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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Ultraman And Me

When I was a kid - pre-teen - somewhere around the age of seven or eight, I was lucky enough to have watched the Japanese kid sci-fi show Ultraman on television here in Toronto. That's Ultraman performing his special Ultra Beam (ウルトラビーム, Urutora Bīmu).

Ultraman was awesome.

My friend Umberto D. and I would watch it at either his place or mine - on Channel 29, back when we had to turn the main dial to UHF, and then use the TV's second dial to crank it around to find the station... and then adjust the other knobs to make it come in properly from its signal in Grand Island, New York.

While I was always intrigued by the Carvel ice cream commercials that were delivered by the monotone voice-over - probably the owner describing how delicious the ice cream Cookie Puss and Fudgie the Whale was, Umberto and I were fascinated by this weird Japanese television show, Ultraman.

I wish I could find the real old 1970s commercials for Carvel... still, this one has THE man. The fact that myself and my wife can still recall his voice - that tells you how effective it was!

Perhaps because Channel 29 was also in the habit of showing Chinese martial arts flicks and Japanese monster movies on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, we were not put off by the overdubbed English voices on these Oriental programs.

Yes, back then... and even through the early 1990s, we called such things "Oriental" rather than "Asian"... and to be honest, I'm unsure about when that change fully came about. It's like Colored, versus Black versus African-American... but I don't know how any Black person in The Netherlands is an African-American, which is probably why I appear to use a North American archaic term of "Black"... though none of my Black friends have any issue with the term as I use it. I know, because I asked them.

Anyhow... Ultraman (ウルトラマン, Urutoraman) is a tokusatsu (特撮 - a Japanese term that applies to any live-action film or television drama that features considerable use of special effects) that first aired on TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) produced by Tsuburaya Productions (円谷プロダクション, Tsuburaya Purodakushon) back in July 17, 1966 to April 9, 1967, with a total of 39 episodes, or 40 if we count a pre-premiere special that aired one week earlier on July 10, 1966).

Because it's Japan, things are never as cut and dry as things ought to be. The Ultraman television show is the first show to feature an Ultraman character, but it is the second series within the so-called Ultra Series, with the first being Ultra Q (ウルトラQ, Urutora Kyū), a black-and-white show that appeared on TBS from January 2 to July 3, 1966 (though the final episode was preempted until December 14, 1967), with a total of 28 episodes.

As such, Ultraman appeared one week after July 3 on July 10, 1966.

In Ultra Q, a team of investigators would check out weekly reports on strange monsters appearing in Japan. It was originally akin to The Twilight Zone and/or The Outer Limits, but after a few episodes TBS asked Tsuburaya Productions to add more giant monsters, perhaps as a way to capture kids who were already into Godzilla and Gamera.

The show's title of Ultra Q was to have been "Unbalance", but all that changed after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Japanese female gymnast Endo Yukio and and male gymnasts Hayata Takuji and Yamashita Haruhito (all surname first) and the Japanese team as a whole won gold medals. At that time in the gymnastics world, an easy routine was rated A, a more difficult one, a B, and even more difficult one a C.

The Japanese team liked to call theirs Ultra C, as in even more difficult than C (or, the mathematically incorrect more than 110% effort). Nowadays, the ratings have increased to A to G.

Because of the team's success at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the term "ultra" had entered into the everyday Japanese lexicon, becoming one of those words people liked to use.

As such, the "Unbalance" show was renamed Ultra Q before it ever aired.

Q, by the way, was chosen as a link to another TBS television program, Obake no Q-tarō, an animated series based on the manga by Fujiko Fujio. The Q does stand for "question".

So... Ultra Q introduced a Japanese world where giant monsters were now part of the world, and Ultraman... well, it offered a new hope as a means to combat the giant monsters.

 The Ultraman show actually opens with the Ultra Q logo exploding into the Ultraman logo.

As for the Ultraman show itself, the premise is: Whenever Earth is threatened by alien invaders or  giant monsters, the Science Patrol will fight them with their cool 1960s high-tech weaponry and ultra-cool vehicles reminiscent of The Thunderbirds.

However, after one of the Science Patrol members, Hayata, is injured by a craft that was also chasing an orb carrying a giant monster, that other space craft's occupants - an Ultraman - provides Hayata with special abilities to change into the giant alien himself, Ultraman.

Here's something I wondered at, but now find confirmation... TBS wanted the actors on its show to look as "westernized" as possible... and they succeeded.

For example, the female character in the show has brown hair... and while not impossible in Japan, I saw only natural black hair when I was there in the 1990s.

After each episode, Umberto and I would wrestle with each other much in the same way Ultraman and whatever monster he battled that week - taking out tables and lamps as though they were buildings and bridges. We would each perform the Ultra Beam on each other as the finishing move.

We were good kids, each one of us got to be Ultraman during our weekly battles, and no living rooms were destroyed during the course of our battles. Maybe.

Anyhow... I watched the first episode of Ultraman on YouTube. And now, so cane you. Just click on the link:

The second episode I was able to embed - and what's impressive, is that it breaks the FOURTH WALL, as the Space Patrol folk talk directly to us, the kid, er viewer:

Enjoy. Ultraman's not rocket science, but it is fun. Other English dubbed episodes should appear on the right of the YouTube page!

Since this original Ultraman television show, there have been numerous spin-offs over the decades, with some saying Ultra Seven is the best, coming hot on the heels of the Ultrman show in 1967-68.

Since 1966, there have been 31 different series of Ultraman through 2017, with one new series each scheduled for 2018 and 2019. You can all the iterations HERE.

Even though these 1966 episodes were watched by me circa 1972, in 1990 when in Japan I mentioned to one of the classes of Japanese junior high school kids I taught in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken that I used to watch Ultraman... and everyone, from all the school's students, teacher and principals were soon chatting with me about the show!

Sometimes, alcohol need not be the only ice-breaker. Some times it's Ultraman.

Andrew Joseph

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