As you’ll remember from where I left off last time, the television division of United Artists now had a product for syndication---Ultraman, which had been a phenomenal hit in Japan. Thanks to the dialogue direction of Peter Fernandez, the series was ready for airing on American stations. Now, UA-TV had to find buyers. Here, it got an unintended boost from the Federal Communications Commission.
To explain this, I’ll need to provide a short lesson in the history of television. Feel free to go to the kitchen and make yourself a sandwich during this part.
In the early 1940’s, the F.C.C. had limited television broadcasting to the Very High Frequency band; however, the post-WW II economic boom saw a tremendous proliferation of local television stations. This overloaded the available VHF spectrum. To stem the problem, the F.C.C. imposed a moratorium on licencing new stations. That was in 1948. Four years later, the F.C.C. instituted a permanent solution by opening up the Ultra High Frequency band to television and lifted the freeze on broadcasting licences.
While this action made more bandwidth available to new stations, broadcasting on UHF wasn’t ideal; it was the “less-talented” brother of VHF. UHF stations had a more limited range and the image reception was of poorer quality. That’s when your television set could receive it at all. Television sets of the day had been designed to receive VHF signals only, and in order to receive UHF transmissions, a special adaptor had to be purchased and installed.
In essence, when UHF television became available, it created more TV stations, but those UHF stations weren’t very profitable. Because of the added expense of the adaptor---and this was at a time when a television set itself was still so pricey that the only way many folks could see a TV show was to go down to the hardware store and watch it on a set in the display window---and the lesser quality of the reception, most people didn’t bother with UHF.
Again, the F.C.C. came to the rescue. It mandated that, from 1964 on, all new television sets would be both VHF and UHF capable. Furthermore, it raised the limit on how much power UHF stations could use to radiate their signals; UHF stations could boost their signals to five megawatts, while VHF stations were limited to 316 kilowatts.
A licence-holder still wasn’t going to get rich off a UHF station, but now, with an increased customer-base, it could be profitable, with proper budget management. What that meant was keeping the expenses down in other areas, such as production values and marketability. Thus, UHF channels tended to air programmes that were cheap to produce.
Purchasing inexpensive syndicated shows was better, yet. That opened the door to the Japanese imports, such as Astro Boy, Speed Racer, 8th Man, and---Ultraman!
Got your sandwich and a cold one? Good, because that’s the end of the history lesson.
The result was, by the fall of 1967, when UA-TV was ready to sell Ultraman, it found a ready market in UHF stations eager to buy a super-hero series at a cut rate.
As with most shows aimed at a younger audience, the characters were strongly defined, without much nuance. The head of Japan’s Science Patrol was Captain Mura, a stern, no-nonsense commander, but not so hard-nosed that he didn’t flash a smile or display a wry sense of humour on occasion. Nor was Mura chained to his desk; he led in the field, jumping right into harm’s way with the rest of his team.
Typical of most such arrangements---again, for easy audience identification---the other members of the Science Patrol were divided by specialties.
Arashi was the team’s marksman. Round-faced and a bit pudgy, he went against body type with his “tough guy” personality. There was nothing phoney about his bravado, though. Arashi was usually the first one to charge the threat, no matter what it was.
Ito was the engineer, the one who designed new weaponry to take into battle. He was also the show’s designated comedy relief. Unfortunately, this meant a lot of childish comments and mugging for the camera like a drunken college student on spring break. Fortunately, he wasn’t played as incompetent. Ito wasn’t Barney Fife; when trouble arose, he could handle himself.
And then, of course, there was Hayata. Firm, confident, decisive. He was clearly the most competent of the Patrollers and the one everybody respected. That was convenient, because it meant nobody asked him a lot of questions whenever he went off on his own or disappeared, to become Ultraman.
Rounding out the group was Fuji, the only female on the team. For the about the first half of the series’ run, she was the communications officer, stuck at the headquarters radio console while everybody else was out getting smacked silly by the monster of the week. Later on, she accompanied the rest of the team on missions, and she did a good job at it, too. Often, she was nearly as level-headed and capable as Hayata.
