Friday, October 18, 2019

Dipping Into ULTRA Q

This past week, Mill Creek Entertainment issued the opening salvo of a long-overdue, serial bombardment of English-friendly Blu-ray box sets of all the various series produced by Japan's Tsubaraya Productions. The first two releases consist of ULTRA Q (a black-and-white series from 1966) and the legendary ULTRAMAN (a color series from 1967). Both series were previously released here on DVD but these sets are in a different league, sourced from the original camera negatives. While ULTRAMAN was shot in 16mm, as was standard for Japanese television at the time, ULTRA Q was filmed in 35mm with similar standards to those of THE OUTER LIMITS, whose two seasons were beautifully issued by Kino Lorber last year.

To finally see ULTRA Q with a depth and clarity it has never known in any television venue, anywhere in the world, is a revelation. I've had a long but very incomplete history with this series; my first exposure was via bootleg tapes without subtitles, which gave the false impression that ULTRA Q was a cheap knock-off of the Toho features where Tsubaraya had made his mark. I then discovered that the series had been released on Japanese laserdisc, which again were without subtitles. They not only looked markedly better but each volume contained an excerpt of a never-before-released English-dubbed version of the third episode, "A Gift from Space." I bought the subtitled DVD set when it came out, but - as sometimes happens when a lot of interesting things came out at once - it got filed away in my attic as other interests took precedence. It's still in the shrink-wrap. So the Blu-ray set, which presents all 28 episodes with gorgeous clarity of image and sound, asserts a new imperative to investigate and come to terms with this pioneering series, which launched the greatest number of spin-offs in television history - 35 different series, to date. Our technology has finally caught up with them, and we can now see with accuracy what was always built into them.

So far, I've watched only the first disc in the set, consisting of the first seven episodes. There is no superhero in ULTRA Q; the series stars Toho regular Kenji Sahara as aviator Jun Manjomi, Hiroku Sakarai (ULTRAMAN's Fuji) as news photographer Yuriko Edogawa, and Yasohiku Saiju as Jun's comic relief aviation partner, all of whom have an uncanny knack for being around when gigantic monsters suddenly appear. A number of these monsters recycle costuming with Toho's kaiju celebrities: the pilot episode's Gomess is Godzilla with extra hair and horns; Goro is essentially King Kong with a different face; Manda is retrofitted to become a fire-breathing dragon; and so on. The show also launched a few monsters that became beloved in their own right, like Garamon (who later became better known as Pigmon on ULTRAMAN, ULTRAMAN MAX and ULTRAMAN X). Did I say a few? In fact, this series probably launched more original monsters than any other program or film series of its time, besting even THE OUTER LIMITS for quantity if not quality. In its 30-minute presentations, it also showed a gift of prophecy; in its sixth episode, an oddball but endearing children's entry without the usual cast and monster threat, it delved into the imaginations of child characters as Toho would later do in 1969's GODZILLA'S REVENGE/ALL MONSTERS ATTACK. Another reason to like the show is that it resisted its own formula and was never afraid to include stories that stepped outside the book to push in different directions.      




My only complaint thus far about the set is that the erratic English subtitling contains a surprising amount of profanity for a 1966 family show. I suspect this has less to do with accuracy of translation than with a young translator's misunderstanding of 1966 discourse that causes Japanese characters - at this time, the most reserved of people - to jump past exclamations of "Heck!" or "Darn!" and go directly to "Dammit!" or even "Shit!" when something out of the ordinary happens. Such words were not socially acceptable at this time even in America; we had milder alternative expressions that allowed people to maintain civil discourse and to keep social intercourse more temperate and easy-going, and this should not be forgotten.

In the best news of all, Mill Creek's ULTRA Q sets are selling for less than half the cost of Shout Factory's DVD box set of the same episodes, even in its Steelbook variant (which sells for a couple dollars more than the regular edition).

Speaking of ULTRA series... Since the Mill Creek ULTRA series Blu-rays are not including the English dubs, some of you may want to grab these important variants while they remain available from YouTube - in addition to the official releases, of course. The majority of ULTRASEVEN (due for release next month) is there with the jokey Cinar English dubs produced in Canada, which ran on WTBS and featured monsters with ridiculous double-entendre names like Merkin. They also have four different ULTRASEVEN episodes with the original dubs shown only in Hawaii.

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.