ULTRA Q episode 20, “The Undersea Humanoid Ragon”

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MONSTER OF THE WEEK: The Undersea Hominid Ragon (Duh)

Ultra Q is a show with no time for mysteries – I like how, in this world, the existence of deep sea humanoids and several very specific details about their life and history are well-known facts – monsters occurring so frequently is, in some ways, normalized. Getting the identity and details of the monster out of the way immediately allows the episode to focus on other questions – not what the monster’s motivation is, that’s also very obvious from the beginning and no character ever wonders about it; it’s more about what they will do with a killer pseudo-Gilman walking among them while there’s also a ticking clock. In truth, it’s really more of a series of situations that allows them to film some nice scenery and some effective use of lighting.

What’s left unsaid for most of this episode is why the monster is suddenly living at a depth where humans can disturb its habitat, a connection to the changes in the natural world that is also threatening the characters. Yes, it’s another natural disaster episode – using a small island as a microcosm of the endless possibilities for destruction faced by all island nations (the scientist in this episode begins predicting such a fate for Japan itself) – in this one the monster is mostly incidental to the disaster itself, but its appearance is still a signal of impending calamity. If we are to learn anything from this and the last episode I reviewed, it is that the universe is a pitiless place – this is not so much punishment for the trespasses of modern man than just “stuff happens” – where no amount of advancement in human civilization (from this rather quaint fishing village to the roaring Tokyo metropolis of previous episodes) will spare you from catastrophes. “Professor Ishii’s prediction may one day come true” intones the narrator at the episode’s end – how could it not?

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ULTRA Q episode 11, “Balloonga”

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MONSTER OF THE WEEK: The Balloon Monster Balloonga

I keep harping on the metaphorical connection between kaiju and natural disasters in these things, and this episode makes that subtext into text. The titular monster seems barely alive, a constantly growing object that is only strengthened by our technology – like a floating, even less autonomous version of The Blob, only responding to external stimuli. It becomes a floating Armageddon, the undoing of a technological world, rendering it unlivable as it expands (the chaos caused by an entire city losing power is later used in an episode of Ultraman as well) – like in other episodes, it’s a monster that could seemingly only exist in the context of a modern metropolis, a thing that has evolved to consume things like gasoline and electricity. It becomes so engorged by human inventions even its closest equivalent on the disaster front, a city-wrecking typhoon, cannot move it. There’s been no more direct conflation of this series’ two favourite themes, the natural disaster and the consequences of human progress.

(Of course, having the thing be so readily named after and compared to a balloon, the most innocuous thing imaginable, is another interesting piece of juxtaposition – furthered by the reclusive scientist who originally discovered the monster, who has the balloon draw a connection between his discovery and his deceased son.)

Professor Nagamaru is a very interesting character for many reasons – he hid himself not just because his discovery was scoffed at, but because he saw its potential for absolute destruction, and seems to have concluded that we deserve it, a punishment for our folly of a civilization. He only really seems to come to help when he sees that real lives, not just an abstract human population but real people in a hospital, are at stake. And ultimately, the idea he has to rid the planet of the monster is the ultimate in hyper-exaggerated technological muscle flexing, a UN rocket so powerful it creates another sun, a power source Balloonga, a being of pure energy osmosis, cannot resist. Technology seems to solve the problem it also helped create, but such a force of nature can only be redirected and not destroyed – and there’s always the chance it will come back.

Ultra Q episode 10, “The Underground Super Express Goes West”

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MONSTER OF THE WEEK: Artificial Lifeform M1

This episode is primarily a comedy of small moments, but it does have a core idea that seems very prescient (for the time) sci-fi: a bullet train that goes from Tokyo to North Kyushu (quite a fair distance, as far I can tell) in fifteen minutes, the absolute extreme in “modern” travel. However, the fact that the train exists is not really the focus of the episode – it’s there for, among other things, an interesting setting that provides opportunities for plenty of elaborate miniature sets, and some comedy based on the confidence of the overseers (one of whom addresses the audience directly to explain how something works, something that is only not jarring in a comedic episode like this) – but the timeframe provides an interesting structure for the plot, as all of the events happen within those fifteen minutes. The episode never really feels like its running in real time, but knowing just how short of span it takes place over does add to the sense of chaos (I’d say tension but, I mean, this is a comedy episode) – if nothing else, it’s a neat exercise in plot structuring.

The monster becomes part of the story in a pretty perfunctory fashion (although, logically, it makes sense that they would try to send something valuable on such a fast delivery system), and let’s be honest, is there because Ultra Q is the monster show. Its behaviour fits into the comedic nature of the episode, though, as it is mostly non-threatening and only causes problems because it is completely confused. By the time you get to the end of the episode, though, it change a bit – things become a bit dire, with the life of the requisite moppet at stake (people pray to God!), and the whole thing ends with a massive explosion and the adults realizing that they could have saved the child’s life if they only…if this episode didn’t end on a such a silly, whimsical note (similar to how they ended the last comedy episode, “Grow Up! Little Turtle”), this would be some major tonal whiplash. But hey, the monster ends up redeeming itself, at least.