Having A Movie Moment with Jon Longhi: Ultraman Saves The Universe!

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, November 15, 2019 04:10pm | Post a Comment


By Jon Longhi

Welcome to this month’s Having A Movie Moment With Jon Longhi where I review recent Blu-ray releases. This month I get to review two of my all time favorite Blu-ray releases.

Ever since I was a child my two favorite TV shows have been Johnny Quest and Ultraman. Even though I am an adult, I still watch them regularly. In the past six months, both were released on Blu-ray in remastered high definition. I am now officially a happy camper. Sure, I watch plenty of "adult" shows like The Sopranos, The X-Files, or the latest HBO or Netflix series, but I only watch those once or twice and these are the shows I watch over and over. I have long been a fan of Mill Creek Entertainment's releases but not necessarily their production values. All that changed with these releases and their recent Mothra Steelbook Edition. Mill Creek has officially redeemed themselves. According to reports I'm reading on the internet, over the course of the next couple years Mill Creek plans to release the ENTIRE Ultraman franchise on Blu-ray. It will be over a thousand episodes and twenty movies. If you are an Ultraman or classic Kaiju fan, this is a dream come true. If these first two releases are any indication, fans can finally throw out those blurry internet bootleg DVDs and bathe in the glory of their favorite Japanese monsters in glorious remastered hi-def! This October, Mill Creek started with a bang by releasing the first two Ultraman series at once. These are the shows that started it all and while Ultraman is beloved the world over, Ultra Q will be more of a revelation to the uninitiated.

Ultra Q The Complete Series, Mill Creek Entertainment:
In the late sixties many film studios were dealing with the fact that viewership was shifting from movie Ultra Qscreens to TV screens. Television increasingly was where the action was and Toho Studios, the creators of Godzilla and most of the other major Japanese monsters, had to shift their game plan just like everyone else. The studio heads were big fans of the Twilight Zone from the United States and wanted to come up with a similar show for Japanese audiences. Ultra Q was the final result. It was very similar to the Twilight Zone in its stories and tone, except that there is a giant monster in every episode. Despite being a huge Ultraman fan, I didn't know about Ultra Q until the early days of the internet. Even when you could find bootlegs of the show they never had any subtitles so I never saw the series until Shout Factory released it in the U.S. a few years ago. Watching it for the first time was a real revelation -- it's one of the best things Toho ever created. Each half hour episode is like a mini Toho Japanese monster movie with the same high production standards, acting, and weird storylines that we expect from the studio. Certain episodes are equal to if not better than some of their best movies.

You can tell how proud Toho was of this show because of all the beautiful restoration work they have done on the series. The picture and sound quality on this release are immaculate, like Criterion Collection-level immaculate. The Ultraman Blu-ray release looks great, but Ultra Q looks straight up fantastic. The picture is incredibly sharp allowing you to see every detail of the fabulous models and costumes. The sound is booming and far better than when it was originally recorded. Every show had a separate story line and often different characters. The recurring characters in the series are some reporters and a couple of private pilots who help them with their articles. The news people get sent on a new story every week and each new tip seems to lead straight to a monster. Some of the episodes have a beautiful poetic quality to them. The episode "Baron Spider" feels like a loving homage to the classic Universal monster movies of the thirties and forties. There is another story called "Baloonga" about a kind of space amoeba that absorbs energy. By the end of the episode, the creature has become a multifaceted metaphor for rampant consumerism, the energy crisis, and human pollution. The story ends in complete chaos as the creature ascends into space to devour the sun itself! Many episodes end in a similarly unresolved manner with monsters going wild and mankind having no way of stopping them. This was one of the strengths of the show. They didn't always have happy endings and frequently focused on how mankind's irresponsibility often leads to even more destruction in the world around him. Many episodes examine the idea of "unbalance" in the natural world and how human beings are frequently responsible for it. In fact, "Unbalance" was the original title of the series. One of my favorite episodes to examine these themes is "Metamorphosis," which tells the story of a man who grows to giant size after being exposed to toxic Amazonian butterflies. The shots of the giant butterflies flying around him are worthy of Salvador Dali and have a haunting quality to them that will reach right down into your subconsciousness. This series is filled with timeless images like this that make this Mill Creek Blu-ray set one of the best Japanese monster collections to ever be released in North America.

Ultraman The Complete Series, Mill Creek Entertainment:
This is the set you have been waiting for. Ultraman was one of the most beloved kid's shows of its Ultramangeneration and was a world wide phenomena that brought the love of Japanese monsters to even the most remote corners of the planet. It is still one of the best pop-culture confections ever made. Each half hour episode is a mini Toho monster movie and every week they hit you with ever more delirious, colorful, and surreal creatures. Sure, this is lowbrow pop culture, but the talent and imagination that went into these shows almost raise them to a form of high art. Some of these episodes I've seen hundreds of times and yet I never seem to tire of their weird science fiction stories, smashed cities, and crazy monsters.

I'm sure all Ultraman fans out there are asking: "Is this new Blu-ray set worth the upgrade?" The answer is: Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I've been collecting this show since it was only available as blurry VHS bootlegs taped off a TV on a stormy night with broken rabbit ears. The snow on those bootlegs was so thick you could barely make out what was going on. The show finally had official releases on DVD but none of those look even close to as good as this. This is the first time in America that we have been able to see Toho's official prints of the show and they are gorgeous. The color is breathtaking and the picture so clear that you can see every detail on the tiny models and rubber costumes. I even was able to make out a zipper on one of the monsters the other night. The prints aren't as nice as the Ultra Q set but they are still night and day better than anything we've ever seen before. Some shots look a little soft or have too much grain but I'm pretty sure these were flaws in the original film elements because other scenes look utterly pristine.

The series tells the story of the Science Patrol, an elite defense organization armed with high tech weaponry that protects the Earth from alien invaders and giant monsters. In the first episode, a Science Patrol officer named Hayata is accidentally killed by a benevolent alien who merges his being with the human in order to save his life. Afterwards, during moments of extreme danger, Hayata can use a device called the beta capsule to turn into the benevolent alien who humans name Ultraman. Ultraman can only exist in his alien form for a few minutes in earth's atmosphere because the solar energy he absorbs from the sun diminishes rapidly. When he enters the danger zone a warning light on his chest starts blinking. If it slows down and stops he will die. So Ultraman has tremendous power but it is extremely short lived. As one would suspect, Ultraman always shows up in the last five minutes of each show when everything is always at its worst and we're treated to some of the best wrestling this side of the WWF -- no, it's even better because this wrestling has major cities, usually Tokyo, being crushed underneath it. Since every episode is only a half hour, there is no padding or fucking around; it's straight to the monsters and action. This show is a nonstop sensory bombardment of crazy monsters, spaceships, titanic battles, and hand-painted laser beams. It's a beautiful and uniquely Japanese masterpiece of science fiction fun. Both the steel book and regular edition have lovely packaging and are extremely cheap given the hours of entertainment they provide. If you are a fan of Japanese monster movies or science fiction in general, this set should be one of the central items in your collection.

Relevant Tags

Jon Longhi (29), Movie Moment (17), Ultraman (1), Ultra Q (1), Monsters (16), Sci-fi (53), Japan (42), Mill Creek Entertainment (1), Toho (2), Toho Studios (4), Kaiju (2)