MONSTER OF THE WEEK: The Four-Dimensional Monster Todora
That screwy Bermuda Triangle has been a staple of paranormal mystery stories for what feels like forever, but ULTRA Q apparently decided that it could do it’s own take on that trope: keep the disappearing transportation (including a vessel graveyard!) and other-dimensions, but have the dimensional warp be in the sky rather in the sea. There’s something appealingly fantastical in this cloudy realm suspended in midair – and the inside of that field, a dream-like and mostly empty field of dry ice fog, manages to be the stagiest and most inexpensive but effective visualization of it, best utilized by a monochromatic broadcast like this. It’s as simple as simple can be, but the way it flutters between the solid and the vaporous, the clean and desolate peace of the world (before the monster shows up, I mean) manages to produce the right kind of eerie vibes.
But them trying to figure out where they are and how to get out, even after cutting in the ground control drama as they try to piece together what’s going on, wouldn’t make for an entire episode of anything, let alone ULTRA Q – so we get two antagonists to spice things up: a criminal taking advantage of a situation and then a giant walrus out of nowhere. As I mentioned before, mixing in an opportunistic criminal in a show like this is an extra bit of fun because while in any other show we’d expect a hijacking to be the whole of the plot, but here we know that there will be a sudden monster-based comeuppance to look forward to (which I guess is not necessarily what happens here, but the two things happen close enough together that I’ll count it) – all the threats with guns and fistfights are just the warm-up. Throwing in a series of new problems also keeps the episode hopping, not lingering on one threat too long so that it becomes boring – and the walrus, despite how slowly it moves, pops up so suddenly that it never even gets a chance to be boring. Another monster with no explanation (it just lives there, all right?) alongside everything else might lead some to accuse this sort of plotting of underestimating the audience’s attention span, but if there’s one thing that I’ve learned after watching this entire series, it’s that a surplus of off-the-wall ideas is what the show is almost always peddling, and what often ends up being the most enjoyable part. The stories vary in complexity and interest, but you can always count on something visual to latch onto, things like the icy mist world and the sudden giant walrus attack here, the wild and imaginative stuff – in the end, no matter what else happens in each episode, something interesting will show up onscreen eventually.
Thus ends the Great ULTRA marathon that was 2016. Feel free to go back and reread the entire ULTRA Q series, and the ULTRAMAN post series as well, why not – plus, this year also had my seventh generation Pokémon overviews, and some other things about monsters. There will definitely be more projects appearing on the site in 2017, so don’t remove it from your RSS feeds just yet. Have a happy New Year!
A real oddity, so packed full of ideas and tones that the final “twist” of the episode (which is at least set up from the beginning so it can’t be considered too much of a cheat) might feel like an excuse for what came before more than anything. Fear of crowds! Classic science fiction concept! Bureaucratic nightmares! Light comedy! Character drama! Of course, the episode is also a vehicle for reversing the giant monster style by presenting humans interacting with smaller humans – so, another episode where we get to see actors interacting with miniatures, but in a way different from “Metamorphosis”, as these are normal people in a miniature world which necessitates different sort of acting (it matters)! The episode can barely stick to one thing from minute to minute, and it comes off kind of jarring.
There are some interesting explorations of the central idea early on in the episode (the whole “human civilization would improve if we were smaller and took up less space” idea gets passed around all the time, and has always been a bit goofy) – I like the line of people with genuine questions about how this process will affect their lives, a fun way to build up the concept (which is introduced pretty much out of nowhere.) They actually treat the shrunken society with a fair amount of seriousness, right up until the “immigration authorities” show up and introduce that aforementioned nightmare bureaucracy scenario (taking advantage of the completely straight acting and the size contrast – being literally glowered over by big bureaucracy), which is a bit of high absurdity that leads to even higher absurdity when Yuriko gets locked in a box for most of the rest of the episode. A few gags in between (a comic relief rotund man and some nuns, which are just inherently funny, right?), and the rest of the episode becomes about Yuriko finding no way out of her bizarre predicament – seemingly abandoned and with no apparent way to reverse the situation, it becomes more about sad pathos. It ends as a sort of a bad dream (spoilers?), equal parts silly and frightening – despite the lack of a concise tone the rest of the episode, it finds a way to communicate claustrophobia they had in the opening sequence in a different but parallel way. It’s structurally bonkers, but there is a bit of structure there.
MONSTER OF THE WEEK: The Rock Monster Gorgos
Wow, I mentioned one Ultra battle that very closely resembled a video game boss fight what feels like ages ago, but this one predates even that. So here you go, a giant monster with a pulsating weak point visually represented for the first time, possibly. Could this be the true inspiration for all of those Legend of Zelda monsters?
