Monday, October 3, 2011

ULTRAMAN MONDAYS: Shoot the Invader

Every Monday I review an episode from the classic Ultraman television series.

Episode 02: "Shoot the Invader" (catch up on past episodes)
Original Air date: July 24, 1966

Featured Monster:  Baltan Seijin


Ultraman encounters a dangerous foe in the Baltan Seijin, a hostile and elusive alien race determined to colonize the Earth.


Last week's premiere episode of Ultraman was fun but left a lot to be desired. The monster suit was cheap-looking, the characters were flat, and the final monster fight was pretty standard stuff. Imagine my surprise when the second episode, "Shoot the Invader," came out of the gate delivering a sincerely funny and surprisingly exciting tokusatsu adventure with an unforgettable villain.

Meanwhile, at the Hall of Justice...I mean Science Patrol headquarters
"Shoot the Invader" begins in a very welcoming fashion as the camera pans across the console room at Science Patrol headquarters. We feel like we're in the room with the cast even before Science Patrol member Ide, who's sporting a nasty black eye, stops to greet us. Ide breaks the fourth wall by addressing us, the viewer, and asking if we want to know how he got the shiner around his right eye. If you don't care, you don't have a choice because this is how the episode starts.

Ide begins to tell the story by flashing back to the previous night when he couldn't sleep because his bunk-mate Daisuke Arashi was snoring up a storm. To make matters worse, a piercing warning alarm begins to sound, rousing the Science Patrol out of bed and into action. They're so efficient at Science Patrol that they don't even have to get dressed.

Apparently the Science Patrol sleeps in uniform.
Captain "Cap" Muramatsu informs the Science Patrol that a mysterious energy wave has been detected over the Scientific Technical Center in Tokyo. After Cap admonishes Arashi for showing up on duty wearing his slippers instead of boots, Cap sends Arashi to check out what's going on. I don't think people like Arashi very much. Despite all the high-tech equipment at the Science Patrol's disposal, Arashi ends up driving nothing but a plain grey car with cheap stickers and decals on the roof and door. They couldn't let him take a VTOL? Even more humiliating, the show's obligatory kid sidekick, Hoshino, stows away in the back seat to annoy Arashi for the rest of the ride.

BOOM! Headshot.
Things go from bad to worse for Arashi when he arrives to find the staff frozen in place by a strange green glow. Then he runs head-first into danger and gets a face-full of alien laser. Oh, snap!

Damn it, Arashi. We've all seen your mime impression!
Hoshino, chilling in the car outside, manages to be useful by calling in reinforcements. Hayata (member of the Science Patrol and the secret identity of Ultraman) arrives with the defense force to investigate. What evil is afoot? Could it be another flimsy-looking reptile like last week?

Holy crap, that looks awesome.

Hayata comes face to face with a Baltan alien, aka. Baltan Seijin. Unlike last week's dime-store monster costume, the Baltan Seijin looks great. At first, it's human-sized with giant claw hands that fire paralyzing beams. It's spooky orange eyes can even rotate and move, giving the costume's face a surprising amount of life. And it's no pushover in the powers department.

Double your pleasure. Double your fun.
 First of all, the Baltan Seijin can teleport whenever it wants. Second, it can generate duplicates of itself as decoys. Hayata manages to keep his wits about him and avoid being zapped into suspended animation, but his laser gun has no effect on the Baltan alien. It disappears, emitting the species's trademark laugh, a deep and spooky "VO-VO-VO-VO."

Dude. I think that LSD's kicking in.
 The Baltan Seijin is clearly a force to be reckoned with, but nobody knows what it wants or how to locate its space craft. The government decides to attack the creature with a devastating, innovative nuclear device called the Hagetaka despite Cap's insistence that they open dialogue with the creature first to find out what it wants on Earth. The government scoffs at the idea. The only good bug is a nuked bug. Before the attack commences, Hayata and Ide are sent back to the Scientific Technical Center to confront the creature. Ide, played by Masanari Nihei, gives a great turn as the bumbling and cowardly, yet loveable, comic relief . Think of a Japanese take on the Cowardly Lion from Wizard of Oz. Predictably, Ide is captured by the Baltan Seijin and taken to the roof top.

