Ultraman on DVD

After a very long wait the first legitimate, comprehensive release of the original 1966 Ultraman TV show in the U.S. came out on DVD a couple of weeks back. As a giant monster fan, it's tough not to be excited by the prospect. Unfortunately, my feelings on the release are mixed, in just about every way possible.

The only reason the American company BCI was able to attain the home video rights to Ultraman was because of a terrible mistake Noboru Tsuburaya (son of Eiji) made 30 years ago. In 1974 Tsuburaya Productions co-produced a feature film with a Thai company called Chaiyo. Hanuman Meets the 6 Ultramen featured a giant hero based on the local monkey/trickster god Hanuman and just about all the Ultraman characters up to that point plus some of the more popular Ultraman monsters. It's pretty awful, though the movie does occasionally push the gore in the monster battles to amusing "Itchy and Scratchy" extremes. I suppose it was intended to kick start a Hanuman TV or movie series, but as far as I know nothing came of it.
Years later, in the late 1990's, Chaiyo announced that they were going to produce their own Ultraman series independent of Tsuburaya Poductions, which came as quite a surprise to Tsuburaya Productions. (Imagine if the BBC suddenly announced they were going to start producing episodes of Lost.) It turns out that back in 1974, unbeknownst to nearly anyone else, Noboru Tsuburaya had signed over the worldwide rights (minus Japan) to all the Ultraman characters to Chaiyo, apparently in return for a loan. Tsuburaya Productions sued, but in the end the case went all the way to Japanese Supreme Court and Chaiyo won. Chaiyo owns the all the characters from the original Ultraman (1966) through Ultraman Taro (1974), and can presumably market those shows to whatever countries they want. Somewhat ironically Ultraman Millennium was never produced, beyond a trailer and a set of figures that I own. A new trailer showed up just this year under the title Project Ultraman, so maybe that's a go again.
It sucks that Tsuburaya Productions has essentially lost control of the characters they created for no good reason and that they won't profit at all from BCI's DVD release if it's successful. It's also true that Tsuburaya has a reputation for being difficult for American companies to work with (I still remember the horror stories from Expressions in Animation, who tried to release Ultraman on VHS years ago), so if it weren't for Chaiyo we probably wouldn't have gotten DVDs at all, but that doesn't make the situation any more fair.

"What are you?" "I'm Batchman!"
BCI's DVDs are packaged in an excellent shiny box with terrific art on all the disk and cases. There's also an informative booklet. So far so good, right? The 3-disc box set, optimistically labeled "Ultraman Series One, Volume One," features the first twenty episodes. All of the episodes appear to be the original Japanese versions and are presented in Japanese with English subtitles. The "Speed Racer" dubbing is also included as an option for the nostalgic, though the soundtrack will revert back to Japanese for scenes that weren't included in the original American TV airings.
My first impression watching the DVDs was that the episodes looked bright and colorful. However, as watched more I began to realize that in scenes with lots of movement, like a quick pan through a crowd or a shot with lots of splashing water, there was honest to goodness artifacting. Artifacting! I haven't seen major artifacting in a U.S. release in years. There's also a kind of minor stuttering in what should be smooth tracking shots or pans, as if there's some sort of frame rate issue. If I had to guess (and being anal about these things, I do have to) I'd say that these DVDs were made from Video CDs. Nice Video CDs, but Video CDs nonetheless. Considering the whole Chaiyo/Tsuburaya situation it's entirely possible that BCI didn't have anything better to work with. While Chaiyo has the rights to the characters and the series, the master prints are still owned by Tsubaraya, and Tsuburaya doesn't have a whole lot of incentive to hand the masters over to anybody. ("Hi. I stole this TV from your house last night. Would you please give me the remote that goes along with it? It's not doing you any good, right?")

The quality issues are a bit distracting, but they in no way make the episodes unwatchable. For $20.00, the set is still a good deal, but it isn't the home run release I was hoping for.

Posted: Tue - August 1, 2006 at