Hey there, Ultraman... sometimes I feel as if I owe you an apology. Despite my fixation with the giant monster genre, I never really embraced your franchise in any sort of significant capacity. While I do have a working knowledge of your various television incarnations and rogues gallery of enemy monsters, I’ve never actually sat down and watched any of your series from beginning to end. I don’t even have a decent reason for this, either. Perhaps it’s simply because you were never ingrained into my psyche back when I was a wee, impressionable lad- the original 60’s program actually aired in North America back in the seventies, but not on any of the channels where I lived.
As it turns out, one of my Christmas gifts this past year was a DVD set of the very first Ultraman series, thus ridding me of an excuse to not finally get acquainted with the show. All the same, this was a somewhat tricky review to write because, well- it’s a children’s show from the '60s. The episodes are pretty formulaic and the special effects are exactly what you’d expect from a television-budgeted production from that era. That being said, I did find it entertaining all the same.
The story for the uninitiated: in the distant, futuristic world of the (ahem) 1990s, marauding giant monsters and invading aliens are commonplace enough to warrant the creation of the Science Patrol- an international defense organization whose members are outfitted with all manner of high-tech gadgetry and vehicles. Shin Hayata, a Japanese Patrol agent, is out investigating the appearance of flying spheres of energy when one crashes into his ship, completely destroying it. The end.
Well, not quite. The UFO is actually a method of transport for a gigantic being from space named “Ultraman”. To atone for the accident, the alien merges his life essence with Hayata’s, reviving him from the brink of death and leaves him with handheld cylindrical device called the Beta-Capsule. By pushing a button on the top of said mechanism, Hayata can transform into Ultraman whenever the need arises (although the change seems to be more akin to the two switching places). However, because the Earth’s atmosphere is not terribly compatible with Ultraman’s extraterrestrial physiology, he can only do his thing for a few minutes before his energy levels extinguish.
Most episodes tend to follow a strict formula of the Science Patrol coming across an alien or monster and failing to deal with the problem until Hayata finally becomes Ultraman and disposes of the threat. This repetition is to be expected of a kid’s program, but at the very least the series had the common sense to mix around the motivations of the various creatures for variety instead of a slew of enemies that were evil just for the sake of it. In fact, to be brutally honest, the monsters are real stars of the show. Ultraman himself? There’s really not much to him. He’s sort of like Superman; so all-powerful that he ends up being rather uninteresting. In the few instances where the monster of the week didn’t go down like a sack of potatoes during the climactic fight, I was actually thankful for the break in convention.
While the effects work is pretty representative of low-budget, rubber suit techniques, the show does deserve props in terms of raw ambition; the sheer amount of costume and miniature work (even with the obvious production shortcuts) was something that most American sci-fi shows being made around the same time weren’t even remotely attempting.
Overall, the DVD picture quality was passable at best (noticeable video resolution “lines” appear whenever stuff starts moving around quickly), but the English version audio track was downright awful in terms of audio quality. Perhaps a decent quality version was unavailable but after a few episodes, I switched over to the Japanese track and watched the rest of the set with subtitles.
So now that I’ve had a taste for the show, will I be seeking out more? Hard to say. Although I found all the various daikaiju and fighting to be fun romp, it didn’t take long for the repetitiveness of the stories to start wearing thin on me, so I don’t think that sitting through any of the sequels at this point in time would further endure me to the series as a whole. I suspect that my enjoyment of the character may simply remain along the lines of conceptual appreciation more than anything else, but that opinion may very well change with time. My brain is funny like that.
Three and a half out of five.