Wednesday, March 30, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 131: Ultraman (1966 - 1967): "The Blue Stone of Baraji"

My four year old son's latest video entertainment obsession, following a three-month long Ben 10 marathon, is the 1966-1967 monster/superhero series from Japan, called Ultraman

Created by the legendary Eiji Tsuburaya of Godzilla fame, this early incarnation of Ultraman originally aired from July 1966 to April 1967 on the Tokyo Broadcasting System, and came to include some thirty-nine half-hour installments.

Set in the future world of the 1990s, Ultraman centers around the activities of the high-tech "Science Patrol" organization, particularly the branch operating in and around Japan.  

The Patrol roster consists of no-nonsense Captain Mura (Akiji Kobayashi), deputy commander Shin Hayata (Susumu Kurobe), and communications/radio specialist Fuji (Hiruko Sakurai), the group's only female. 

Providing comic relief (and occasionally breaking the fourth wall) is accident-prone engineer Ito (Masanari Nihei).  Also included in this stalwart group is the ubiquitous child mascot, Hoshino (Akhilde Tsuzawa), and Ito's occasional partner in mischief, Arashi (Sandayu Dokumamushi).

The members of the Science Patrol zip about, to and fro, in fancy, futuristic aircraft, and always adorn orange and white, Star Trek-like uniforms (but with ties) and air-force-styled helmets.  The Patrol's communicators -- worn on their chests -- forecast the communicator models of The Next Generation as many other reviewers have also pointed out.  In Ultraman, the commbadges are shaped like a star upon a rocket nose, and feature tiny antennae that activate when the device is in use. 

The job of the Science Patrol is to defend Japan, and indeed, other nations as well from rampaging monsters of extra-terrestrial origin.  These monsters are almost universally depicted by men in elaborate and creative monster suits, in the fashion of a Godzilla or Gamera film.

In the first episode of Ultraman, the Science Patrol is called into action to stop the dinosaur-like Bemlar, a colossal reptilian menace who can shoot heat rays from his mouth. 

While battling the beast, Hayata's airplane collides with the spherical alien craft belonging to another alien being called Ultraman, a law enforcement official from Nebula M78. 

Rather than let Hayata die from the accident, Ultraman shares his life force with the human, and grants Hayata the power to transform into Ultraman in times of crisis.  Hayata can usher in this transformation by utilizing a tube-like device known as a "beta capsule."  In various episodes, tension is wrought from Hayata's ownership (or loss) of the beta capsule. In one episode, he drops it off a roof accidentally and it lands on a ledge many feet below, where he must retrieve it.

But even the great Ultraman -- a red and silver costumed titan with glowing eyes -- is not invincible.  On his chest is a round power indicator.  When the indicator blinks, the light is a "warning" and should it go dark entirely, "Ultraman will never rise again." 

In other words, Ultraman can only fight the bad guys for a short time, or he will die.  This is another near-constant source of tension in the half-hour episodes, as prolonged battles drain Ultraman ever faster.

In various episodes of Series One, the Science Patrol and Ultraman are called upon to battle the monster or menace of the week.  And this is where the series really proves itself fun and infinitely imaginative.  The "monster of the week" may be universally taller than skyscrapers, but each one is highly individual and inventive in appearance, and boasts different capabilities or powers so as to challenge our hero. 

For instance, in the second episode, "Blast the Invaders," Ultraman must battle the bug-eyed Baltan aliens, who boast mammoth pincers for hands, and who can freeze their enemies in their tracks.  More uniquely, the alien Baltan can project visual decoys, so it is difficult to detect and kill the "real" alien. 

Another monster, in the third episode is called "Neronga" and he is -- at least for a while -- invisible.  These monsters are really great, and it is a lot of fun to start each episode and wonder what brand of monster is going to endanger the Earth this time.  It could be something from space, something long-buried beneath the Earth's surface, or even something living at the bottom of the sea.

Each episode of Ultraman usually begins with just such a threat or mystery emerging  from space.  In "The Ruffian from Outer Space," for instance, a group of Japanese school children find an unusual object fallen from the sky that can transform into any shape that someone wishes for.  The device is stolen (in a very droll, ingenious sequence)  by a criminal mastermind who wishes for it destroy everything. 

Before you know it, the device morphs into a giant monster, Gango, that appears to possess rotating satellite dishes for ears.  

In another episode, "Passport to Infinity," two meteors crash on Earth, and -- when fused together -- form a time and space warping leviathan.  Before the monster forms, the episode has a great deal of fun with the meteor's time and space twisting capabilities.  Ito runs up a staircase to nowhere, and two scientist find themselves unexpectedly walking on the ceiling of Science Patrol HQ.  Once formed, the strange, shell-like monster extends weaponry that transports attacking planes in flight from the air to the ground; and then does the opposite to a trio of tanks.

After the threat of the week is introduced each week, the Science Patrol attempts to stop the ensuing invasion, but the human technology proves ever ineffective.  In the last five or so minutes of each half-hour, Hayata finally realizes Ultraman is needed, and presses his beta capsule at the moment of highest drama. 

In short order, Ultraman appears and wrestles, then defeats the enemy.  Finally, in a regurgitation of the Superman premise, Hayata returns to his mild-mannered self and nobody in the Science Patrol realizes that Ultraman and Hayata are never seen together at the same time.

