Tuesday, July 14, 2015

From Beyond Television: Ultraman Leo Episode #6


Directed by Tojo Shohei

"I'll avenge Yoko-san, you damned alien!"

Officer Shirato arrives on Earth from MAC's space station to spend time with both Gen and his girlfriend, Yoko, before attending a meeting. Gen is escorting Yoko home when they're attacked out of nowhere by the alien known as Karly. The invader grows to giant size and squashes Yoko like a bug. Gen transforms into Leo, but is easily defeated by the monster. Shirato blames Gen for his girlfriend's death and lobs insults at Leo for being forced to retreat by Alien Karly. Shirato then trains intensely to defeat the monster on his own. Meanwhile, Gen furthers his own training to hone the skills needed as Ultraman Leo to defeat the new alien threat.

Primary series writer Taguchi Shigemitsu keeps things moving with a simplistic plot that's piled high with melodrama as big as any giant monster. Ryu Manatsu continues to overact terribly, if occasionally deriving some sympathy for his character during his calmer moments--particularly during the rivalry between Gen and Officer Shirato (see insert); the latter of which gives Gen hell for the death of his girlfriend. Manatsu is not a bad actor at all, he just gets far too carried away at times. He gets extra points for doing his own stunt work, though. An athlete and singer, Manatsu really does throw himself into the role. 

Gen not only gets verbally beat down by Shirato, but also by his commanding officer. One of the best dialog moments in a show drowned in action is a scene shared with fellow alien masquerading as MAC Captain, Dan Moroboshi, formerly Ultraseven. After Gen demands the Captain halt operations that may put MAC members in danger if patrolling alone, Dan scolds him as to why he's not very good at the whole superhero thing. 

These sorts of dramatic conversations are par for the course during the first several episodes wherein Otori Gen must learn some martial arts style that correlates to the method in which Leo met his defeat. Here, he has to fine tune his reaction time by kicking and punching sharpened logs that swing dangerously in his direction; and, more curiously, learning how to defeat Karly has something to do with flipping over a moving jeep. 

Basically ULTRAMAN LEO is, for the time being, a kung fu movie assigned to a Tokusatsu template. Other than an obvious KAMEN RIDER influence, LEO would change a few more times during its desperate bid to attract ratings. The series started out with average viewership, but declined steadily from there.

The downbeat atmosphere often attributed to LEO is in evidence at times in this episode, if not heavily steeped in it like the first few shows (episodes one and two are arguably among the best, and unique approaches in any Ultra series). We're barely three minutes in and we have a monster crush a woman under its foot, leading to a battle with Leo wherein he loses. If you've kept up with this series to this point, you've noticed the darker tint to the storyline. This will change later on when the plots get more erratic and kid-friendly, although these more violent episodes make a return.

The Karly alien has two forms. It's man-sized form looks very different from when it goes giant.  The one recognizable factor are these large spikes on each shoulder. When it's a giant monster, these spikes possess laser capabilities, emitting electrical beams that shock Leo when he attacks. The monster has a charging-bull attack, lifting Leo off the ground, and slamming him on his back. Karly's demise is similar to the previous installment's monster, Kanedoras, keeping with the trend of brutal monster deaths. Additionally, the suit for the giant version of Alien Karly looks like it's stitched together from other monster suits.

Director Tojo Shohei is behind the camera for the second of six times on LEO. Having helmed the previous episode, these two are about even in terms of entertainment value. The sentimentality is stronger in episode five, but both shows, while sharing similarities, have different writers (Shosuke Watarukai). The young children, Toru and Kaoru, intro'd in episode three, and recurring characters, have a cameo during the finale; 'You're A Man! Fire Up!' has been serious the duration, so it ends on a comical note at the expense of Japanese giant monster movie favorite, Yu Fujiki.

For the time being, ULTRAMAN LEO remains an enjoyable show before later going off the rails where the utter bizarro factor and noticeable budget cuts will determine continued viewer interest.

MONSTERS: Karly Seijin (Alien)
WEAPONS: MAC Attack Jeep (MAC Roddy); MAC Gun

To be continued in Episode 7: A BEAUTIFUL MAN'S WILL!!!