Occasionally seen was the obligatory kid mascot, Hoshino. He got to hang out with the Science Patrol, and at one point, even wore a Patrol uniform. The Japanese rendition of the show never gave a reason for his privileged status; the American version explained his presence by stating he was Fuji’s little brother. Once or twice, Hoshino proved handy to have around, but most of the time, his purpose was to get into trouble at the most inopportune moments, forcing the Patrol or Ultraman to bail him out.
Though constantly referred to in the definite article---the Science Patrol---Captain Mura and his crew actually comprised only the Japanese branch of the organisation. The Science Patrol proper was a global force dedicated to the protection of the Earth. Occasionally, members of other branches---the United States, France, and South America---appeared in episodes. This didn’t happen very often, but it was nice to know that Japan wasn’t the only country torn apart by monsters and alien invasions.
The hook of the series was, naturally, that Science Patrolman Hayata was secretly Ultraman. For the reasons I discussed in the last entry, Ultraman rarely made an appearance until the end of an episode. When the situation became critical, Hayata would sneak off privately or order everyone else to get away. (“But, Hayata, we can’t leave you alone with the monster!” “Nevermind, just do as I say!”) Then, he would take the beta capsule out of his jacket, raise it over his head, and press the button. In a burst of light and smoke, the giant Ultraman would appear in his place.
Just in case some brain-dead viewer at home didn’t get it, narrator Jack Curtis would helpfully intone, “Using the beta capsule, Hayata becomes---Ultraman!”
Most super-hero-type television series have a recurring moment that the kids wait for eagerly and fidget excitedly when it happens. On The Adventures of Superman, it was when Clark Kent ducked into that storeroom and whipped off his glasses. In the animated cartoon, The Mighty Hercules, it was when Herc donned his magic ring and held it over his head. The youngsters know that’s when the real action is about to go down.
It was the same thing whenever Hayata whipped out the beta capsule. That was what they had been waiting for.
Most of Ultraman’s battles followed the same pattern. First, two or three minutes of physical combat with the monster. Lots of karate chops and shoulder throws. This part of it tended to be hard on the local property values. Two giant figures flailing around resulted in a great many toppled buildings, smashed warehouses, and flattened cars. When the fight took place near a refinery or a power plant, you could count on explosions and large fires.
If the monster possessed some special power, it would attack with it, generally giving Ultraman some trouble at first. But then he would find a way to protect himself from it and go back on the offensive. Usually about this time, his colour timer would change to red and start blinking. As always, the narrator would inform the viewers what that meant.
At this point, Ultraman would get down to business and employ one of his many, many special abilities. He had almost as many powers as there were episodes, but one used most commonly was his “specium ray”, a sort of general-purpose particle beam that caused whatever it hit to explode. Often, after knocking his foe down hard, Ultraman used the ray to deliver the coup de grace.
Our Hero could employ the specium ray in another fashion. By making a different gesture, the ray would discharge as “cutting halos”, resembling flying buzz saws, which would sever his opponent in half.
Once the enemy was destroyed, Ultraman would launch himself in the air and fly off to change back to Hayata. The transformation back to his human form was seen only twice during the course of the series (from his fingertips, the airborne Ultraman would cast a spiral beam to the earth; Hayata’s body would reïncorporate within the spiral, while Ultraman vanished); instead, usually, the closing scene would simply show Hayata rejoining his fellow Patrollers.
Hayata didn’t have much difficulty keeping his dual existence secret from the other members of the Science Patrol. Even though virtually every adventure concluded with someone remarking, “Hayata, where have you been?” or “Hayata, you just missed seeing Ultraman destroy the monster!”, those top-flight brains of the Science Patrol never put two and two together.
Perhaps one of the qualities that made Ultraman so popular was that, even for an alien, he was distinctively unearthly. First, there was the fact that he stood over 130 feet tall. But more bizarre was the fact that he routinely never spoke. The only patently audible sounds he uttered were loud, reverberating kiais that he shouted during his fights. And an occasional groan. Otherwise, he never said a word.
There were exceptions, rare ones, when the lawman from Nebula M78 did communicate verbally. To Hayata, in the origin episode, naturally. Then, in “The Space Ray of Terror”, Ultraman reassures a group of children that he has not destroyed that episode’s monster, but rather, has transformed it into a constellation of stars. Most remarkably, in “The Forbidden World”, he warns the invader Mephilas to leave Earth or be destroyed. For him, that was practically the soliloquy from Hamlet.
