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"Ultra Q" Weekly showcase for Japanese giant monsters
"Ultra Q" (1966) was the first of many TV series produced by Tsuburaya Productions, the company founded by Japan's premier special effects director, Eiji Tsuburaya (1901-1970), best known for his work on Ishiro Honda's giant monster movies, starting with GOJIRA (1954). This was the only Tsuburaya series done in black-and-white and it adopted what is commonly referred to as the "monster-of-the-week" theme. Most subsequent Tsuburaya series would also have "Ultra" in the title, most notably their immediate follow-up, the superhero classic, "Ultraman" (1966), which would spawn numerous sequels that continue right up to this year's ULTRAMAN SAGA.
I watched the first four episodes of "Ultra Q" on a DVD that was in Japanese with no subtitles. While I missed the fine points in the exposition scenes of episode #3, there was plenty of giant monster action in episodes 1 and 2 and giant plant action in #4, so I found those parts quite engaging. Episode #1 recalls one of Honda's monster classics, RODAN (1957) and its tale of ancient creatures revived after mining activity deep underground. Here the main monster is a Godzilla-type dinosaur with some makeup modifications involving a horn, fangs, facial hair and claws. There's also an egg that hatches a giant bird which rises up to fight the dinosaur. A boy with huge glasses with round black frames finds an ancient scroll drawing at a nearby Buddhist temple that predicted the whole encounter.
Episode #2 uses the King Kong suit from KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) to portray the antics of a monkey that's somehow broken into a lab and imbibed a formula to make him huge. There's a mute groundskeeper named Goro who had kept the monkey as a pet and now has to scrounge up enough milk and fruit to keep the big ape fed. Eventually, when Goro is arrested and taken to jail, the giant primate follows him to the city and begins to wreak havoc until someone figures out the connection between the two. What's interesting here is that the monkey, even when giant-sized, behaves like a monkey and not like King Kong or any other giant ape of screen legend. When we first see the creature he's hanging from cables carrying a mountain's tourist-carrying cable car and swinging on them exactly like a monkey. He's being playful, not menacing. It's actually quite endearing.
Episode #3 is about these tiny metallic balls that grow into huge eggs when heated and hatch out slimy giant slugs. How these creatures came to be is explained in detail somewhere along the line, but without subtitles, I was at a loss to follow it. It had something to do with a landed space satellite, but I couldn't determine any more than that. The slugs look great but never do any real damage, despite boasting antennae that can shoot electric rays. (NOTE: An Ultra Q episode guide on the Kaiju Fan website offers this explanation of the mysterious balls: "Dr. Ichinotani theorizes that the spheres were sent by an advanced alien race, possibly as a warning to mankind for launching so many pesky space probes.")
Episode #4, "The Mammoth Flower," was originally intended to be the pilot episode. It's about a giant plant that grows underneath a Japanese city, with plant tentacles bursting through streets and office buildings and causing much damage, culminating in a giant flower blooming out of the top of a building. If there's any explanation for it given, I couldn't tell. But some of the images are quite beautiful.
Through it all, our regular heroesa pair of pilots and a female news photographer--run around observing, documenting, and reporting on the various phenomena, occasionally intervening to save people affected by it all. They're chiefly featured in reaction shots. Two of the episodes end rather abruptly, with no clear resolution of the problem created by the monster. (It's possible that the closing narration tidies things up, but it's certainly not something that's visualized for us.)
The special effects are what you'd expect from the crews who performed these duties for most of Toho's science fiction and giant monster movies. The miniature sets are beautifully crafted and the creatures portrayed mostly by actors in monster suits. Despite being made for TV, there was clearly a higher budget than normal for such a series. (IMDB says, "At the time, this was the most expensive TV series in Japan.") There is some location shooting, including the use of an actual mine for scenes in the first episode, and some excellent production design. Also, when the characters fly in a plane or a helicopter, they take off in real time in actual planes and copters, as opposed to the miniatures we're more accustomed to seeing in shows like this.
The cast is filled with familiar faces from other Japanese science fiction and monster movies. The lead pilot is played by Kenji Sahara, who was in tons of these movies, from the first Godzilla (GOJIRA, 1954) to the last (GODZILLA FINAL WARS, 2005). Jun Tazaki, a regular cast member given to playing generals or authoritative scientists (DESTROY ALL MONSTERS), turns up as a general in ep. #3. The newspaper editor who publishes the heroes' articles and photos is played by Yoshifumi Tajima, another regular in kaiju movies. The lead actress, Hiroko Sakurai, also turned up as one of the Ultra crew in "Ultraman." There are many other familiar faces on hand.
I must say I liked what I saw and would be happy to see all the other episodes, preferably with subtitles, although I believe I could enjoy them without. My favorite was the "Kong" episode, chiefly because of the imaginative approach to the monkey character by the actor in the ape suit.
ADDENDUM (Feb. 23, 2014): Since posting the above review, the entire series has come out on DVD in the U.S in Japanese with English subtitles (from Shout Factory) and I've purchased it.
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