Ultraseven [Review]


Tsurubaya television series
1967 – 1968
Originally shown on Tokyo Broadcast System (TBS) and later syndicated

I was eight years old when I was introduced to the original Ultraman, which ran midafternoon, after school hours, on a now-defunct UHF station from Philadelphia. Ultraman was a creation of Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects guru who did the monster suits and disaster sequences for the original Godzilla movie. Tsuburaya founded his own production company in 1963 and became a tokusatsu (Japanese live-action movies or TV shows, usually SFF, that featuring liberal use of special effects) pioneer. Ultraman debuted in Japan in 1966 and was an immediate hit. It was syndicated widely, which was how it crossed the Pacific, with English dubbing, in the early 1970s to wind up on American TV.

But little did I know while watching it that other Ultraman series had already come and gone, each having its own Ultra as the hero, with different monsters, plotlines, attack teams, and visual style. If I had, I would have watched the hell out of them, too. My love for Ultraman ran deep.

Over the years I gradually discovered the existence of these other shows but they remained inaccessible to Americans. Only in Hawaii were they ever broadcast, and that was because of its high Japanese population.

When VCRs came along it became possible to buy bootlegged tapes, or, if you lived in a large city with a Chinatown, rent the video releases from Japan. I actually did that when I moved to Seattle, but since they weren’t dubbed or subtitled, I had no idea what was going on. And while that same Chinatown’s Uwajimaya store had a Japanese bookstore I couldn’t read the Ultra guides or manga, either, and had to pester my Japanese friends for translations.

So imagine my delight when ShoutFactoryTV  bought the rights to stream almost seventy years of Ultra shows and movies, in subtitled versions, and there was me, with a Firestick and Amazon Prime. Ultra-ecstasy had begun!

(And forgive me, I actually first watched Ultraman Leo, the 1974 series, before deciding that they should be watched and reviewed in order. I’ll get to the original Ultraman, and Ultra-Q that preceded it, later, as the latter, after dozens of childhood viewings, is still too fresh in my mind.)

So after all this throat clearing let’s move on to Ultraseven, the second series, which came out in Japan in 1967 hot on the heels of the runaway success that was the original Ultraman.

The series certainly looks good. Tsuburaya had a larger budget to work with, and it shows. The models, the suits both alien and kaiju, the set design, the location work (more varied than Ultraman’s) and the special effects all were top notch for its time. It was wonderful eye candy. Some sequences took my breath away, like a battle at sunset between Ultraseven and the alien Metron who looks like a cross between a walking prawn and a pinball machine.

Kaiju or amusement park ride? From “The Targeted Town.”

Tsuburaya was not only a master of miniatures and kaiju costumes, but also lighting. I mean, look at that thing. It’s mouth-watering even in a still.

The overall concept of Ultraseven was different from Ultraman’s idea of a shared life-force between human Shin Hayata and giant space humanoid Ultraman, which was given by the latter in atonement after his spacecraft crashes into Hayata’s jet plane, killing him. In contrast, Ultraseven is an alien explorer who takes on the form of mountaineer Jiro Satsuma after Jiro sacrifices himself to save a climbing companion. Impressed by his bravery – and after restoring him to life – Ultraseven takes on his likeness, calling himself Dan Morobishi. Dan/Ultraseven then waggishly advises the Ultra Guard, the monster attack team of this series, as they are investigating strange goings-on in the same mountains, with the result that he is asked to join the team. So the premise is set.

Dan Morobishi transforms. Note the white gloves. I’ll get to them later.

Dan is a different kind of Ultra than Hayata. He doesn’t have Hayata’s casual insouciance; he is intense and restrained, always observing as the alien he is while concealing that identity. Instead of Hayata’s “Beta capsule” used to transform – a flashlight-like device that is raised high – he puts on what looks like a pair of red swimming goggles, and the transformation begins at his face. Personally, I found this device, known as the Ultra Eye, a clunky way to change over. I mean, a transformation just begs for something to be raised high, an allegory for the swift growth of human into giant. Putting on a pair of armless sunglasses just didn’t cut it for me.

