Ultraman – Goes West

This article was originally intended for publication in TC14/15, but was omitted – probably due to lack of space. It never got published, so this is the first time it has seen the light of day!

Or everything you didn’t want to know about latex and Japanese co-productions.

Way, way back in the mist’s of the 1960’s Tsubaraya Eiji (Godzilla’s effects man and a guy who knew a thing or two about rubber suits), conceived a strange new peripatetic and apparently eternal defender of the Earth. Enter Ultraman, the bug-eyed, ever so tall fighter of strange monsters.

Cut forward 20 years to 1987. Tsubaraya productions attempted an animated version of Ultraman. But did they use fine Japanese animators. Nah, they signed a deal with Hanna Barbera to try and crack into the US TV market! This oddity was eventually released in the UK under the MY-TV label as Ultraman 2 (MYTV 20019 – but hard to get as it’s out of production, unless you have an NTSC video because it’s been re-released by LA Hero /Ultra Action Video in the States as ‘Ultraman: The Adventure Begins’).

Basically the plot introduces us to the benevolent alien Ultraman in his quest to defend the Earth. Alas, he can’t last long in Earth’s atmosphere and so he has to share someone’s body. The body in question this time is that of Space Pilot Harris who gets assigned to the Emergency Science and Defence Squad, a newly formed team with a brief that includes studying strange lights in the sky and firing lasers at really oddball monsters.

Right, so we have the team formed; a motley bunch made up from a dashing Captain, the wild inventor, a fat bumbling guy, our young hero and the token female scientist. The next 60 minutes shows their efforts to fight off strange creatures, crash fighter aircraft and finally let Ultraman barely beat off the monsters. It’s fun…but not very good.

Interestingly enough there is an odd plot parallel between this and the later “Ultraman: The Alien Invasion”. In both films there is an sequence in which a lonely boy loses his pet lizard, the lizard becomes a monster and Ultraman fights it. In Ultraman 2, the boy loses his pet, in the Alien Invasion he flys away with it.

I suspect that this stems from both stories emerging from Tsubaraya’s Ultraman team. After all, Ultraman is pretty much a fixed format show which survives because the public like the hero and the stories. Weirdly enough, the nearest UK parallel to this is probably Doctor Who. Now that would make a good film, Doctor Who and Ultraman Vs….. (answers on a postcard please).

A few years later Tsubaraya Productions joined forces with The South Australian Film Corporation to make “Ultraman Towards The Future”. which has been cut to produce the first two Ultra label releases – “Ultraman: The Alien Invasion” and come September, “Ultraman: The Battle for Earth”. The Alien Invasion is an odd piece of work. Stylistically it looks very Japanese and the plot is pure Ultraman (mainly because it was written, designed, special effected et al by the Japanese half of the deal). But we have all these rotten Australian actors hamming their way across the sets and only one token oriental female, who failed to get the female lead as all of this was meant for Australian TV.

So let’s cut to the plot; Ultraman beats up a “Thing” on Mars and from it the weird green guudis virus streams towards the Earth. Also on the Martian surface are two astronauts; one of them has been severely fried by the Thing (along with their Tin Foil space capsule), the other is left stranded on the surface. Soon after, a huge, strange city block eating monster emerges in downtown Sidney, Ultraman appears and beats it up. So does our astronaut friend (any of you who haven’t yet spotted the link between him and Ultraman wake up now please).

OK, so this is a standard plot. The Earth is being attacked by an intelligent virus which transmogrifies creatures into a gigantic form. This Guudis virus has the eventual goal of infecting and altering every living thing on the planet (has this caught the attention of Blood Music fans yet?).

Now that’s been dealt with we can step back and look at the film. The fights between Ultraman and the monsters are quite well done. If you like Godzilla Vs Whatever then this kind of action should be well pleasing. There are even a few gem scenes – like Australian cops being worried by a small monster that’s taking a ride on a lonely merry go round, or our hero being chastised for worrying about fashion accessories when the monsters are attacking. The human contingent in the film are all members of UMA (Universal Multipurpose Agency – but who cares what it means), who have access to state-of-the-art-so-let’s-crash-it technology. (Just like the characters in Ultraman 2 who are always losing expensive jet fighters). Towards the end we even have a nutty general who intends to nuke half of Australia rather than let UMA and Ultraman deal with a particularly bad news monster. If it was the half of Oz where “Neighbours” and “Home and Away” were shot then perhaps it wasn’t such a bad idea.

In this film Ultraman also displays the distinctly green tendency of only being able to operate at full size for three minutes because he doesn’t like Earth’s polluted atmosphere. He also always has to be almost beaten up before finally recovering and giving his aggressor what for, just like Spectreman (plug plug!). Actually Spectreman is an old Ultraman rip off where a mad alien (Doctor Gory) is trying to save the Earth from mankind’s polluting ways by unleashing a horde of monsters one by one. Fortunately standing in his way is a pollution researcher who gets transformed into Spectreman by another alien force so that humanity has a chance against the monsters. While of course trying to find ways around the pollution problem. Since Spectreman follows where Ultraman treads I suspect that the anti pollution stance has been part of Ultraman for a while. Not surprising, I suppose, given Japan’s smog problem. But at least it suggests that there is no PC, green, cash-in going here – it’s been part of Ultraculture for quite a while. Both hero’s also share the same tendency to get themselves well smegged before retaliating and saving the day.

To sum up: one fairly awful animation and one quite good fun film. Ultraman 2 is dire enough to understand why an animated series never got made in the States. Ultraman the Alien Invasion is okay – although it has been criticised by some fans of Japanese TV for having productions standards that are too HIGH! Guess they must mean the lack of papier mache…