I’m sorry, Go, but you’re not going to take Aki to Zao. She’s not going to repair your broken wristwatch either.
My learned friend Dave Merrill, who writes the excellent blog Let’s Anime, frequently does a hilarious panel / presentation / multimedia experience at a few cons a year called Anime Hell. It often, though not always, runs at 10 pm on Fridays and is invariably the most entertaining thing the whole weekend. Next time you’re at an anime con where a Hell is a-running, you should arrive early for a seat.
One thing he occasionally does in Anime Hell is show audiences exactly why sensible people started watching Japanese cartoons in the seventies instead of what was being produced in the US, with some extremely funny point-counterpoint jabs at the sort of toothless, bloodless, antiseptic, good-for-you Saturday morning kidvid we were force-fed, delivered by Japanese space marines getting shot full of holes. I can imagine somebody protesting that hey, Japan also produced hundreds and hundreds of hours of TV that’s also pretty tame and kid-friendly in the period, but other than the “Split Personality” episode of Land of the Lost, American TV produced nothing for children that even implied that people died, certainly not in cartoon form. A dog died in Isis once. She consoled its young owner by reading him Byrds lyrics.
As this blog sees its conclusion on the horizon, I’m looking back a little at some of what we’ve watched, and remembering with chuckles how the unfortunate writers of episodes of Bigfoot and Wildboy, The Ghost Busters, and The Monster Squad all had to come up with absolutely absurd workarounds to deal with mummies, vampires, and wolfmen that did not mention death in any way. And these are just the live-action shows; since I have no interest at all in American cartoons from the period, I can’t imagine how pathetic those must be.
But even the many deaths and crazy violent moments in the Japanese cartoons from these days that I’ve seen pale into comparison with what Return of Ultraman pulled in November 1971.
Yeah, good luck with that, chief. They change weekly.
So some afternoons, the kid and I will watch something together that I’m not writing about. He’ll sometimes pick Space: 1999 or a Movie Macabre or an MST3K, but usually we’re working through 1971-72’s Return of Ultraman or 1972-73’s Ultraman Ace. Now, I’m no expert in the Ultra-series, but it really feels to me like around two-thirds of the way through each run, the producers can look on the horizon and see the money running out by episode 50, so it’s time to tighten the belt a little. We’ve seen some repurposed footage, although I don’t remember anything as obvious as a clip show. We’ve seen some reused monster costumes, given a new coat of paint, get a rematch. Considering the number of alien beasts that they either set on fire or decapitate or dismember, I think some of their options are a little limited.
But the other thing they can do is thank some of the supporting cast for their time and let them go. Return of Ultraman is the only one of these shows that I’ve seen to have two separate groups for our hero, Hideki Go, to work with. He has the crack military squad of co-workers, as Ultramen do, but Go also has some civilian friends: his girlfriend Aki, and her older and younger brothers. And one dreadful day, the girlfriend and the older brother buy it, and they buy it bad.
This two-parter’s enemies have decided to repurpose some fights from old episodes to test “New Ultraman” – he was later renamed “Ultraman Jack” – and find out how he operates. Then they decide that the best way to beat our hero is to break his heart. And in the bleakest damn thing you have ever seen, they kidnap Aki, Ken tries to stop them and they mow him down, kick Aki out of the car and run over her.
You are shitting me.
Seriously, the camera just holds this shot for an agonizingly long time. Can you imagine those old Action for Children’s Television busybodies seeing this? They couldn’t form words.
It even gets worse. Ken was killed instantly; Aki dies in the hospital, still holding Go’s broken wristwatch, their kid brother bawls, screaming and crying. It is stunningly, amazingly, bleak. So the new monster shows up, Go is full of rage and can’t think straight, Ultraman gets his ass kicked, and he’s imprisoned and taken into space.
I really only wanted to talk about this to highlight the stunning, wild difference between 70s Japanese kidvid and American stuff, but part two’s also worth a short comment. I don’t think that Tsubaraya Productions had quite figured out how to do a proper crossover teamup yet, but in part two, the original Ultraman and Ultraseven stop in for a cameo to inspire New Ultraman to wake up and get his stuff together. The first thing of note is that the original Ultraman appears in space to an incredibly familiar bum-bum-bum-BUM bum-bum-bum-BUM because yes, that’s right, Ultraman is back and he BROUGHT HIS THEME TUNE WITH HIM. Of course it was a disappointment. That is the magic music that lets us know a Baltan’s going to get sliced in half and it does not happen.
But what does happen is that the original hero actors – Susumu Kurobe and Kohji Moritsugu – arrive in their Science Patrol / Ultra Guard uniforms to shake hands and agree that they need to get New Ultraman back up to speed. You can hear the voices of twenty thousand older brothers and sisters telling the transfixed youngster in front of the TV “That was my Ultraman.” They probably sneered “That was when the show was actually good,” because older brothers and sisters are mean like that.
Eventually, Tsubaraya Productions would get the team-up thing down to a science. Ace and Taro and Leo would have lots of proper crossover teamups to keep kids excited and the ratings high. The cameo in this story was a little disappointing, but paired with the brutality of part one, it certainly made this two-parter amazingly memorable.