The suit design of Ultraseven is also different from Ultraman’s, calling to mind a Roman centurion or Medieval Knight. He is all red, with a silver collar and a head that looks like a helmet. He has yellow, elongated, octagonal eyes instead of Ultraman’s oval white ones and a cranial crest in the shape of a number seven that can be detached and thrown like a boomerang. It’s not bad, but as I said very different from what came before and even after, who were all designed for movement and speed. He also has the aid of three “pocket monsters” – they were the inspiration for Poké balls – to help him fight when he can’t.

Instead of kaiju, aliens (seijin, in Japanese) were the major threat in this series. There was overlap in that the aliens often had kaiju lackeys, or were kaiju themselves, just as aliens had also appeared in Ultraman – Mefilas, Baltan, and Zarab, to name a few. But in Ultraseven the deciding conflict was not always a kaiju battle. There were some episodes where Ultraseven did not transform into giant size at all, where he interacted with normal-sized humans and even had a human voice. This was another change I couldn’t get used to, seeing him jerk his tiny body around blindly and awkwardly while combating the weekly source of trouble. It was like one of those behind-the-scenes segments done for fun by the film crew, where Godzilla skips rope or kisses a pretty extra.

These aliens, mostly, were out to conquer the Earth or otherwise harm it. This led to an unfortunate sameness of plot compared to the original Ultraman, despite the diversity of storylines and costumes. The kaiju of the original Ultraman could be aliens, supernatural creatures, or embodiments of elemental forces, like the Japanese notion of kami: there was a mystery involved in discovering their natures and often a human moral comment to be made. The aliens of Ultraseven were all after the same thing, with the Ultra Guard and Ultraseven stopping them. This led to a problem of repetition. I could binge on three or four episodes at a time, compared to only one for Ultraman Leo which was more involving and intense, despite its shoddiness.

Tsuburaya was enamored of American TV, especially Westerns, and I assume the change in tone towards trigger-happy morality and individual heroism came from there. He was also influenced by American producer Irwin Allen, whose Lost in Space had been a big hit in Japan, and whose Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was still running on American TV. I have to wonder if some of Ultraseven’s dullness came from the latter show, with its stodgy military values and Cold War orientation.

One area where the show was NOT dull was the creature design. It hit a high note here that wasn’t to be replicated until recent decades where technical advances in material design and CGI came to the fore. These aliens were varied, graphic and colorful, bringing to mind flatworms, Egyptian Art, tropical orchids, caterpillars, the Mayan empire, knights in suits of armor. The American show Lost in Space was being shown on Japanese TV at the same time and had created a sensation, so that likely contributed to the diversity of crazy-looking monsters. Aliens in Japanese movies and TV had been grotesque and cartoony up to this point, like the one-eyed starfish of Message from Space. But Ultraseven’s aliens were aesthetically pleasing, if, well, alien and implausible. There were humanoids, robots, a spaceship or two, human-operated puppets, and kaiju. They literally were made to be Bandai toys.

An Ultraseven rogues’ gallery. From top to bottom, left to right: Eleking, Alien Perolynga, Alien Guts; Alien Plachiku, Alien Godola, King Joe; Tepeto, Miclas (one of Ultraseven’s pocket monsters), Alien Chibull.

Granted, some were ridiculous, like the Jagger-lipped alien Chibull puppet and Gyeron, a waddling, metallic space bird with stiff airplane wings. The designers were also far too fond of round googly eyes. But others were pure genius, like the robot King Joe that assembled itself from four different flying components, or Eleking, the striking yet unpleasant-looking kaiju that kicked off the series.

Alien Badu strikes a pose.

My personal favorites were Badu, which looked like a nasty proto-Ferengi in a silvery scaled jumpsuit, and Borg, which managed to look both like a Spanish conquistador and a penis. I also liked Plachiku, a bizarre insectoid alien which sported clear plastic bags knotted on its body, and turned into a blackened skeleton before collapsing. Thumbs-up as well to Alien Perolynga, which looked like a third-grader’s art project from summer camp.

Another visual influence on Tsuburaya was producer and puppet creator Gerry Anderson, whose series Stingray and Thunderbirds, with their elaborate models of aircraft and other vehicles, were entrancing a generation of British children. Anderson’s influence is made clear in extended launch sequences of the Ultra Guard rockets and jets, and some of this elaborate preparation time would be copied in subsequent Ultraman series.

