In the annals of Japanese cinema, there is one giant who looms the largest, an iconic figure that burst onto the world stage back in 1950s, whose influence on the medium can be still witnessed to this day. Of course, I’m talking about Godzilla. (Who were you expecting? Akira Kurasawa?)
One of the men responsible for bringing Godzilla to life was Eiji Tsuburaya, the head of Toho Tokyo Studios' special effects department. Rather than use stop-motion techniques, which had been the norm for creating giant movie monsters, he decided to put a man in a rubber suit, which came to be known as suitmation, and the rest is film history.
Tsuburaya left Toho and began his own special effects lab and production company. Under his own banner, his most notable creation was the superhero television program Ultraman. Though there were only 39 episodes that aired from July 1966 to April 1967, it became the first live-action Japanese television series exported around the world and continued to generate sequel series into the 1990s.
Every episode had the same basic plot structure. A monster from space or the bowels of Earth appears and causes havoc. The Science Patrol, a team of first responders whose function is to protect mankind, investigates. Their high-tech gadgetry is powerless to stop the monster. However, one member of the team has a secret.
While investigating a UFO, Science Patrolman Hayata’s ship is crashed into by a sphere, whose occupant is Ultraman, a being from Nebula M78 beyond the 40th Galaxy. He was taking the radioactive monster Bemler to M90 for disposal, when it escaped and headed for Earth. Hayata is killed in the crash, but Ultraman repays him for the terrible thing he has done by giving Hayata his life. Hayata receives the Beta capsule and when he’s in trouble, he uses it to unleash Ultraman, a powerful fighter who has an array of special powers.
Ultraman has one weakness. He can only fight for about three minutes before his energy supply gets exhausted, illustrated through a blinking, colored light on his chest, so he has to take care of the monsters quickly. As luck would have it, he usually doesn’t appear until the end of the show.
Ultraman also has one weakness. It crumbles under any critical thinking. The Science Patrol claim to maintain a 24-hour alert, but the small group of five people are the only people on staff. What good are they if they fail every time out and need Ultraman? Why doesn’t Hayata just turn into Ultraman at the first sign of a monster? Hayata and Ultraman form an unclear, pan-dimensional relationship. Hayata doesn’t become Ultraman. He changes places with him, but where is that other place? The fact that no one on the Science Patrol can figure out the Hayata-Ultraman connection guarantees them jobs working for Metropolis’ Daily Planet, if needed. And then there are all the head-scratching moments within each episode.
But Ultraman was created to battle monsters not over-thinking adults. It’s an excuse to watch men in rubber suits stomp around on models and rest certain parts of the brain. I don’t know if it can still capture the imagination of a 21st Century child, but it’s great fun for Gen-Xers who grew up on it to get together and laugh at it over a few beers. At least, those smart enough to know that Ultraman could take that brat Johnny Sokko and his sluggish Flying Robot in a fight. One of my favorite moments is when The Science Patrol travels to Mount Ararat in Turkey and all the extras are obviously Japanese.
This three-DVD set contains the first 20 episodes. Extras include the U.S. Opening Credits; interviews with the English dub team, Peter Fernandrz, Corrine Orr and Earl Hammond, who were also the voices behind the original Speed Racer; and an encyclopedia of the monsters.
The DVD producers deserve praise for going back to the original Japanese episodes; however, the episodes when aired in the U.S. were edited to fit the parameters of syndication first and then dubbed in English, so every once in a while an episode will have a moment where there is subtitling instead of dubbing. Some episodes also have the theme song sung in Japanese.
Praise also needs to be given to Godzilla, who unlike many in show business, remembered his humble beginnings. Credited as Jiraasu, possibly due to contractual obligations, he did a favor for his old friend by guest starring in “The Mysterious Dinosaur Base”. Although he appears in costume, a hood that Ultraman rips off during their battle, and make-up, yellow swatches of paint, everyone will recognize his roar and atomic breath. His death scene is fantastic, and makes one wonder what is holding up his appearance on Inside the Actors Studio.