Friday, April 4, 2014

From Beyond Television: Ultraman Episode #1



"There is only one way I can repay you for the terrible thing I've done to you. I will shall give you my life. You and I will become one, and we will fight as one for the peace of the Earth for all time. You will remain in your present form as Hayata. But now, take this Beta Capsule. Whenever you are in trouble, use the Beta Capsule, and you, Hayata, will become Ultraman!"

While patrolling the skies on the night shift, Shin Hayata reports back to home base he has seen a U.F.O. An enormous red orb is chasing a blue orb across the night sky. As fate would have it, Hayata's ship accidentally collides with the red object just as the blue U.F.O. descends into a nearby lake. Hayata is saved by the strange alien inhabiting the red glowing vessel. From the Nebula M-78, the benevolent being explains it was pursuing the monstrous pilot of the blue ship, Bemlar, after it escaped being escorted to the Space Graveyard. Merging with Hayata and giving him the Beta Capsule, the Scientific Investigation Agency (SIA) member secretly becomes Ultraman whenever monsters or aliens threaten the Earth.

From a billion miles away, from a distant planet land, the premiere of ULTRAMAN was a milestone in Japanese science fiction, and American pop culture in general. Every week on television, you could see a silver and red suited superhero battling it out with an array of aliens and monsters on the small screen at home. Beginning with that famous multi-colored ice cream swirl title card -- leading into the catchy Ultraman theme song, the attention span of monster kids across the nation were focused squarely on the tube for 30 minutes. 

Preceded by the giant superhero-less ULTRA Q, this second ULTRA show became a massive success as big as its title M-78 savior. Its popularity spread across Japan onto American shores within a few months of his Nippon debut, where it remained in steady rotation into the 1980s.

With over two dozen Ultra shows having landed since, ULTRAMAN's debut program seems almost non-descript these days; aside from setting the vast mythology into motion. Virtually every staple of the long-running series was born here -- a science/paranormal/monster investigative team, futuristic mecha, the hero's secret identity, a device used to transform into the title spaceman, and the all important color timer that signifies when Ultraman's solar energy is nearly depleted by the Earth's atmosphere. Some of these have been amended for subsequent series's, or eliminated altogether.

Every Ultra show had a colorful organization armed with assorted futuristic machinery (save for the recent ULTRAMAN GINGA). The arsenal of the SIA (Scientific Investigation Agency) in classic ULTRAMAN laid the template for all those that followed with its varied mecha and weaponry. The Jet VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) is probably the most popular ship on the classic show, and its numerous modifications in other ULTRA programs. The one seen here appears to be the same model featured in GORATH (1962), but with slight alterations. The bigger Sub VTOL (see above insert) is the ship Hayata is piloting prior to his near-death experience with the M-78 spaceman. Later shows would introduce vehicles and aircraft of varying creativity; not to mention vivid imaginations.

Compared with some of the later Ultramen, Bin Furuya is wiry and frail. As the series progressed, his suit would be stuffed to give the character more musculature. For later examples, Koji Uenishi (U-7) and Tatsumi Nikamoto (U-Leo) had natural muscular builds that added to the whole comic book style superhero persona. Ultraman's bulbous helmet looked kind of awkward in its clay design. As the series continued, the helmet would become much smoother, and more metallic in its construct. For the time, nothing quite like Furuya's interpretation of a giant hero of humanity had been seen before. This is the original Ultraman, after all. Without it, many kids childhoods would have been a lot less fun.

Bemlar, a tall, scaly, tree trunk-shaped alien beast with Tyrannosaur arms was the monster that launched an entire industry of television kaiju monstrosities. Bemlar isn't all that intimidating, though. His floppy arms are virtually useless, but he has a beam attack that looks like Godzilla's radioactive flame; and even has the same sound effect. Future monsters and alien would become some of the most famous of Japan's kaiju canon.

Since this series got noticed outside of Japan, dubbing it into English meant changes were to be made; this mostly amounted to alterations in character names and their relation with other characters. Captain Muramatsu became Captain Mura; Ide, the SIA inventor, and occasionally annoying comic relief, became Ito; the little boy Hoshino Isamu, who wants to become an SIA member, is renamed Hoshino Fuji in the American version, and depicted as Akiko Fuji's younger brother. Also for the US dubbed release, the SIA (Scientific Investigation Agency) became The Science Patrol.

One of the memorable aspects of ULTRAMAN that has stayed with this reviewer all these years is the catchy musical score by Kunio Miyauchi; particularly the theme for the SIA. Akira Ifukube is the Japanese Ennio Morricone (or as others state, the John Williams of Japan), and Miyauchi's pseudo-militaristic marches conjure the tonalities of Ifukube's memorable cues. 

For a television series, the special effects of ULTRAMAN were fairly ambitious. They look primitive today, but subsequent shows pack a lot of creativity in the SPX department. The first few Ultra series were very experimental in their approach to the material, and none of that would have been possible without Eiji Tsuburaya's big imagination and big dreams of having greater control over his ideas in this format. For a first episode, 'Ultra Operation #1' is standard fare, but a fine start for what would become an iconic part of not only tokusatsu history, but an American pop culture phenomenon.

WEAPONS: Sub VTOL, S-16 Submarine, Jet VTOL, Super Gun

To be continued in Episode 2: BLAST THE INVADERS!!!

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