While Ultraseven’s designs clearly copy the Thunderbirds where the Tracy family needed different planes for different rescues, it’s not clear why the Ultra Guard needs a giant supersonic needle-nosed jet that can separate into three separate pieces. Wouldn’t it make more sense for team members to take smaller individual jets and fight collectively, given the high rate of crashes? Wouldn’t smaller jets be more fuel-efficient and quicker to launch? Who cares, it looked cool.

Ultra Hawk 1. Pay attention, please, because I didn’t. The parts separate as follows. The red stripe indicates part one, or 001-1, the yellow, 001-2, the blue, 001-3.

From a small group of five in Ultraman, the Ultra team is now a large organization occupying a secret base that tunnels into a mountain, with its own nuclear reactor for power. Inside the walls are a bilious green, contrasting with the silver and red vehicles and jets. All this implies a more military organization than an investigative one. The top brass are frequent visitors, and there’s also a tendency for the Ultra Guard members to scream and bark orders at civilians in a histrionic way. Sandayū Dokumamushi is the worst offender; he was already rough-and-tumble in Ultraman where he played Daisaku Arashi, but here his shouting is ridiculously over the top. Again, I think Tsuburaya took a page or two from American dramas, where that intense, theatrical style, a carryover from when 1950s, was still used for TV.

The Ultra “Pointer.”

The cars the team drives have a futuristic style, albeit what futuristic meant in mid-1960s Japan (which was, incidentally, a lot of fun.) The SSSP – Special Science Search Party, or “Science Patrol” in the English dubbed versions – of Ultraman had to make do with mere Datsuns, which had their logo painted on the door. The new light gray uniforms are a step up too, more professional than the SSSP’s bright orange long johns which were worn with a clip-on tie and motorcycle helmet. The white cotton gloves are ridiculous though. They speak to a Japanese custom already passing, where public employees wore them to denote hygiene and cleanliness. But it’s just silly to expect the Ultra Guard to care about getting its hands dirty while fighting stomping, snorting kaiju. The black leather gloves the SSSP wore were more practical, enabling them to drive and handle weapons.

The general milieu makes sense, however, when you consider the show was conceived as set in an entirely different universe than Ultraman, as Ultraman had been set in a different universe than Ultra Q (despite appearances by kaijus Kemlar and Garamon.) At this point, the shows had no continuity between them and there was not to be one until 1971’s The Return of Ultraman, when Ultraseven makes a guest appearance.

It gets confusing, especially when the watcher considers that Ultraseven’s timeline is some undated future one, even though it hasn’t progressed socially or aesthetically past 1967. Spaceflight is common and contact with aliens is well established, though the writing sometimes makes it seem all this is kept secret from common folk. The show was sexier all around, but less fresh than Ultraman was.

On to the music, which is a big part of my enjoyment of the Ultra series. Instead of Ultraman’s loose, jazz-tinged rock n’ roll we get a high-hat orchestral overture and a chorus of Seven, Seven, Seven, Seven, Seven! in ascending tones by male voices. It’s cheerful and upbeat, if a bit corny, and eventually grew on me. A peppy instrumental version of the song is sometimes used in the fight scenes, where it contrasts oddly with the tragic tone of some episodes, and I had to pretend I didn’t hear it.

Also fun is an internal song, simply titled “Ultra Seven,” a sort of jazzy doo-wop cocktail-swillin’ bar lounge tune that enters the script whenever Dan Morobishi is doing some heroic Western thing like piloting a motorboat or riding off into the sunset. (One episode even features Japanese cowboys.) This song is credited to The Echoes, but I’m sure it’s a Japanese group and not the American or English one. Its arrangement reminds me of Ennio Morricones’ film composition work for spaghetti Westerns, utilizing melancholy chanting choruses and rising tones that invoke the grand sweep of the American West and the heroes that inhabit it. It aligns with the series’ greater maturity, if a tokusatsu about a giant alien kicking monster ass can be said to have maturity.

I’m including it here just because I like it so much, and I like the Ultra Guard logo, too.

