Thursday, April 24, 2014

From Beyond Television: Ultraman Leo Episode #4



When we last left Ultraman Leo, his color timer had run out after a seemingly fatal blow from Turuk sent the L-77 savior into the sea. Believing Gen Otori to be dead, Dan Moroboshi ponders what to do next. Amazingly, Gen is found alive some time later. Dan castigates Gen, ordering him to remain in his human guise till he's mastered his triple attack regardless of when Turuk appears again. Unfortunately for MAC and Japan, the monster returns sooner rather than later.

Picking up where the last episode left off, Ultraman Leo, and his human alter ego Gen Otori, are presumed to be dead. There's a reprise of the sorrow felt by Captain Moroboshi, but this time, it's over the loss of Gen, his Ultra acolyte. His lamentation is short-lived, though, as writer Taguchi Shigemitsu seemingly didn't have enough time to come up with a plausible reason for Gen surviving after his color timer expired. Instead of an explanation, he just turns up alive and he's rescued. 

In pretty good shape after the pounding he took from Turuk, Gen is only too happy to get back to Karate training despite throwing some serious temper tantrums this fourth go round. Dan reaches down deep to attain the most guttural voice possible to let Gen know he means business this time about the training. Speaking of which, Gen's training sequence makes absolutely no sense. He basically does what Gordon Liu did in 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN (1978), but with far less expertise. He just punches at the water and that's it. He throws a huge fit when he fails to master "splitting the waterfall". For whatever reason, the secret to acing this skill lies in striking at some flower petals that fall down behind the cascade. All we know is Gen yells out, "I know the secret!" But nobody fills us in on what the secret actually is. Similar flowers are inside MAC headquarters, but again, Shigemitsu makes no connection between the two, nor sufficiently explains why this water chopping skill is able to turn Leo's arms into literal Karate choppers. 

Now the master, Leo suddenly gets the glow, and Turuk's sword strikes do no damage. Leo takes it to the hyperactive space creature with a string of throws and suplexes, and quickly finishes him with his new technique that allows his hands to slice through flesh. This is twice in a row that monsters have met a gory demise.

The balance of action and exposition of episode three is missing here. Four is fragmented, and feels sloppy despite its near non-stop monster scenes. For instance, the opening recap features shots not in episode three. One of these clips shows one of Turuk's blades come into closeup, yet it looks nothing like the monsters actual sword arms. At another point, the back of the Turuk monster suit is clearly open during the finale. The camera is at his front, but the suit actor energetically twists to the left and right, and the open back is briefly visible.

The lack of variety, and focus on city destruction was likely a move to appease the kids, but having Alien Turuk attack the city three times (if you include the tail-end that carries over from the previous show) gets tedious. It all looks like the same set each time even though a few composite shots mix up the monotony. There's an attempt to expound on Dan to the point where the episode feels more about him than Gen -- which is a huge mistake. This episode would have been superb had the focus been on the disappearance/death of Leo, whereby Dan must go it alone. Instead, only the latter point is realized.

Koji Moritsugi plays Moroboshi much like he did in ULTRASEVEN, but the friendly demeanor is all but evaporated. If not for Gen, one gets the impression he'd lose the will to live. He's dour the entire time, and never smiles. Up to this point, he's a far more interesting character than his impulsive disciple. Adding a layer of concern for his character, Dan uses his mind control ability for the second time in an effort to hold Turuk at bay -- this move exasperates his life force each time he uses it. 

Initially the Captain of MAC was to have been named Kawakami Tetsutaro, but it was eventually changed to Moroboshi of ULTRASEVEN.

The confusion as to what to do with this story continues during Dan's second air assault on Turuk. In it, he lures the monster onto some power lines. Electrocuting him doesn't work the way Dan had hoped. Turuk gets a charge out of the experience, and ends up using his sword extensions to absorb electric current when he returns to destroy the city at the end. Curiously, the beast never does anything with this new electrified ability when confronted by U-Leo at the end. Another missed opportunity.

The days of having actual storylines in Ultra shows was well past by 1974. The superhero shenanigans had taken over. There would be an occasional idea here and there, but everything gets drowned out in the 'Monster of the Week' mentality. There was really no reason for this being a two-parter outside of the cliffhanger of Leo in trouble, leaving the audience wondering how the spaceman would come back. And that's the one major area the second half fails in. We don't know how he survived, he just does.

ULTRAMAN LEO was considered a ratings failure compared with the previous series'. However, these first four episodes performed the best. From here on out, the series would struggle to maintain a 10-13% share of the viewing audience in Japan during its April 1974-March 1975 run.

As for episode 4, it's totally unnecessary as the second half of a two part story. Why the focus wasn't on Gen/Leo's supposed death is anyone's guess. That would have made for a much better conclusion than simply retreading the same thing already covered in ep. 3. The atmosphere of darkness is great, but that will be lifted soon (for a good stretch of episodes). Monster fans will be satisfied with the destruction scenes, even if it, too, offers little deviation from the first portion of this two part arc.