Monday, July 13, 2015

From Beyond Television: Ultraman Ace Episode #3


Directed by Yamagiwa Eizo

On patrol, Minami witnesses the sky crack open and a monster emerges. Destroying a bridge with a little boy on it, a passenger plane flies overhead and it, too, is destroyed. TAC investigates the wreckage and finds no sign of the little boy, nor the monster Minami described. Hokuto finds the yellow hat belonging to the boy which happens to have his name, Shiro Nakamori, printed on it. Hokuto locates his parents and upon meeting the boy, realizes something is wrong with him after he swipes his gun and attempts to kill him with it! It's discovered the boy has been possessed by the Yapool, using him as a host for the monster Vakishim. Luring the main TAC members away with a decoy, Vakishim is sent to destroy the TAC headquarters at the base of Mount Fuji.

The third episode of ACE holds the momentum of its predecessors, linking a lot of action to just the bare minimum of storyline. In this case, the action is scaled back slightly to make room for a recurring plot device wherein the Yapool resort to using human hosts for the Super Beasts. This possession motif--which isn't a completely new idea for the ULTRA series--is sort of a bastardized version of the relationship between the Ultramen and their human hosts. As for the M-78 aliens, they respect the innate heroism of man, using the humans as vassals to protect the Earth while martyring their own lives. The Yapool, on the other hand, use them (like the Ultra's, they will raise the dead for their purposes) to take over the Earth with no regard for other lifeforms. 

For this episode's purposes, the object of the Yapool's possession is a little boy, Shiro Nakamori. The scene where the kid confronts his parents in full-on EXORCIST mode (which hadn't even come out yet) is unintentionally comical. Instead of spitting pea soup, he spits lightning bolts. The makeup used to denote an alien presence makes it look like the boy has been playing around with his sister's lipstick and hairspray. Regarding this sequence, it reveals a gaping plot hole in the last scene that one of the Super Beast's could walk through. If you don't want to know what that is, just skip the next paragraph....

In it, TAC learns that Shiro and his parents had died in a mysterious car accident three days prior; yet if all three were dead, and their corpses are being used by the Yapool, why would the child need to kill his parents, who, as we discover at the end, are already dead?

As was noted in the review for episode two, Takamine Keiji plays the Ultra role in a different way than previous actors. Like an adolescent in a grown man's body, his Seiji Hokuto seems a bit too impulsive, maybe even unrefined to be a member of a global protection agency. When in human form, Hokuto comes off as a buffoon. Despite steadily declining ratings, kids probably liked this sort of interpretation considering the first two 'giant hero' shows were headlined by two serious portrayals; and the third with a rebellious slant. Aside from Hokuto's immature traits, there's a funny scene where he's pulled over by a policeman for FLYING drunk! This was the first of 14 scripts from Tsuburaya screenwriter, Taguchi Shigemitsu.

Akihiko Higuchi (creator of the '74 incarnation of Mechagodzilla) designed many of the mecha and monsters on both RETURN OF ULTRAMAN and ULTRAMAN ACE. The walking caterpillar creature, Vakishim, is one of his brainstorms, and one essayed by this series' primary suit actor, the late Toru Kawai. It's an elaborate, colorful monster, if a bulky suit. As per the thematics of the Super Beasts, Vakishim is a bio-mechanical monstrosity armed with a wild array of attacks. It fires rockets out of its beak and its feeler-like appendages--which also harbors flamethrower capabilities. A big horn on its head can eject and home in on a target, exploding on contact.

Ace shows off a weapon's cache of his own; the neatest being the Ultra Neo Barrier (see above), a square-shaped shield of energy that repels a monster's attack. The Slash Ray (thrown from the right hand;see insert at bottom) is similar to a shuriken, but with explosive results. The Ace Spark stops Vakishim, momentarily freezing him till Ace can sever his head with the Ace Slash, a buzzsaw shaped laser attack.

The battle between Ace and Vakishim is fast-paced and well choreographed, filling the screen with somersaults, throws, and optical effects. Prior to the big battle, Vakishim's attack on the TAC base affords viewers a chance to see some of the Defense Force's other weapons. A variety of rockets and heavy artillery are unleashed on the Super Beast. The interior set with the Mt. Fuji painting is a striking backdrop to the action as opposed to the usual blue background.

For the time being ULTRAMAN ACE is a strong superhero show. The tone is even lighter than before, but as the series progresses, the eccentricities become more profound with violent monster deaths mingling with what is ostensibly kiddie-tainment. The show throws some curve balls later on, but till then, it's a fun ride getting there for those with affection for rubber suit action.

MONSTERS: Vakishim; Yapool (dimensional image)
WEAPONS: TAC Falcon; TAC Arrow; Electro Cannon

To be continued in Episode 4: APPEARANCE OF THE 30,000 YEAR OLD CHOJU!!!

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