There’s more zinginess and swinginess in the human costuming and location work, giving an interesting picture of Tokyo in that time period. Youth culture is touched on occasionally – such as the Pitt aliens’ (the mistresses of Eleking) Mary Quant-inspired mod dresses they wear in their human form, and a rock n’ roll nightclub Dan visits in “The Stolen Ultra Eye” which turns into a nightmare. Some set designs have a Andy Warhol feel, utilizing balloons, foil, and swathes of plastic film (from a time when plastic was considered humanity’s friend) to create interdimensional worlds like that of the “The Suspicious Neighbor” episode, where Dan is trapped by Alien Icarus. A similar aesthetic is used in “The Devil Who Dwells in a Flower” for a trip inside a human girl’s body in which Ultraseven shrinks himself to microbe size, entering a fairyland of inflatable pillows and colored lights representing body organs. (Fantastic Voyage had just come out in 1966.)

Darii, the alien virus that invades a human girls’ lungs

Cigarette ad from 1960s Japan

In keeping with time period, everybody smoked, even more than they would have in the 1950s. There were a lot of cigarettes consumed in Ultraseven, usually by the extras or one-episode actors, but even the Ultra Guard were lighting up, the Captain in the cockpit of the Ultra Hawk 1, no less. Scenes in the HQ with military leaders took place around a coffee table featuring a huge glass ashtray stuffed with cigarette butts. Even one of the episodes revolved around smoking:  “The Targeted Town” in which the Metron aliens stocked vending machines with drugged cigarettes that made humans go mad and start murdering each other. This ep, one of the series’ finest, starts with a disturbing domestic violence scene and ends with a battle at sunset, the dying light like the embers of burning tobacco. I’m not sure if the writers intended it to be a witty social commentary, cast somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it was.

More than one episode evinced this sort of dry humor. In “The Challenge from the Deep” which deals with a group of city folk searching for evidence of kappas (a pastime I’m guessing is analogous to Americans searching for Sasquatch) discover at the end that what they thought were kappas were really aliens. All are disillusioned save for one, who natters on in the car as his friends go “Hmm, yes,” and “You think so?” humoring him, as a dashboard ornament in the shape of a kappa performs a little dance as the car moves. It was subtle, yet hilarious. There’s also a witty bit in “Ambassador of the Nonmalt” where a young boy seems to find a severed female head on the beach, only for the head to turn and reveal itself as Ann’s; she had been buried in the sand while wearing a long hairpiece. There’s a funny turn in the next-to-last episode, too, when Dan feels the strength of Ultraseven leaving him. In a dream he hears his superior’s voice and wakes to see his Eye Slugger perched over the left-to-right shifting eyes of his little owl-shaped wall clock.

As I am writing this, and formulating my thoughts, the series feels more interesting than it was while I was watching it. I had actually forgotten a lot of it, which hadn’t happened with Ultraman Leo, which remains vivid. It’s hard to say why. I think that in spite of its many high points, the show was too scattered. It didn’t seem to have proper focus – there was Ultraseven as kaiju fighter; as benign alien secret agent; as human military team member. Other times it wanted to be about the team’s dealing with spooky phenomena, with Ultraseven barely present. Later shows, like The Return of Ultraman I am watching now, found their focus by concentrating on the Ultra host’s human problems, with the other elements supporting that. In Ultraseven, there’s the Ultra, sure, but he often gets lost amidst the Cold War plotlines and stories that unfold as horror-tinged mysteries, even though he’s set up to be the hero of it all.

This is why I was underwhelmed by this particular Ultra. Granted, he had mighty big rubber booties to fill. Bin Furuya, who was the suit actor for the original Ultraman, was not only a martial arts expert and athlete, but had a tall, thin, lanky build that really let the viewer believe he was an alien being. He threw his body around confidently but loosely, seeming to not see with his eyes but with other, alien senses. His performance was the first exposure many Western children had to martial arts.

In contrast, Ultraseven moved like an actor on the stage, broadly, with wide gestures and exaggerated movements. He didn’t have Furuya’s speed and dynamism, or how he conveyed emotion through a change in posture or stately nod. Ultraseven spoke like a human, while Ultraman had been mute for the most part aside from the occasional “Hyah!” and “Shuwachi!” He was an uncommunicative being, but we loved him for it, and for being mysterious and alien. Ultraseven was too human. Kaiju battles that Ultraman could have handled with ease caused Ultraseven difficulty. In one episode, he even winds up miniaturized and trapped under a drinking glass.

