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Thursday, February 5, 2015

From Beyond Television: Ultraman Ace Episode #1



Directed by Kazuo Mitsuda and Masanori Kakei

Aliens from another dimension called the Yapool are hellbent on invading the Earth. They bring with them genetically altered, cyborgian creations called Choju, or Super Beasts; more powerful lifeforms unlike any other seen before. The first such creature leading the attack is Verokron. Sent to destroy Fukuyama, the military is powerless to stop the monster's advance. Seiji Hokuto, a bakery delivery man, and a nurse named Yuko Minami are killed in the destruction while trying to help fleeing citizens. Ultraman Ace, accompanied by four other Ultra Brothers, appears and revives the two bestowing upon them Ultra Rings that, when shining, allows them to transform into Ultraman Ace. Hokuto and Minami become members of TAC (Terrible Monster Attack Crew), a Self Defense Force funded, global combat organization tasked with battling the Yapoolian threat and their army of inter-dimensional monstrosities. 

The fifth Ultra series, and fourth to feature a giant-sized superhero is in full-on comic book mode, totally jettisoning any remnants of seriousness that translated from ULTRASEVEN to RETURN OF ULTRAMAN (ULTRAMAN JACK). Gone are any adult fashioned stories, or much in the way of artistic photographic shots that highlighted the previous Ultra superhero shows. It's SPX first, and story second; and if there's one thing in great supply in ULTRA-ACE, it's special effects; some of which are the work of future Godzilla SPX director Koichi Kawakita--making his debut as an asst. special effects director on this series. Regardless of near non-stop action, not every episode is mecha and monster battles. Some do contain an intriguing idea here and there. Overall, ULTRAMAN ACE is purely kiddie entertainment, but not so much that us big kids can't enjoy it. Shortly into this series viewers will notice the violence is even stronger than before (ULTRASEVEN contained some of the most shocking scenes of rubber suit brutality ever seen); rife with all manner of monster decapitations and multiple dismemberments amidst crumbling miniature buildings, flashy explosions, and flurries of elaborate optical effects.

As usual with these types of shows, the first episode is basically an introduction to the team members (done in a documentary fashion with the various team members looking into the camera as the narrator introduces them) and the array of ships and firepower. ULTRAMAN ACE is definitely a member of this formulaic club; disposing of niceties quickly, and diving head-first into the action. There are some deviations from said formula, but otherwise it's business as usual. Arguably the most radical innovation is the method of Ace's transformation.

For the first time in the Ultra Legacy, it takes two to tangle--a man and woman combine to form Ultraman Ace. In their human forms, both Hokuto and Minami were killed trying to rescue children during Velokron's initial assault, so Ace takes pity on them, reviving them both. Each were given an Ultra Ring that allowed them to take the form of Ace. Aside from presenting some plot-related issues with having two individuals needed to form an Ultra hero, this angle is abandoned in episode 28 by way of a surprising, if convenient plot device.

Ace himself/herself has that recognizable M78 fashion sense going on, but with some differences; theses alterations are most noticeable in the hero's helmet crest. The bladed section faces forward as opposed to aligning towards the back of the head of previous Ultra's. Ace is something of a 'Big Brother' in the Ultra family. He's stronger than the others, ie he can last longer in Earth's atmosphere. His weapons are many, and even more outlandish. In this series opener, Ace uses two weapons--a laser fired from his beam lamp (a gem in his forehead similar to U-7's), and the famous cross-armed attack, this time referred to as the Metallium Ray.

TAC is, like its anti-monster forces before it, made up of a variety of vehicles and aircraft, as well as a home base built to resemble the mountainous terrain around the Fuji Five Lakes area; concealing the inner workings where all of TAC's Japan branch weaponry are kept. The designs are a bit different from the previous ULTRA shows, morphing further with subsequent programs. The ships this time have a bird-like appearance to them. With the tougher beasts found in the ACE storyline, the ground force armaments are altered. In addition to even more powerful bullets (that come with the same sound effects of all your finer Italian westerns), an attachment turns these sidearms into laser pistols. One thing you can be sure of is that Japanese SciFi can deliver the most imaginative weaponry you're likely to see.