The monster in this episode is more or less inexplicable – not because this is a story without need for a monster, but because it more or less comes out of nowhere and remains unexplained, and is not even really commented on. It’s just a living rock that can build itself into a monster after being blown up, somehow (that really makes it sound like a video game boss…)! It uses Godzilla’s famous roar without any modification at all, which I didn’t think was legal. It does fit into the “monsters as natural disaster” theme that runs throughout ULTRA Q, but aside from being spit up during the lead-up to the Fuji eruption (which is a slightly more realistic phenomenon than others in this show’s history), the connection is much more vague than in other episodes, and the destruction it causes is ultimately minimal and so doesn’t carry the visual-metaphorical weight, either. It really feels like an idea that the people making the show just thought was cool.
The monster is an obstacle more than anything – the real story is that of the well-meaning local cop trying to corral the local forest-dwelling wild man before the big disaster happens (with the recurring cast tagging along but once again barely necessary for the plot), which is actually a fun premise. The cop is a likable character, ineffectual and self-doubting but still ultimately determined, a guy who is out of his depth and knows it but still has a job to do. And while we’ve seen wild man types before, the one in this is not just a more traditional action-adventure stock type (the other characters even compare him to Tarzan) but also just a member of community that people know about but is left alone – I really enjoy that this outlandish thing is treated in such a nonchalant manner, and that the cop tracks him down just because he’s concerned with his safety. This whole episode manages to go off-the-wall in a lot of places, but there’s a grounded heart to it that makes it stand out as well.
MONSTER OF THE WEEK: The Giant Octopus Sudar
There’s a thorny ethical issue presented here that comes and goes, but is interesting to think about nonetheless: the main reason the islanders (who straddle the line between stereotype and not – I don’t really know what kind of historical relationship Japan has had with the many Pacific island people, so unfortunately I’m bereft of context for this sort of thing) are okay with the presence of a giant octopus is because it acts as a natural barrier from outside intrusion, basically preventing a imperial invasion of their home (although given that they have at least some firearms, they’ve had contact with the outside.) It’s not just some strawman spiritual belief that drives them (although the octopus appears to be a symbol of their people), but a real practical consideration of the monster’s benefit to them, protecting their people and its way of life from those who’d wish to subsume it under the banner of modernization/trade/exploitation – if that means that some of their own people end up dead, well, they should have known better than to get too close to the octopus. To be fair to our reporter trio (plus their goofy one-shot tag-along translator), they don’t judge the islanders based on their high tolerance for octopus-related fatalities, but they do jump right ahead to siccing the military on it, which is more or less the kind of thing the natives were trying to prevent. Eventually they are all forced to fight off the agitated creature, but entirely in self-defence – still, it means their barrier is gone, and you can understand why they were a little peeved beforehand.
The reporters, of course, have their usual motives for getting involved, but this episode in particular is full of one-off characters who are far more involved – not just the translator, but the sailor and his island love interest, who both have revenge driving them (although the former always has it on the brain, while the latter takes most of the episode to coming around and firing a gun on the monster.) That seems to be the actual human conflict here – not modernism against a made-up “primitive” culture, but people who need a monster around against a man who has a justifiable vendetta against said monster. Of course, the story ends with the guy getting his revenge, and being accepted in his new surroundings despite all the trouble he caused – everything ends up A-OK for him as he bounces back completely from tragedy. In this case, the reporters are not even the main characters, but people who come in and complicate matters – the military don’t even succeed in destroying the monster, they just make him mad and precipitate the final battle. It’s his story here, from loss and disapproval to victory and acceptance, and everyone else was more or less just along for the ride.
MONSTER OF THE WEEK: The Transformed Human The Giant, the Huge Butterfly Morpho
The way the giant monster genre works (at least for me) is not by creating a world that seems “real” necessarily – rather, I’d say it works more like a diorama, making an alternate reality with its own physics and feel that we peer into. This probably comes from years of watching this stuff, but I never really get bogged down with nagging notions like “that’s a man in a suit” or “that’s a miniature set in a studio” (or, if I do, they don’t detract from the viewing experience, and it’s usually just to marvel at the craft), I can enjoy them on their own terms in the midst of it, maybe a bit like a play as well – I am expected to bring a bit of my own imagination into it. The fakeness is part of the thing, and because it’s all rolled up into the visual aspect of the kaiju world, only the most obvious blunders make it seem like a detriment.
