Saturday, 4 October 2014

Ultraman II

Director: Sidney L Caplan
Writers: Sidney L Caplan, Tom Weiner, Steve Kramer, Wally Soul
Producers: Noboru Tsuburaya, Sidney L Caplan
Cast: Barbara Goodson, Steve Kramer, Joe Perry
Country: Japan/USA
Year of release: 1983
Reviewed from: UK VHS

Isn’t it bloody typical? For years I search the video shops of this land for Ultraman tapes (or indeed any other Japanese superheroes). All I ever find is multiple copies of Ultraman: The Alien Invasion, a feature-length re-edit of the first few episodes of the Australian series Ultraman: Towards the Future. I’m not even sure that the second volume of that was released in the UK; I assume it must have been but I’ve never seen it.

So, in the summer of 2005 when I was writing about the character’s history in a feature on Ultraman: The Next for Neo magazine, I stated with some confidence that the Aussie series is the only one ever released in the UK. And while that issue was on sale - while it was on sale! - I came across this 1983 tape of the 1979 animated version, which was simply called The Ultraman. Bloody typical.

The on-screen title, clearly generated after the fact, is Ultraman 2: The Further Adventures of Ultraman which is all very odd because of the four episodes which make up this faux feature, the first is the series’ opener about the creation of 'the' Ultraman himself. So what, if anything, was in the first animated Ultraman ‘film’, if such a beast exists?

Okay, here’s the set-up. In response to some weird writing that appears in the sky, the Earth Defence Force (sometimes called the Earth Defence Organisation) establishes ‘Emergency Science and Defence Squads’ in every ‘zone’ on Earth. Captain Adam (sometimes called Captain Adams) is put in charge of the Eastern Zone ESDS. He agrees to the job provided that he can have at his disposal a super-amazing aircraft (and occasional submarine) called the Super Star (sometimes called the SS13 - as you can, see there’s not much consistency here).

He gathers around him a team of four people: fat comedy sidekick Marconi, tall engineering genius Glen (who is not mentioned by name until the second episode), beautiful Lieutenant Ann Johnson and enigmatic Commander Harris who has been serving aboard Earth Space Station 3. Piloting his one-man spaceship back to Earth, Harris goes through the usual Ultraman scenario: red light blah blah blah lose control blah blah blah giant figure blah blah blah. Ultraman (for it is he) tells Harris that he must go to Earth, using Harris’ body: “The survival of the whole universe, including Earth, depends on it.”

The story proper starts off with an iceberg that crosses the equator without melting and which eventually cracks open to reveal a giant bipedal dinosaur thing which somehow, shortly afterwards, turns into four identical giant bipedal dinosaur things. And let me tell you folks, with their little arms akimbo and mincing gait these are the campest monsters you ever saw. Nevertheless, the crew of the SS13 - which can launch smaller aircraft from itself - succeed in keeping a straight face long enough to defeat the beasties with the assistance of a mysterious giant stranger dressed in red and silver. (Harris has a green star which he places on his forehead to become Ultraman for a limited time. Of course, as is traditional, none of the others have a clue that their giant benefactor is actually their colleague.)

And so, 22 minutes in, we leap to a different episode which takes place just before Ann’s birthday. Marconi and Glen both have crushes on her, of course, but she is most interested in Harris. In this episode a tornado attacks a power station which derives energy from a giant whirlpool. Investigations reveal that at the centre of the tornado is a monster that looks like a five-tentacled heart. After some more flying around, Ultraman appears and gives it a good hiding.

The third story starts with the team enjoying a bit of a holiday but they are swiftly called back into service to investigate a giant red cloud. Glen manages to capture some of it in a bottle, takes it back to the lab and discovers that it coalesces into a living thing when it gets wet. Adams tells him this is very useful information but it’s not really because it has already started raining and the cloud has become a giant pink yeti. The SS13 battles the big beastie until Ultraman appears, dispels the rain clouds and causes the monster to revert to cloud form.

Probably the best of the four stories is the final one, not least because it has a vaguely decent monster, a sort of giant crocodile thing. We start with Marconi destroying this threat by himself using a hand-held rocket launcher at close range - which everyone agrees is very impressive. We then see something that must happen after most kaiju eiga but rarely gets shown: somebody clearing away the bloody great reptilian corpse. The guy supervising the crane and lorry involved turns out to be the Chief of the Space Biology Group who wants the body to study. Oh, and it’s not quite dead (sorry, Marconi). At the same time, a young boy discovers a baby version of the monster and adopts it as a secret pet, despite local warnings that the authorities are looking for a strange creature which could be dangerous. Of course, ‘Baby’ grows at an alarming rate and eventually becomes a full-grown crocodile-thing. Both plots in this episode show some promise and it’s just a shame that there is no apparent connection between them.

Oh, and there’s one really curious thing which I haven’t yet mentioned: the obligatory robot sidekick. In this case it’s a squat, crinkly, alien-looking blob named PDQ who carries a very tiny grey monkey on his shoulder. He makes no significant contribution to any of the stories, is absolutely never explained (nor is his monkey) and really only serves to raise the weirdness quotient of this otherwise distinctly lacklustre cartoon.

Even if you enjoy anime (and as I have observed elsewhere, I can’t stand the stuff) you have to be pretty tolerant to sit through Ultraman II. Stuff like Battle of the Planets may have been fun when we were kids but it doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of 21st century eyes and The Ultraman isn’t even up to Battle of the Planets standards. Frankly it’s barely up to Thunderbirds 2086 standards.

The characters are one-dimensional, the plots arbitrary - not nonsensical enough to be entertaining, just boring - and the animation is as simplistic and basic as the scripts. The music is derivative and obvious, the monsters for the most part are bollocks and Ultraman is hardly in it at all. This is definitely one for completists. I watched the tape once then gave it away for someone else to ‘enjoy.’

The Ultraman/Ultraman II has no connection with the rest of Ultraman continuity, kicking off with an origin story in a world where the Ultra Brothers are completely unknown (much like Ultraman: The Next, but there the similarities end!). In Japan this version of the character was apparently known as Ultraman Jonias or Ultraman Joe and featured in some stage shows as well as the cartoon. It took me a while to track down confirmation but apparently there was a previous western release of animated episodes which was called The Adventures of Ultraman. However, as this ‘sequel’ kicks off with episode one, it’s difficult to see what could have been on the first volume.

Despite the very obvious breaks between episodes, it’s clear from the linking narration that it was added after the shows were combined into this ersatz feature. The ‘film’ finishes with a series of still images which presumably were designed to play under the closing credits of the episodes if the show was broadcast. There was evidently a Region 1 DVD release of this a while back but that is now deleted.

The voice artists are Barbara Goodson (who was the voice of Rita Repulsa in the early series of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and both Power Rangers films, and also contributed voices to Akira, Vampire Hunter D, Robotech, Digimon, Cowboy Bebop and stacks of other interchangeable anime), Steve Kramer (who wrote the English script for Zeram), Tom Weiner (also credited as narrator) and Joe Perry. Director/writer/producer Sidney L Caplan apparently also produced Bert I Gordon’s Necromancy and Reginald Le Borg’s So Evil, My Sister. The film is presented as ‘produced by Tsuburaya Production Company Ltd and Associates Entertainment International’; Noboru Tsuburaya’s credit as producer is the only Japanese name to be seen.

MJS rating: C-

[Addendum: Would you Adam and Eve it? Less than a month later, I found a 1987 reissue of this film so it was actually released twice in this country. - MJS]

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