-out on the most special effects-heavy episode of the entire series. “The Spaceship Rescue Command” is a real visual treat, with lots of miniature work with ships, space stations, and moon rover-vehicles, plus two new monster costumes and a great big set to represent Planet Q. It’s called Kralon in the English dub, which is nowhere as fun-sounding.

The Science Patrol even got some new pressure suits to go out and explore Planet Q’s surface, which is of course just a quarry filmed with a red filter, but there’s something new to look at almost every minute of the thing. The dub has its dopey moments – Captain Mura cautions Ito not to touch any radioactivity, which isn’t a warning I’d ever heard before – but this is a really fun half-hour that we enjoyed a lot.

Our son’s favorite bit came when the Science Patrol freezes one of the two monsters and shatters it into fragments, which is a tremendously neat effect. His comment: “They turned him into frozen broken alcohol!”

Ultraman 1.37 – The Little Hero

What a delightfully oddball episode. It starts with Pigmon, the human-sized monster we met way back in episode eight, barking and hopping around in a department store toy department. Bizarrely, Pigmon has found the Ultraman monster aisle, and some of the beasts that you, young viewer, can pester your parents to purchase are available on the store’s shelves.

After several days working with scientists to translate Pigmon’s barking, we learn that Pigmon has come to warn the Science Patrol that a super-monster called Geronimon has resurrected all the dead enemies of Ultraman and the Patrol to destroy everybody. Why he decided to pick Pigmon as one of the first three is anybody’s guess. The others are Telesdon (from episode 22) and Dorako (from episode 25). Unfortunately the script claims that they’re Red King and Gabora, but the promise of something new and wild is there.

It is a tiny little letdown that we only get a couple of returning foes instead of a Destroy All Monsters free-for-all, but it’s still one of the very best fight scenes in the series, and to be fair, these may have been the only old suits available. Others were cannibalized for other monsters or discarded after being set on fire and otherwise damaged in the making of the show. The suit for the previous episode’s monster, for example, was actually a refurbished Gomora (from episodes 26-27) with a new head.

Pigmon dies in action, heroically saving Ito from Dorako, leading to a solemn and very cheesy finale with the Science Patrol removing their helmets and stoically saluting while a military hymn is hummed on the soundtrack. The grownups kept from laughing, even as we could imagine Crow and Tom Servo just falling apart over it. It would have been a little disrespectful to our son to giggle at something that intended to be sad and meaningful. Part of why it’s important to watch programs with an audience of the intended age is so you can see how the thing works for viewers that age. It’s only us boring grownups who care about reused costumes and riffing.

Ultraman 1.36 – Don’t Shoot, Arashi!

This week’s monster is called Zaragas, and it’s another beast that has made several return engagements to the Ultraman franchise. In the nebulous way these things are scripted, it somehow has the power to adapt and get stronger after any attack, so the military overrules the Science Patrol and orders them off until some other scientists can figure out how to fight it.

So the episode becomes a character piece about duty and following orders for children: Arashi is absolutely certain that the “M-disintegrator” gun that Ito built will kill the creature, but Captain Mura has told him not to. I don’t know whether this story’s origin came from somebody suggesting to the producers that they do an episode about doing what you’re told, or whether actor Sandayū Dokumamushi, who plays Arashi, asked to have a week where he gets to do something meaty and take center stage, but either way, this is definitely an atypical and interesting episode as seen through a grown-up’s eyes.

For kids, though, it’s the usual mayhem. According to our five year-old critic, his favorite part was the fight, and his “very favorite part” was the end of the fight.

BONUS MATERIAL: Thanks to Atari Days for spotting this little clip released a year ago. There are some impressively super-adaptable Ultraman toys with a million joints and poses on the market, and some creative fellow made a stop-motion animation with the first two in the series. Check it out!

