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Reviewed by Jim Washington
he question when watching a show like “Ultraman,” especially decades after it was on the air, comes down to this – how do you balance cheesy special effects, acting that goes beyond ham, and goofy translations versus the glow of feel-good nostalgia? I grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. watching “Ultraman” on WDCA Channel 20 under the auspices of “Captain 20,” an astronaut character who looked and sounded suspiciously like the station’s late night horror movie host and their version of Bozo the Clown. If I recall, “Ultraman” was usually followed by “Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp.” Now that’s some fantastic nostalgia fodder, so I was definitely curious to watch “Ultraman” again on DVD.
The thing is, it’s impossible to watch the show with the eyes of a 10-year-old again. No doubt, the show was blessed with talent, such as the creator of Godzilla and the English-speaking voice team that did “Speed Racer.” And despite some laughable special effects, the show did have an imaginative style of storytelling, which included stories told in flashback, actors speaking directly to the camera, some creepy monsters, and messages about peace on earth and not destroying the environment. Bu, the effects really are terrible. You can almost see the cables holding up the Science Patrol’s jet or the hand guiding the ship through the bathtub, and not many of the monster costumes vary enough from episode to episode.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, the Science Patrol is Tokyo’s answer to the X-Files and the Super Friends. Any trouble with monsters, and there’s plenty, they get the call. In the first episode, the brave Hayata encounters a dying alien life form which merges with him in order to survive. Conveniently enough, Hayata can summon this powerful “Ultraman” character for a few minutes at a time via something called a Beta Capsule. Ultraman, who sports a metallic face, glowing yellow eyes and a silver and red jumpsuit, can’t hang around too long, though. After a few minutes, his heart light starts blinking and he has to skedaddle.
Pretty much every episode involves the Science Patrol – featuring the requisite beautiful female member, the goofball inventor, the stern Captain and a little boy sidekick – getting a call about a monster somewhere on Earth or in space. They go check it out, get into trouble and Hayata summons Ultraman, who wrestles the monster(s) for a minute or two before breaking out his Atomic Chop or Ultra Beam to finish the creature off. Still, the show does sometimes rise above its restrictions by way of tongue-in-cheek humor mixed with effective moodiness and scary monsters (in which it was a lot like “The X-Files.”) Still, to watch close to 40 episodes is a hard slog, except for the most ardent genre fan.
A shout out must go to the crazy catchy title song, which seems to take up roughly a quarter of the episodes’ length whether you listen to the Japanese children singing or adults in English. Also, it is lots of fun to watch the English subtitles, which seem to bear little relation to what’s being said on screen. It’s especially entertaining that the subtitles scatter a lot of “dammits” and even “goddammits” throughout the script, even when children are speaking. Somehow I missed those when I was a kid.
Special Features: Extras include a not-terribly-interesting (and amateurishly shot) interview with the English voice cast, the much shorter U.S. show opening and a listing of the monsters that appeared on the show complete with powers, first appearance date and even height and weight.