And, in the last episode, “Farewell, Ultraman”, he explains to his commander the reason for his extended stay on Earth.
All of these instances could be attributed to telepathy, rather than actual speech. In any event, Ultraman’s perpetual silence was one of the eerier aspects to the character. It was certainly unsettling.
The majority of menaces fought by Ultraman and the Science Patrol, especially at first, were the giant animal/giant insect/Godzilla type---bestial monsters that mindlessly wreaked destruction. While their eventual destruction was necessary, it was regrettable in one sense---as dumb beasts, they weren’t truly malevolent. Over time, the show developed foes that were evil and guided by intellect. This arose most often when the Earth was attacked by alien beings. On several occasions, the Science Patrol confronted enemies who were the vanguard for their respective warlike alien races. These proved to be much more formidable opponents for the valiant defenders of Earth and for Ultraman.
Would-be conqueror Zarab arrives from space, posing as a friend to Earth. When the Science Patrol unmasks his true purpose, he transforms into an evil version of Ultraman, smashing several city blocks before being confronted by the genuine article. On another occasion, an emissary from an extraterrestrial race called the Dada comes to Earth to kidnap human specimens for study. With the Dada alien’s ability to change his size and teleport at will, Ultraman finds himself embroiled in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. Particularly at one point, when the giant hero is reduced briefly to human size.
As tough as it was beating the Dada, the alien Mephilas proved even tougher. Seeking to get rid of all of us pesky earthlings so his people could colonise our world, Mephilas uses his power of illusion to buffalo the people of Earth into surrendering without a struggle. The situation doesn’t improve any after Hayata activates the beta capsule. When Mephilas rejects Ultraman’s ultimatum to leave Earth or die, a pitched combat results, with neither opponent gaining the upper hand. Their physical abilities are too evenly matched, and Mephilas’ electrical bolts prove equal to Our Hero’s specium ray.
Incredibly, it’s Mephilas who calls an end to the stalemate, realising that he cannot be certain of victory over Ultraman. Should he be destroyed, the invader explains, then he can no longer protect his home world. With that, Mephilas teleports off Earth, leaving Ultraman with a promise to return.
The target demographic for the series were early adolescents and those on its cusp. But, unlike most U.S. children’s programming that came along later, in the 1970’s, Ultraman never talked down to the kids. The writers respected the intelligence of its youthful fans and didn’t patronise them in the scripts. Thus, an adult looking for a half-hour of escapist entertainment could appreciate the show.
That’s not to say it was The West Wing. Ultraman was straightforward adventure with little depth and virtually no development of its characters beyond the basic traits in their conception. The plots followed a simple formula calculated to thrill its audience and never varied. It’s a credit to the show’s writers that they managed to produce so many imaginative and distinctive stories, yet remain within that strict outline.
Still, despite the simplicity of its format, Ultraman, on occasion, delivered some tales with surprisingly mature themes.
“My Home is Earth” is one of the most tragic episodes in the series. The Science Patrol is assigned to safeguard the members of an international peace conference held in Tokyo, seeking to moderate the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite the Patrol’s best efforts, three of the conference representatives are killed by a mysterious invisible force.
Science Patrol member Ito devises a weapon that neutralises the assassin’s invisibility, revealing the culprit to be a horribly deformed giant. However, Hayata makes a more crucial discovery. His suspicions aroused by comments made by the remaining conference members, he investigates and learns that the monster is actually Jamila, an astronaut from a nation the script avoids specifying.
According to classified records obtained by Hayata, Jamila was the pilot of a manned satellite which was flung out of orbit and crash-landed on another planet. The alien environment of that world caused Jamila to mutate into the creature. Jamila’s government was aware of this, but rather than embark a rescue mission, it abandoned the astronaut to his fate.
Instead, the incident was kept secret, to prevent the public from losing faith in the space programme.
The mutated astronaut was able to eventually repair his craft and return to Earth. Now, he seeks revenge against those who turned their backs on him by killing the members of the peace conference. Reluctantly, the Science Patrol attacks the monster, but he’s invulnerable to missiles and bombs and fire. It is Ultraman who is forced to destroy Jamila on the threshold of demolishing the peace-conference headquarters.
Afterward, in a grand display, the assembled representatives give Jamila a hero’s funeral. Curiously, it is the usually comedic Ito who somberly indicts the hypocrisy with the final line of the episode . . . .
