Monday, December 5, 2011

ULTRAMAN MONDAYS: The Mysterious Dinosaur Base

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

Episode 10: "The Mysterious Dinosaur Base" (catch up on past episodes) 
Original Air Date: September 18, 1966

Featured Monster: Jirass


A monster-obsessed scientist with a connection to Loch Ness unleashes a dangerous dinosaur beast from beneath Lake Kitayama.


When one starts watching Japanese science fiction fantasy shows, one has to be prepared for a certain level of culture shock and weirdness. Ultraman is no exception, but this week's episode takes the cake as one of the most bizarre and nonsensical episodes yet. I had to watch "The Mysterious Dinosaur Base" twice -- once in Japanese with subtitles and once with the English dub -- just to understand what was going on, and I'm still not sure what to make of it. To make the episode even more surreal, this week's episode features a monster with an unmistakable and unavoidable resemblance to Japan's most famous giant monster.

Wardrobe Provided by Mad Scientist's Secret
The episode opens with a crazy, wild-haired scientist stalking around a cave-like menagerie. The walls are painted with cave drawings of dinosaur-like beasts and the room is decorated with taxidermy wildlife. The mad scientist, who we learn later is named Professor Nakamura, is busy talking to and feeding a number of live animals in cages as he mumbles away about going out to feed Jirass, some sort of giant beast under the surface of nearby Lake Kitayama.

Science Patrol Assemble!
Is there something in the water other than Jirass? Although the monster is a secret, it's become a public fact that all the fish in the lake are growing suspiciously large. As a result, the Science Patrol is called in to investigate. Unaware of the existence of Jirass, Arashi of the Science Patrol takes the submarine down to the bottom of the lake in search of anything suspicious. Just out of sight of the submarine's headlights, however, a tail slithers back into the rocks -- a very familiar-looking tail.

Any kaiju fan worth his salt will recognize this tell-tale tail
Since the Science Patrol failed to turn up anything at the bottom of the lake, Cap decides to give Hayata, Arashi, Ide some vacation time at the lake-side hotel so they can stay on site and enjoy all the slot car racing they can handle.

Will the luxury never end?
Meanwhile, a reporter named Kubo is doing a story about the Loch Ness monster, so she drives to Professor Nakamura's home to interview him because he's expert in monsters - "a man obsessed with dinosaurs." So far, the episode has been fairly standard for Ultraman, but now the weird elements begin to float to the surface. For one, Kubo -- a writer for a boy's magazine -- drives a car that's painted up like a monster with fins and a front grill full of sharp teeth. We only see this car in a few passing shots, and no explanation is given for the strange design. The strangeness continues into Kubo's interview with Nakamura. Nakamura gives his thoughts about the kind of creatures that might still exist in Loch Ness, and then he segues into an awkward story about a fellow scientist named Professor Nikaido who became lost during an expedition to Loch Ness and may have fallen into the Loch where he was eaten by the creature. The whole exchange ends when Nakamura steals a lighter from Kubo's photographer, dismantles it, and ejects them from his home. In both English and Japanese, it's a bizarre scene punctuated with eccentricities.

First, this crudely painted cave. Tomorrow, the world!
The train to crazy town hits the fast track when Ide, a member of the Science Patrol, takes Kubo on a night-fishing date. First of all, the editing for the rest of this episode is muddled and confusing. It's never clear where people are, how far away from each other they are, or how they get from one place to another. Second, Dr. Nakamura fully goes off the deep end. Ide and Kubo witness Nakamura paddling out to the lake, so they follow him (some how) to his cavernous base which is somewhere ambiguously close to the lake. The geography in this episode is screwed up, but it's suggested that the lake can be seen from a porthole in the cave that opens out of one of the cave painting's mouths. Nakamura takes Ide and Kubo hostage after they witness him feeding some giant monster under the lake although the monster itself has remained out of sight.

I shot the Sheriff, but I did not shoot the Ide
Another confusing cut takes us away from the base to a group of fishermen who are using poison in the lake to bring up a large catch of the giant fish (which, by the way, have not yet been explained). The poison aggravates the submerged beast, and we get to see our very first glimpse of the mysterious Jirass.

Kaiju Deja-vu
That is so clearly Godzilla that it's not even funny. The sudden appearance of what is undeniably a spray-painted Godzilla wearing a collar took me by surprise. Eji Tsuburaya left special effects at Toho to create Tsuburaya Productions, the production company behind Ultraman. He made extensive use of Toho's monster costumes (which he helped create) for Ultra Q and Ultraman by reusing them for new monsters. Reportedly, Baragon couldn't appear in the Godzilla feature Destroy All Monsters as planned in the script because the suit was on loan to Tsuburaya or too badly damaged from its use in Ultraman. However, the costumes repurposed for Ultraman were usually well-disguised. Jirass is so obviously Godzilla, an iconic children's hero by 1966, that I have to wonder if the lack of disguising features and the fate Jirass/Godzilla meets isn't some kind of statement from Eji Tsuburaya about Godzilla, his former creation, and Toho, his former employer.