Ide needs to see The Wizard about some Courage.
On the roof, the Baltan Seijin speaks through Arashi's brain to communicate with the humans. We learn that the Baltan Seijin came to Earth in search of a gravitational stabilizer for their invisible space craft, but they can't return to their world because a scientist back home destroyed the entire planet with a nuclear experiment. Somewhere, the Baltan Seijin equivalent of Charlton Heston has sunk to its knees shouting, "You blew it up! God damn you all to hell."

In a surprising show of good faith, Hayata offers the Baltan Seijin a place on Earth, but the Baltan Seijin have no intention of living by Earth laws or customs. After all, their invisible ship currently holds 2.3 billion Baltans (or over 60 billion according to the English dub). On the ship, they're the size of bacteria, but they're ready to colonize and grow to their full height. There is simply not enough room on Earth for both species. Well hell, Baltans, why don't you go live on Mars instead?

Picky, picky, picky.
The Baltans won't discuss their dislike for Mars but make it clear that the Earth will soon be theirs. It's time to put up or shut up, and the Baltan Seijin makes its first move.

Magic wand, make my monster GROW
Growing into a 50 foot tall monster, the Baltan Seijin attacks. This move starts off a really exciting fight sequence between the Baltan Seijin and Ultraman that is surprising in many ways. First of all, the effects are great. The Baltan Seijin and the miniature sets look very real. The video compositing is quite convincing, as in the scene when a giant claw appears to knock Hayata into the background of the frame. The fight is filmed as if at night, and the shadows, misty smoke, and darker colours actually help hide the flaws in the Ultraman and Baltan Seijin costumes while amping up the tension. Second of all, the fight is refreshingly tense. In last week's episode, we saw Hayata use the Beta capsule to turn into Ultraman and beat the ever-loving monster tar out of space monster Bemular. There was never a sense that Ultraman was going to lose. In this episode -- only the second episode of the show -- Hayata is actually prevented from using the Beta capsule as an easy escape. It's knocked from his hand, over the side of the roof, and onto a window sill far below. In order to get the capsule to become Ultraman, Hayata has to throw himself off the building headfirst and hope he can grab the Beta capsule on the way down. If not, he's greasy street pizza.

Duh. He survives.
We wouldn't have much of a show if the main character fell to his death in the second episode, but this unexpected challenge put in Hayata's way does a lot to prevent the show from falling into a predictable pattern. Hayata grabs the Beta capsule, transforms, and takes to the sky to fight the Baltan Seijin that is flying around and firing destructive blasts from his claws. The government fires a few rounds of the Hagetaka at it, but the supposedly devastating missiles do diddly squat.

 The third reason this fight is so exciting is that it takes place entirely in the air. Flying through the sky, Ultraman grapples with the alien and breaks one of its claws. This doesn't prevent the creature from using his good pincher to shoot at Ultraman, who dodges and lets Tokyo's expensive infrastructure take the blow instead.

BOOM! Ultraman doesn't care. He doesn't pay taxes.
Meanwhile, at headquarters, Cap realizes that the aliens must dislike Mars because it contains an element called specium (or "spacium," depending on whether you go with the anglicized version). Thankfully, Ultraman doesn't need to go to Mars for specium. He can shoot that damn stuff out of his hand using his signature weapon: the specium ray.

The creature literally goes down in flames, crashing and burning to death. Then Ultraman uses his powers to locate the invisible space craft, fly it away from Earth, and destroy it off screen. Just another day in the life of a giant alien space-cop.

Wait...didn't this whole story start with Ide getting a black eye? After Ultraman saves the world, Ide goes to bed, this time snoring so loudly as to keep Arashi awake. Oh, ho, but what's this? Ide falls out of bed and bangs up his eye! VO-VO-VO-VO. Ide, you silly goose. Will you ever learn?

Tell everyone you walked into a door knob.
So ends the second episode of Ultraman, a welcome improvement over the premiere. The Baltan Seijin are creepy villains with formidable powers. The final fight was also surprising and unconventional. We got a better sense of the characters and the show's comedy, and the story delivered a subtle anti-nuclear message. After all, the Baltan Seijin lost their home to a nuclear experiment, and the government's advanced nuclear weapons were useless against the alien threat. I guess the lesson is that violence is never the answer; it's always better to talk out your problems first. Then again, if the other side shows you any lip, it's okay to lay a specium smackdown on them. For justice. Space justice.

See you next Monday when I review the next episode: "Charge Forth, Science Patrol"

Don't forget to visit the MONSTER DATABASE for detailed profiles on all the creatures we encounter on Ultraman and the other movies I review.

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