As the introductory Super Beast, Verokron is quite a sight. He looks like a coral reef with teeth. Armed with an array of crazy weapons, Verokron's arsenal includes an assortment of missiles fired from its coral attachments, its mouth, and back of the hands. He breathes fire, and has a smokescreen type mechanism that can trick attackers. If all that weren't enough, Verokron even has beam attacks (including laser shuriken). It's a strange mix on top of being a peculiar looking monster. The creatures of ACE get more elaborate as the series progresses, maintaining an organic-insect-reptilian-mechanical pattern.

TAC's base of operations
Akihiko Iguchi worked in the art dept. on many Japanese SciFi shows and films, in addition to coming up with assorted mecha and monsters for Tsuburaya series like MIGHTY JACK (1968) and RETURN OF ULTRAMAN. He designed Verokron (as well as many other monsters in this series), and some of TAC's aircraft. Probably of even greater interest to Japanese giant monster fans, Iguchi designed the original Mechagodzilla seen in GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974), in addition to King Seesar and Titanosaurus in the sequel, TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975).

Toru Kawai is the primary monster suit actor in ULTRAMAN ACE. Mostly playing monsters on television, he will likely be best remembered for essaying one of the most memorable Godzilla performances in TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975). Kawai was able to instill a lot of personality into Godzilla for that movie by turning him into what was ostensibly a barroom brawler. He had some previous experience as the radioactive lizard playing Godzilla in Toho's ULTRAish ZONE FIGHTER (1972) TV series. Kawai went on to play the title dino in the Rankin-Bass/Tsuburaya co-pro THE LAST DINOSAUR (1977). The monster Verokron returns in episode 48, but Kawai doesn't reprise suit acting duties for it. His career lasted roughly a decade, and was seemingly retired from show business by the dawn of the 1980s. Diabetes took Kawai from this world in 1996.

Oddly enough, no established suit actor played the role of Ace. A stuntman played him the first two shows, then Shoji Takeuchi put on the suit for the remainder of the 52 episode run.

On an ULTRA side note, Eiichi Kikuchi briefly reprises his role as U-Jack in episode 1. Fans of all things ULTRA will also notice that the Ultra Brothers make regular appearances beginning with this series as opposed to guest star turns of past Ultra shows. ULTRAMAN TARO would take this a step further when that series debuted in April of 1973.

Sources attribute the religious iconography to scriptwriter Shinichi Ichikawa's Christian influence. Ultraman himself has always had God-like connotations. The use of crucifixions, a form of execution with multi-cultural  relevance, is found in previous series' U-7 and U-JACK. For ACE, episode 13 contains a mass crucifixion of four Ultra Brothers. In episode one, Verokron is seen destroying a church. The main Yapoolian villain is likened to Satan with his penchant for soul taking and possession. Ichikawa wrote for a variety of television shows, and did seven of them for ACE.

Directorial reigns on episode one were split between two men--Kazuo Mitsuda and Masanori Kakei. The former was one of Tsuburaya Productions reliable employees, directing numerous episodes in a variety of series', and performing in other capacities behind the scenes. The latter was an ULTRA regular in the director's chair. He helmed 13 episodes of RETURN OF ULTRAMAN (1971-1972), 15 episodes of ULTRAMAN TARO (1972-1973), and just 4 shows for ULTRAMAN TARO (1974-1975).

ULTRAMAN ACE started off strongly in the ratings, but would quickly dip into average numbers; this drop attributed to the wild popularity of Toei's KAMEN RIDER, another Tokusatsu show that took the genre into even wackier territories. Still, Tsuburaya delivers a quality program that will appeal to fans of this sort of thing. ACE is definitely enjoyable, and this first literal action-packed debut is indicative of where the genre was heading at this time.

MONSTERS: Verokron; Yapool Alien (dimensional image only)
WEAPONS: TAC Arrow; TAC Space; TAC Panther; TAC gun

To be continued in episode two: SURPASS THE CHOJU!!!

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