Atomic breath is by no means only a Godzilla trait, but come on...
 The monster begins to go on a badly edited rampage (how did those fishermen end up in the water?), and his reign of terror is encouraged by Nakamura, who runs towards his monster, rambling on about how he has created Jirass with his own two hands so the world could marvel at its perfect features and perfect ferocity. Is Jirass a custom monster? Was he created atomically, thus the fish in the lake grew large due to radiation? Stop looking for answers. Nothing is much explained. In fact, when Cap questions Nakamura and demands to know why he would harbor such a dangerous monster, the answer is so out of left field it's' not even in the ball park anymore.

As it turns out, Nakamura is actually none other than the lost scientist Professor Nikaido. Why? Your guess is good as mine. Why would Nikaido choose not to refute stories of his death? Did he find something at Loch Ness? Is Jirass from Loch Ness? Where did Nikaido get such a realistic mask? What the fuck is going on? The plot holes are massive, but the episode races towards its climax without explanation. When Nikaido/Nakamura is trampled by the monster for which he professes so much love, it's time for Ultraman!

In 1966, hula hoops were much more complicated
 The Science Patrol manages to rescue Ide and Kubo from the professor's cave, but with a giant monster on the loose Hayata takes the opportunity to activate the Beta capsule and transform into his secret identity: the giant space superhero ULTRAMAN!

"GODZILLA" vs. Ultraman
 The fight that ensues is so out of character for Ultraman that I have to believe there's more going on in this episode than your standard monster fight. First, the battle begins with a round of showboating by both Jirass/Godzilla and Ultraman. Jirass/Godzilla picks up a rock, throws it into the air, and destroys it with his atomic breath. Ultraman picks up a larger rock and throws it into the air, destroying it in a bigger explosion with his specium ray.

My Ray is Bigger than Your Ray
Why are these two Tsuburaya creations starting with a show of strength rather than getting down to the standard monster fighting? I think Tsuburaya Productions took this episode as an opportunity to  self-promote at Toho's expense by showing that Ultraman (their newest creation) was stronger than Godzilla (Tsuburaya's creation for Toho). In the kaiju equivalent of "my dick is bigger than your dick," Ultraman begins to mock Jirass/Godzilla and bait him into a brutal fight where Ultraman rips the fin off of Jirass/Godzilla's neck.

Ultraman has never mocked an enemy before like this. After this savage mutilation, Ultraman holds up the bloody fin and begins to tease Jirass/Godzilla with the severed neck guard like a bull fighter mocks the bull.

 Now the subtext seems clear. Without the fin, this monster is absolutely meant to be Godzilla. This is Godzilla vs. Ultraman in a battle for kaiju supremacy and the hearts and minds of Japanese and American children.

Uh, no. I'm his long lost half brother. Gourdjilla
This is so meant to be Godzilla that I'm not even going to call him Jirass anymore. In a brazen attempt to unseat Godzilla as the King of the Monsters, Ultraman lands but one well-placed blow to Godzilla's chest, prompting the monster to spit blood from its mouth and then fall to the ground -- instantly dead!

Hey kids, Godzilla's a pussy! Buy more Ultraman toys!
In an episode full of uncharacteristically weird twists, the music becomes sad and solemn rather than victorious. Ultraman drapes the torn collar over Godzilla's head as if covering its corpse in a burial shroud. Ultraman kneels before his fallen foe in an atypical show of remorse and respect. What is going on?

Wait, I'm not dead yet. It was just a flesh wound!
Somehow, Nikaido lives and manages to crawl toward his dead monster before also succumbing to death. The episode ends, ponderously, on the dead body of Godzilla. A still image of Godzilla's dead stare goes up in flames.

After appearing as a guest star, Godzilla went back
to his own movies where he was treated with more respect
There's so much off about this episode of Ultraman, where do I begin? The villain's motives and back story make no sense, and the episode is choppily edited and visually confusing. Then, in the last act of the episode, Ultraman takes a turn for the self-aware in a monster battle that is clearly meant to show kids that Ultraman is better than Godzilla. Why else would the Jirass costume be so similar to Godzilla? At first, this episode seems like an awkward attempt by Tsuburaya Productions to besmirch Godzilla's status as Japan's most famous Kaiju. At the same time, it is also a fairly accurate prediction about the fall of Godzilla that would begin in 1966. After Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla movies took a turn for the worse. The Japanese movie industry was beginning to decline, and audiences weren't turning out for Godzilla movies in the numbers they used to. In part, the proliferation of monster shows on Japanese TV such as Ultraman diverted viewers away from theatres. Therefore, while Ultraman never replaced Godzilla as the most iconic monster in Japan and the world, Ultraman certainly helped knock Toho's Godzilla franchise down several pegs by siphoning away its audience.

In short, "The Mysterious Dinosaur Base" is not a good episode. It's choppy, confusing, and poorly written. However, as a metaphor for the supplanting of Japanese monster movies (like Godzilla) with Japanese monster TV shows (like Ultraman), "The Mysterious Dinosaur Base" is a uniquely self-aware and somewhat honest look into the Japanese kaiju power play that was being acted out in the late 1960s.

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