I bring this up because something like this episode, which is one of those irregular bits of tokusatsu which features a non-suit actor interacting with the miniatures, puts that ideal to the test – when you take the rubber suit off, you lose part of the established unreality of it, but that doesn’t have to bring down the whole enterprise. In fact, having the “monster” be an actor who can emote unencumbered can be a benefit – while this episode is fairly simple plot-wise, it’s not just fun to see a normal actor smashing buildings, you also get some attempts at more clear characterization as well. What sort of things would make a man look/act like a standard giant monster? In this particular instance, the most interesting bit is to portray the man cursed into becoming a giant by mutant(?) butterflies (and even the regular-sized butterflies are obviously puppets, but does anyone really think they should have wrangled actual butterflies for a few scenes? Practicality and animal treatment ethics agree on that one) as in constant pain, his voice a series of agonized groans even as he angrily smashes things or tosses trees. The way to make us sympathize with him is not just to have him be a normal man, but one who is obviously suffering once his humanity has been taken away, and the subsequent destruction and military action are consequences of that. That’s something that would be much more difficult to convey to the audience with a monster suit with limited facial expressions – the direct human connection is important.
MONSTER OF THE WEEK: The Mars Monster Namegon
Throughout the series, there’s an undercurrent of strange cynicism when it comes to humanity’s ventures into space and the possibility of contact with another civilization, and I really don’t where exactly it’s coming from. It appears in this episode (I guess, chronologically, for the first time), but in this the case is made a little clearer: the aliens send monsters (one that, as it turns out, is far more easily dealt with than first thought – the slugs dissolve in salt water) to earth either because they didn’t appreciate probes cluttering up Mars’ night sky, and/or they don’t think that humans are peaceful enough to start interacting with the rest of the universe – more of a warning than to actually cause much destruction. Of course, those are just theories floated by the characters, who never have any evidence corroborating them (and while the lack of true explanation may only be due to the twenty-some-minute time constraints, it also adds some appropriate inscrutability to the aliens’ motivations, the kind of stuff writers would be intentionally aiming for in decades to come as they pursued a general dehumanization of extraterrestrial life), but in taking them as the themes of the episode stated out loud, it gives it a definite Day The Earth Stood Still vibe. When this first aired, space exploration was getting to some key moments, and so this episode ponders the idea that maybe sending our scientific junk to other planets is not a net neutral activity – it’s not like humans just messing around in what they thought were empty spaces hasn’t proven wrongheaded before.
But that idea isn’t even the cynical part – its ending, which interestingly ends right in the middle of a second monster attack (not even a “it will rise again!” type ending, but one without the usual sort of conclusion at all) while the narrator announces that the aliens will likely keep sending stronger monsters – apparently the aliens are no longer reactive forces, but actively preparing for invasion, going from hostile for a understandable reasons to just plain hostile. This begins what would become a string of weird episodes featuring extraterrestrial life, which always seems to end up openly antagonistic – even the episode where there is a friendly alien ends in a creepy way regardless. Maybe this is just a sort of dark half of the situation, going back to the idea stated earlier about how all human-alien interactions would be until humans solve their own problems – but while the other option is presented, it doesn’t seem like the show is quite willing to accept it, and so offers something strangely bleak instead.
As a final episode, “Open Up!” reminds viewers what the show’s original intent always was: more like The Twilight Zone, not necessarily monsters 24/7 – so, this is a straight science fiction/fantasy story with no creatures, unless you count the adorable-looking flying miniature train that pops up throughout the episode. Whole swathes of it are shot through distorting lenses or from weird angles or using rear-projection in strange was, giving it an extended dream/nightmare quality (and one of the interesting structural concepts here is that it could be either), and the opening sequence with the aforementioned flying train sets that up rather well, demonstrating that just twisting mundane urbanity can be as fantastical as any monster. There’s lots of driving or walking up and down streets in this, and the conceit even gives those scenes a unnatural quality – the supernatural angle infects every part of the city.
What’s also interesting is that the focus is so clearly on the harried working man, you could have cut out our recurring characters entirely and made this like a middle-aged version of “Kanegon’s Cocoon” – sure, our intrepid reporters were there to provide some sort of explanation (which is only ever sort of an explanation), but surely the mastermind (who is a science fiction writer, just as there was a sci-fi writer kinda-sorta at the centre of “Challenge From The Year 2020”) could have provided it on his own (I do find it amusing that the police have to react accordingly to something as insane as a mysterious flying train as a legit public safety hazard.) We really could have gotten more from the man’s life, to give this working class strangeness more punch – at the same time, the simplicity of his portrayal maybe works in the story’s favour, allowing for a more methodical revelation of its final twists (very much a classic science fiction zinger ending), and maybe even making it more universal. It is still specific enough that the domestic angle makes sense, though – and so the finale effectively changes tact, and the nature of the dimension-hopping train and the man’s escape from it becomes something quite different.