Even when compared to other programs with interchangeable casts and characters, Ultraman is the Menudo of ongoing television series. It's a brilliant concept, really: any sufficiently stalwart and loveable actor can play Ultraman's human alter ego, and (if necessary) a more athletic stunt double can be poured into the crimson-and-chrome tights for the actual monster wrestling. The existence of various Ultraman incarnations (Dyna, Tiga, Jack, and even the occasional, uh, Ultrawoman) means that when the popularity of one series fades, or when a series is abruptly cancelled (as in the unfortunate case of Ultraman Cosmos), a new one can be created. And if that new Ultraman is more in tune with the sensibilities of the current generation of squalling brats with parents only too eager to plunk down cash for an array of Ultraman toys, well -- isn't that the way capitalism is supposed to work?
In a perfect world, this
chase scene would have been
staged by Monty Python.
We are ardent fans of the Ultraman series. Part of its charm, we find, is its relentless adherence to formula. Ultraman is coming up on thirty years of shows and over 15 individual series, and they are all more or less the same. One member of a super-technological monster fighting organization (Science Patrol in the original series) has the ability to transform into a 200 foot tall spandex-clad alien. Given this awesome power, Ultraman solves world hunger, and creates peace and prosperity for all the peoples of the world.
Nah, he actually wrestles giant monsters. Sure, Ultraman has the ability to fire energy blasts that can destroy monsters instantly, but he never does that until he has wasted valuable time and caused millions of dollars in collateral damage by trying to wrestle the creatures into submission first. We suspect that the various Ultramen over the years all tried out for their high school wrestling teams and were turned down. They have been desperately trying to win the approval of those wrestling coaches ever since. It's pathetic, really, but sort of comforting that the Ultraman of today, despite better gadgetry, is more or less the same hero from our childhood memories.
Keith Richards' liver.
Science Patrol has a different name in each series, and the exact origin of Ultraman and his human host varies, but it's always the same monster-grappling fun. That's why we were pleasantly surprised that Ultraman Gaia: The Battle in Hyperspace changes the formula. Well, changes it a little bit anyway.
The Battle in Hyperspace doesn't take place in the same monster-infested universe as the Ultraman Gaia TV series. In fact, the story takes place in something resembling the real world, where hyperactive Japanese kids watch the Ultraman Gaia show on TV. Tsutomu (Gaku Hamada) is a big fan of the last three Ultraman series (probably the only ones that have aired during his short life), but especially of Gaia and his human identity Gamu (Takeshi Yoshida). Tsutomu's obsession is such that it even worries his mother, who suggests he do something the Japanese call "sports." We're not sure what "sports" are, but it apparently involves not watching Ultraman, so we doubt that we'd ever understand.
"I don't care what the dealer
said, this new computer
is too complicated."
While watching an episode of Gaia, Tsutomu has a vision of a red ball and a beautiful girl his age, who predicts disaster for the world. The next day the girl from his vision, Lisa (Mai Saito), shows up as a new member of his class. A bully named Chiba humiliates Tsutomu in front of Lisa, so he retreats to the play area he has created for himself in an abandoned warehouse. There, Tsutomu is a bit surprised to find the red ball from his dream on a shelf. The ball offers to make Tsutomu's wishes come true. Naturally, Tsutomu wishes he could meet Gamu for some pointers on courage. (Our cynical natures kicked in again as we speculated that Gamu's courage is probably linked to his ability to kick Mothra's ass.)
Lo and behold, the sky suddenly turns into sea and a high tech fighter appears. It's Gamu, who has been transported from his own universe, where he was patrolling the Bermuda Triangle. The Japanese still believe in the Bermuda Triangle? In any case, the bully Chiba gets his hands on the wishing ball and wishes a monster into existence. Gamu dutifully changes into Ultraman Gaia to wrestle and beam blast the monster into oblivion. Changing back, Gamu lands his fighter on the nearby school grounds. Surrounded by tykes, Gamu is shocked that all the kids recognize him, not just as Gamu but also as Ultraman Gaia. Gamu's dual identity is supposed to be a secret, like most Ultraman heroes, but frankly even the staff at the Daily Planet could figure it out. The guy who is secretly Ultraman is always getting shot down or stepped on by the monster just before the big silver guy appears. How he keeps his position in Science Patrol is a major mystery. At least Clark Kent was a good reporter. Ultraman's alter ego's job performance review must read "attacked Red King, shot down; attacked Baltan, trapped in collapsing building; attacked Kanegon, crushed by tail...."
"No, I can't get you
Tom Cruise's autograph."
Eventually Gamu and Tsutomu meet, and Gamu learns the truth about his arrival in this parallel universe where schoolchildren know his secret identity. The two bond over a shared love of adventure and particularly the story of Gulliver's Travels, but nearly as soon as Gamu has begun to unravel the mystery of the wishing ball, the time limit on Tsutomu's wish expires. Gamu is whisked back to his own universe, with only hazy memories of his inter-dimensional journey. Eventually the memories return to him, but by then he fears it may be too late to save Tsutomu's Earth, which is endangered by the wishing ball's presence.
To say much more would spoil things, but let's just say that when Science Patrol creates an inter-dimensional spaceship, they make sure it can do battle with a monster upon arrival. The nature of the story also allows for a few Ultra-cameos in the bargain. Along the way Tsutomu finds his own inner bravery, difficult decisions are made, and the secret of Lisa's connection with the wishing ball is revealed. It's not The Tempest, but who needs Shakespeare when a giant superhero is engaged in a pyrotechnic wrestling match with hundred-foot-high monstrosities in a Japanese suburb?
"Oh... my! But we just met!"
We were slightly disappointed in the last Ultraman movie, Tiga & Dyna: Warriors from the Planet of Light. As thrilling as it was to see new Ultraman material, it was still the same old story (aliens invade, monsters arrive, Ultraman pounds on both of them), only more of it. We began to wonder if the mere addition of a second Ultraman character was really what the series needed to stay fresh. Though we would have been even more disappointed in a movie that disposed with the formula altogether, it was nonetheless a sort of illicit delight to see Gaia tweak the formula's nose while still providing the humongous monsters and landscape-ravaging body slams.
(We would have enjoyed some more development of the "fictional character" aspect of the story. Instead we are asked to believe that Gamu comes from a dimension that just happens to be identical to the Ultraman TV shows Tsutomu watches on TV. A minor point, but if we don't complain about something we feel all empty inside.)
School for Monsters.
The production values have climbed a long way since the early days of Ultraman. Gone are the cheesy beta capsules and clumsy jump cuts from human Science Patrol member to massive Ultraman. Now there's a cheesy "Light of Gaia" and slickly-edited digital transitions from Gamu-as-pilot to the materializing Ultraman Gaia. It's the sort of thing we always imagined for the series. Fortunately, the rubber suits have been left more or less intact, with the occasional bit of computer enhancement to keep things lively.
Say what you will about the Japanese with their wacky Pokemon cards and sadistic game shows: they know how to have a good time. The Ultraman series, and Ultraman Gaia in particular, has remained true to that spirit of fun. What a relief to find that there are new ways to feel like a kid again.