WEAPONS: MAC-2, 3; MAC Attack Jeep

To be continued in Episode #5: DON'T CRY! YOU ARE A MAN!!!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

From Beyond Television: Ultraman Leo Episode #3


Toru and Kaoru, friends of Gen and the MAC Team are being raised by their dad after their mother died. Leaving the MAC training facility one night, a mysterious creature kills the man in front of his kids and leaves a metal object at the scene. Gen Otori becomes seriously concerned upon seeing the object and notices it has the face of Ultraman Leo on it. Both Gen and Goro must now figure out who will take care of the newly orphaned siblings. MAC members, Suzuki, also a family man, decides to let the kids stay with him temporarily. After leaving, the deadly creature attacks once more, killing Suzuki and quickly leaves the scene. On another night, Captain Moroboshi is ambushed by the alien till Gen arrives and forces it to flee. Later, Moroboshi informs Gen the alien is named Turuk, an outer space monster with flesh-shredding blades for hands. To defeat Turuk, Gen must learn yet another martial arts technique to apply to his growing Leo skill set.

The dark aura that permeated the first two U-LEO shows courtesy of writer Taguchi Shigemitsu is maintained for these next two shows, another two-parter -- this one featuring a deadly sword-slinging alien that enjoys slicing humans in half. In this series the giant monsters also wreck havoc in human form, and Alien Turuk wallows in it. In a shocking bit of violence barely five minutes into the show, Turuk cuts two innocent humans in half -- in front of children no less!

As a man-sized alien, Turuk has a metallic appearance about the face, and possesses swords for hands. He is also proficient in martial arts style combat; much like all tokusatsu suit monster creations from this time period. 

In his giant monster form, Turuk looks totally different; more reptilian in nature. His sword arms are now extensions protruding from his forearms. He moves incredibly fast and dishes out some pain to U-Leo in the climactic fight. Tatsumi Nikamoto (underneath the Leo wetsuit) jumps, chops, and somersaults all over the miniature set when he isn't being pummeled by Turuk. He rushes to battle the monster prematurely before mastering his tri-attack maneuver to counter the giant monsters dual strike. There's a great cliffhanger where Leo's color timer runs out (he lasts for less time in Earth's atmosphere compared with other Ultra heroes), Turuk delivers a final blow sending Leo below the watery depths of the harbor.

The monster action is exciting and well choreographed; and the sight of Turuk splitting buildings and MAC ships in half gives these scenes additional punch. It moves very fast, and fans of karate/kung fu genre product get their kicks while tokusatsu fans get their suit action fix.

Furthermore, the human drama is handled well for a series that eventually wanders all over the map in terms of tonal shift. For now, things are consistently grim, and the series wholeheartedly embraces its downbeat tone later in the run with some shocking turn of events.

Dan Moroboshi gets as much, if not more screen time than Gen does. For all its action, the writer manages to squeeze in a bit of subtle exposition for its crippled Captain. Since he can no longer transform into Ultraseven, he acts as the Obi Wan Kenobi of the series -- training Gen in his human state to adapt martial arts skills that will accentuate his Leo techniques. There's one scene where Dan looks intently at his Ultra Eye -- knowing it is useless to him after his bone-shattering ordeal with the Gillas Brothers and Alien Magma in U-LEO's first episode. This brief scene, bereft of dialog, says more about his emotional state than any melodramatic monologue could.

Gen (Ryu Manatsu) is still an excitable hot-head, his eyes threatening to fall out of his skull at any given moment. The series continues its martial arts movie template by having Gen train in various techniques to battle the monsters all the while brandishing his best Sonny Chiba expression.

This episode not only marks the first appearance of the two kids Toru and Kaoru, but it's significant for its trend of killing off members of the MAC team. Suzuki barely recites his few lines before he's felled by Turuk's blades. Other affiliates of the Monster Attack Crew die, but not all given much audience connection outside of a face in the crowd, or the casual line delivery.

The impressive battle carrier, the MAC 1 (or the MAC Macky 1) returns, but is seemingly MIA after this -- remaining docked in the teams space station. Their attack jeep was seen in the series opener, and it gets some action briefly here. The MAC Attack Jeep has a mounted bazooka and some laser weapons. It's just as garishly colorful as the rest of the groups hardware and attire.

'Goodbye Tears' is just as strong a show as the opening two-parter. The action and drama finds a stable medium with which to further the story; and thus far ULTRAMAN LEO delivers quite a bit of everything that attracts fans to this genre. The series kind of loses its way later on, but for now, U-LEO is proving to be a radically different approach to familiar material.

MONSTERS: Alien Turuk (human sized and giant form)
WEAPONS: MAC 1 carrier; MAC #s 2,3; MAC Attack Jeep

To be continued in Episode 4: A VOW BETWEEN MEN!!!
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