Ultraman 1.35 – The Monster Graveyard

After the previous story’s screwball comedy, the suit actors got a chance to show off in this one. Using body language, this week’s monster, Seabozu, gets to stomp around as a bored, restless, and lonely toddler having a tantrum and missing his parents. Ultraman gets in the act as well, sternly pointing the way he wants the monster to stomp, and even giving an exasperated shrug to the camera!

It’s a really odd story, done in the usual hamfisted manner, but strange and clever. It turns out that there’s a region of space called the Ultra Zone, where all the beasts that Ultraman has destroyed live on in spirit form in peace and quiet. Learning this, our heroes get a little guilty about helping to blow them up and call in some monks to hold a memorial service in their headquarters. Of course, it descends into wrestling and explosions, and it’s a shame they couldn’t quite throw out the rulebook just for one week and explore this bizarre premise a little more deeply.

Ultraman 1.34 – Present from the Sky

We took a break from Ultraman, and I confess I wasn’t in a huge rush to resume it, but my son was really pleased by this incredibly silly comedy episode. It concerns a big ankylosaur-like creature called Skydon and the Science Patrol’s ill-fated attempts to send it into space.

Our heroes act more like the Keystone Kops in this episode than a crack team of super-investigators. They bumble, they come up with stupid ideas, they have an umbrella delivery service that involves sending somebody out in an airplane to drop bumbershoots to the streets below, and they celebrate with what the dubbing crew claims is ginger beer. Uh huh.

At one point, they strap a beanie propeller about the size of a fast food restaurant on the monster’s back and figure they’ve seen the last of it. Who makes beanie propellers that big? How many box tops of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs do you need to send in for one?

Our son really got into the silly spirit, hoping that the monster would spit giant exploding pickles instead of fire. It ends with a bird pooping on Ito’s forehead and he’ll be laughing about that for the next five minutes.

Ultraman 1.33 – The Forbidden Words

Okay, first things first: the sound mixing in this show is always horrible – I swear, the Science Patrol’s telephone is louder than the engines of their spaceships – but this episode is completely maddening because the strange alien Mefilas and all his machinations are accompanied by a high-pitched rattle on the soundtrack. This noise is present for a good twenty of the program’s twenty-three minutes. I can still feel the roots of my teeth throbbing against the gums. It’s that bad.

Anyway, viewers willing to suffer through that cacaphony will be rewarded with a pretty good story. Mefilas is another well-remembered monster who got his start in this series and returned to battle many of the other Ultra-heroes. He launches ocean tankers into the air and jets into outer space, and turns Fuji into a giant. At one neat moment, to let the humans know he means business, he threatens them with giant illusions of two monsters we’d met before, a Baltan and that incoherent Zarab dude, along with a baddie called Kemur Man from the previous series, Ultra Q.

Mefilas belongs to that class of alien menace who needs to conquer the Earth because his own planet is running out of natural resources, a pretty common trope in sixties and seventies sci-fi. He sees Ultraman as a peer and equal. It all deteriorates into wrestling, of course, but curiously ends in a draw, with Mefilas deciding that the only way he can defeat our hero is by destroying the planet.

Our son enjoyed it and was genuinely worried when Fuji and Hayata disappear. The soundtrack didn’t annoy him one-tenth as much as it did the grown-ups.

(We’re going to take another break from Ultraman to cycle in a different show for our rotation, but we will be back with the final six episodes in late March. Stay tuned!)

Ultraman 1.32 – The Endless Counterattack

It’s all special effects this week, with about five times the explosions, and giant fires on at least three miniature sets. To compensate for that expense, there’s only one guest speaking part, and just one scene with any paid extras fleeing in terror.

In fairness, it certainly looks better than the average episode, but it’s pretty dull for any adults in the room. Our son, who had earlier chided the silly military for sending in tanks when “Only Ultraman can destroy monsters,” summed it up by telling us “I love explosions, especially when they’re on bad guys or monsters.”

Photo credit: Ultraman Wiki.