“Politicians are always like this. Only their words are beautiful.”
Ultraman played a couple of its episodes for comedy; however, one of them carried a healthy dose of pathos along with the humour. In “The Monster Graveyard”, Arashi and Ito are spacebound, checking out a strange distortion in the vacuum. It turns out to be a zone containing the drifting remains of monsters that Ultraman defeated in previous episodes. When the news is radioed to Science Patrol headquarters, Hayata is markedly disturbed. He goes to the roof of the building to be alone and, in a moment of introspexion, reflects on his duty as Ultraman.
“To all of the creatures that I have destroyed, I am sorry that I had to do it. Even though it wasn’t your fault, I had to keep the peace on this world.”
In a mishap, a Mars-bound rocket passes through the same zone and is diverted back to Earth, carrying a passenger from the graveyard---Seabozu, a gigantic skeleton-like dragon. When the rocket strikes Earth, Seabozu returns to life. The Science Patrol mobilises, but is quickly confounded by the monster’s actions. Or rather, its lack of action. Seabozu does not rampage or destroy; it simply walks forlornly through the city.
When it climbs to the top of a skyscraper and leaps upward, the members of the Patrol understand. The monster simply wants to return to the eternal peace of its resting place in space.
This is a rare episode in that it does not conclude in a tremendous battle between the creature and Ultraman. Seabozu has no desire to fight and the giant hero is reluctant to harm him. Instead, he herds the monster toward the rocket standing by to return it to the graveyard.
It is, probably, Ultraman’s most expressive scene in the entire series. Seabozu drags its heels like a petulant child and Ultraman responds like an exasperated parent. At one point, the creature drops to the ground, refusing to budge, and Our Hero shrugs his shoulders in frustration.
There was one other memorable instance when the series mixed absurdity with poignancy. This occurred toward the end, in the episode “The Little Hero”.
The main villain of the piece is Geronimon, one of infrequent cases of a monster who is not an alien, nor humanoid, but possesses an evil intelligence. Seeking vengeance for all of the creatures previously killed in the series, Geronimon intends to destroy Japan. He initiates his plan by resurrecting three other monsters. Eventually, he will restore sixty of the giant beasts, who will then lay waste to the country.
Geronimon has screwed up, though. One of that first trio of monsters revived is Pigmon, a human-sized creature who befriended the Science Patrol, back in the eighth episode, before being killed by the behemoth Red King.
Those of you familiar with the series probably rolled your eyes when I mentioned Pigmon. For the rest of you, all I can say is---I don’t know how Japanese viewers received him, but for us Occidentals, Pigmon was awfully hard to take. Frog-mouthed, red-tufted, with hands that flapped uselessly from his torso, Pigmon was a blatant attempt for laughs. But to most American kids, he was irritating and infantile.
Pigmon seeks out the Science Patrol and, even though his speech sounds like the squawking of a macaw, somehow Captain Mura and his team comprehend his warning about Geronimon.
As the Patrol prepares to launch a preëmptive attack on Geronimon and the other two monsters, the usually jovial Ito is despondent and apathetic to the whole situation. When Hayata pulls him aside to find out what’s wrong, Ito responds, essentially, “What’s the point?”
Bitterly, Ito complains that the Science Patrol never accomplishes anything; it’s always Ultraman who defeats the monsters. He feels that the Patrol is useless. An opinion, no doubt, shared by the show’s audience over the last thirty-odd episodes.
Hayata argues that the Patrol is necessary and Ultraman cannot do it alone, but it falls on deaf ears. Still, Ito is not so far gone that he refuses when Captain Mura orders him to come along on the mission.
Pigmon leads the team to the small island that Geronimon is using as his base. Leaving Pigmon behind on the ship, the Patrol splits up. Mura and Fuji and Arashi will take one side of the island, while Hayata and Ito search the other. Their orders are simple: kill all the monsters!
Remarkably enough, Mura’s group accomplishes just that, when they come across one of the resurrected creatures. By laying the barrels of their energy pistols together and aiming for the monster’s unarmoured midsection, the combined burst puts it down for the count.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t go that way for Hayata and Ito. They locate the other revived beast, Dorako, but Ito sees no point in attacking it, insisting that Ultraman will be along any minute to do the job. Dorako begins to hurl boulders at the two Science Patrolmen and Ito starts shouting for Ultraman to appear.