One impressive episode from the first Ultraman series is called "The Blue Stone of Baraji."  Here, the Science Patrol travels to the Middle East with an American patrol member, Adam Jeffers, to investigate an apparent meteor crash in the desert, near Afghanistan and Turkey.  The Science Patrol's jet goes down, however, after encountering a strange atmospheric disturbance, a ray of magnetic energy.

After surviving a harrowing crash landing, the Science Patrol is shocked to see a huge monster -- Antlar -- pulp their plane. 

Antlar looks like a giant terrestrial insect with a hard exo-skeleton, and his mandibles fire the very light/magnetic beam that brought the Patrol down in the first place.  

Seeking help and sanctuary, the Patrol members make their way to a lost city that stands in the shadow of Mount Ararat. 

There, a beautiful princess with the power of telepathy ("a gift of the Gods"), tells them of the city's long, storied history.  It was once a busy metropolis, the capitol of the desert, but soon traders began to disappear into the desert, victims of Antlar, the monster who has hidden beneath the sand for centuries.  The city survives only because Antlar is afraid of "Ultra" -- Ultraman, himself -- and the blue stone or "good luck charm" he once wielded.

When Antlar follows the patrol and lays siege to the ancient city, Hayata uses the beta capsule. Soon, Ultraman and Antlar duke it out, but Antlar's magnetic powers are too strong for Ultraman to resist.  The blue gem, finally, is the key to destroying Antlar, and it is removed from a stone statue of Ultraman in the city's temple.  When the gem is thrown at Antalr, the beast is finally destroyed.

With their job complete, the Science Patrol leaves the cityand the Princess says she prefers to keep the city lost, "far from wars and the like."

Intriguingly, this episode of Ultraman gives some nice back story about the super-sized hero from space.  It turns out Ultraman has come to Earth many times before his initial meeting with Hayata in episode one, "Ultra Operation Number One." 

In fact, he has been protecting this city from harm for generations, and there is that mysterious statue of Ultraman in the temple.  The statue and Ultraman's involvement in human affairs, protecting the city of Baraji, make the viewer aware that Ultraman and his enemies are not a new phenomenon, but rather part of the planet's very history...and even mythology.  It's a nice contextual touch that adds to the legend of the hero from another planet.

What is particularly enjoyable about "The Blue Stone of Baraji" is the shift in setting away from urban, futuristic Tokyo to the wide open desert.  This episode also includes a plane crash (rendered in miniature), an impressive giant monster, a lost city, and a pitched battle between evenly-matched titans.  I grew up with movies such as Godzilla, War of the Gargantuas and Rodan, among others, and Ultraman (called a "kaiju" in Japan) is a perfect, 23-minute extension of that world, featuring carefully-crafted miniatures (which are nonetheless instantly recognizable as miniatures), fantastic monster suits, and a lot of heart. 

For Joel, I know the thrill here is seeing Ultraman fight the monster of the week, and he often grows impatient with Hayata's perpetual dithering.  As soon as the monster appears, Joel is ready for Ultraman to beat it back to space.  But before that can happen, a few things are certain to occur first: hijinks with Ito, (who gives himself a black eye in one episode by falling out of his bunk bed), and Hoshino and Fuji invariably find themselves in need of rescuing.

The Ultraman format is repetitive and predictable, but also a hell of a lot of fun.  And that goes for the whole 1966-1967 series, really.  It's so good-hearted, thrilling and fantastic you just might find it impossible to resist, whether you're four years old or forty-one.


  1. This brings back childhood memories. Oh how Japan needs Ultra Man now.

  2. Nothing greater than the Ultra shows.

  3. Hi everyone,

    John: This show is so much fun, I agree, and yes, Japan could use a win right now. I think of that tragedy everyday; and of all the great entertainment Japan has produced for geeks like me over the decades too...

    Hi David -- you said it. Ultraman definitely rocks. I very much enjoy watching it with my son.

    best wishes,

  4. Anonymous11:23 AM

    I looked at some eps of Ultra Man recently (hadn't looked at the dvd in a couple of years), and this ep stood out. The sets for the ancient city were particularly impressive. I wonder what they were originally built for (Atragon?).

    As with other fans, I fondly remember this show. I used to race home, from the bus stop after school, so I wouldn't miss the beginning of the show. Now, I find the show a bit tedious to watch. On various other dvd commentaries, I've seen Japanese SFX artists brag that their miniature work was the best in the world. I don't agree with that. Gerry Anderson's puppet shows were made around the same time and certainly feature better model work (design-wise and in terms of realism). Most of the time in Ultra Man, the air craft look like bathtub toys on strings.

  5. Hi anonymous,

    Great comment! Like you, I would say that the Gerry Anderson puppet series miniatures are far superior to those in Ultraman.

    But Ultraman really excels for those awesome and crazy monster suits. The mischief-maker in "Ruffian from Outer Space" leaps to mind as one particularly nutty alien (Ultraman has to tickle him, at one point, I believe...). Also, the Baltan and Bemular are pretty darn cool. Some of the monsters are even frightening (we have to turn those episodes off with my son; he's very impressionable).

    I enjoy watching Ultraman with Joel for the monsters, the goofy humor (like Ito's mis-step into a garbage can in "Passport to Infinity"), the action, and the crazy stylistic touches.

    The format of the series is certainly repetitive, but young kids equate repetition with security, so it seems appropriate for Joel at the moment.

    I've watched about half of the first twenty episodes, and am really enjoying the series so far. But I know what you mean about the shows getting tedious. From about the sixteen minute point to the moment when Ultraman steps in, the episodes can sometimes feel a bit long.