Hayata draws out his beta capsule, but cannot bring himself to use it, knowing that Ultraman’s arrival would shatter whatever faith Ito has left in himself and the Patrol. In that moment of hesitation, the monster scatters the two men, then turns his attention to Ito, who simply cowers, pleading for Ultraman.
An instant before Dorako can squash Ito into paste, Pigmon leaps out, squawking and flapping his hands frantically, to distract the behemoth. Pigmon’s appearance has the same effect on Dorako as it did the viewers---the little clown annoys the hell out of him. And when Pigmon stumbles on a ledge, the monster crushes him with one blow, then walks away satisfied with his kill.
The little fellow dies in Hayata’s arms. Angrily, Hayata snaps at Ito, “Pigmon sacrificed his life for mankind, and you continue to feel sorry for yourself?” Then he punctuates it by punching Ito in the jaw.
Shamed, Ito charges Dorako and keeps coming, even after the beast pelts him with a shower of rocks. With a rapid-fire device attached to his pistol, Ito disintegrates the giant creature with a fusillade of energy blasts.
With his henchmen destroyed, Geronimon takes direct action, and when he nearly kills Mura and the others, Hayata has no choice but to become Ultraman. But Geronimon is no push-over; he’s sneaky and has a number of powers at his disposal. Ultraman finally gains the advantage, but it won’t last long---his warning light is flashing wildly, indicating his three minutes are almost up.
Just then, Ito scrambles up on the bluff and aims his modified energy pistol at Geronimon. Ultraman catches on and struggles desperately to hold his foe. With his strength waning rapidly, he cannot keep Geronimon steady. Ito has to take the best shot he can.
It works! And the giant feathered beast vanishes in a burst of flame, just as Ultraman doubles over in exhaustion.
“We did it!” shouts Ito. "We did it! You and me, Ultraman!”
And Ultraman nods, acknowledging that, this time, the Science Patrol did all the heavy lifting.
It was only thirty-nine episodes. It didn’t even run a full year. But Eiji Tsuburaya had launched a concept that refused to die.
Obtaining greater financing, Tsuburaya tinkered with the basic concept and, in the fall of 1967, introduced a new series---Ultra Seven. This was not the Ultraman who had been linked to Hayata, but a new hero to come to Earth from Nebula M78. In a departure from the original format, Ultra Seven did not have an Earthman as a human host; rather, he assumed the identity of Dan Moroboshi, a member of the Terrestrial Defense Force, an updated version of the Science Patrol.
Ultra Seven lasted a year, and Eiji Tsuburaya meant for that to be the last of the “Ultra” series. But when Eiji died in 1970, his son, Hajime, took over the production company. And Hajime knew that he had a franchise on his hands. In 1971, Japanese viewers were treated to The Return of Ultraman, yet another similar but slightly reworked adaptation of the giant hero, who this time was known, in English, as Ultraman Jack. There would be more Ultramen to follow. Many more.
Over the next thirty years, between television series and feature films, there would be at least fifteen more separate incarnations of Ultraman. A mythos emerged, linking all of the various Ultramen as coming from the Land of Light, to serve as humanity’s protectors. No longer was Ultraman a unique force for good; rather, he was one of an interstellar organisation, pledged to uphold peace. This was underscored when, occasionally, the current Ultraman would require the aid of one or more of his Ultra-Brothers.
Virtually every new Ultraman series took a turn at remembering its roots by running an episode which saw the return of the original Ultraman. This has meant a lifetime of employment for actor Susumu Kurobe. For while the man inside the silver-and-red suit changed over the years, Kurobe has continued to appear as Hayata for over four decades---the link to the series that started it all.
Other actors who had played human host to an Ultraman have occasionally reprised their parts, as well. But Susumu Kurobe remains the most recognised. I have seen interviews with Kurobe, and like George Reeves and Clayton Moore, he respects his image as a rôle model for youngsters, on both sides of the globe.
In March of this year, Tsuburaya Productions released the feature film Ultraman Saga, in celebration of the forty-fifth anniversary of the original television series. That’s quite a thing for Eiji Tsuburaya, I think. Not many men have created a legacy lasting nearly half a century.