To be fair, many of the aliens, like Chibull, Cool, and Narse, were puppets controlled by human operators, and thus not able to knocked around in a conventional kaiju fight. Others had such elaborate costumes there was a danger they would be ruined before filming was complete, which caused battles to become more static. But on the whole, the suit actor didn’t impress me.

The actor who played Ultraseven’s human form, Kohji Moritsugu, did a fine job with his soulful looks and sequestered intelligence, yet didn’t engage me the way he should have. Perhaps it was because I watched 1974’s Ultraman Leo series first, where he recreated his Dan Morobishi character and was pretty much a dick to the Ultra star of that series. Aside from Yuriko Hashimi, who also did a fine job as Anne, a competent female officer, I had trouble telling the other actors apart until at least half the series had gone by. It wasn’t that they were bad actors, or poorly directed; they just didn’t get the proper emphasis. Too much of everything else was going on.

Of course, not all of this can be laid on the producers. Tokyo Broadcasting Systems, which had commissioned the show, had input as well to shape the show’s direction. Whatever the case, Ultraseven was a sensation, surpassing even the ratings for Ultraman. It was so successful TBS even asked for an extra ten episodes, which was why it finished with the two-parter it did instead of the two-parter with the Guts aliens and Ultraseven’s crucifixion/rising from the dead (Yes, you read that right.) Unfortunately there seemed to be a drop in quality with these later shows as the budget ran out, and even the finale, though emotionally touching and a favorite of Ultra fans, demonstrated this with the awkward looking Pandon kaiju.

Pandon’s two bird heads were fused together because of technical problems operating separate heads.

The show was very successful for the network and they asked Tsuburaya for a follow-up, but he became busy with movie work and it was not to be. It’s interesting to speculate on where the series might have gone next if he had, since the three shows he was involved with before his passing – Ultra Q, Ultraman, and Ultraseven – all form a clear progression. First came the concept of a team of recurring characters investigating paranormal phenomena – a Japanese Outer Limits – that focused on monsters later in the show’s run. Then came a more SF-oriented show in which the team has paramilitary training and equipment to battle kaiju plus the secret weapon of a helpful alien embedded among them.

But Ultraman, though successful, wasn’t quite the vision Tsuburaya had, and with Ultraseven, he came as close as he ever got…. here, the alien IS the team member, who, unknown to the others, saves the day in Lone Ranger fashion but also has his concerns. The concept of a friendly alien was near and dear to Tsuburaya’s heart. It went against the grain of the times and was also what made the shows unique.

Now on to my favorite episodes.

Despite its wackiness, I’d say “The 700 Kilometer Run” which featured the unlikely kaiju Dinosaur Tank, is my number one. Not only does it showcase a sport in vogue at the time in Japan – car rallies – Amagi, my favorite Ultra Guard member besides the Dan &  Anne duo, gets to be showcased, played by the same Bin Furuyama who had been Ultraman’s suit actor. Tall, raw-boned in the face, he comes across as the kind of team member who has to try twice as hard to keep up with everybody else, and accepts his hard knocks with graciousness, looking mighty grateful to be out of that tight, hot rubber suit. (Sadly, on the show he wasn’t given a chance to show off his martial arts skills.) There’s lots of exciting car chase action as the Ultra Guard, in disguise as rally car drivers, transport a secret weapon alien agents are after, which culminates in Dinosaur Tank’s emergence from a hill. The kaiju gives Ultraseven a legitimately hard time, too.

Dinosaur Tank. ’nuff said. You can see the operator’s arm at lower right.

Another face is “For Whom Takes the Glory” where Aoki, a new Ultra Guard member, constantly tries to one-up the existing ones, with the result several faceless underlings are killed. Then he goes after the weekly kaiju himself – Plachiku of the sandwich bag decorations – to make amends, and winds up dying. But instead of Aoki being a lesson in hubris, the writing goes in another direction, and he is criticized for that, but honored as well. Both these episodes had a very human element, which was why I liked them.

I also liked “The Dead Invaders” in which the alien menace of the week animates human corpses, which are taken to the Ultra Guard headquarters for analysis. There, the spirits of the corpses are controlled by the aliens to open an elaborate safe to steal a list of codes, with no one able to figure out how they did it. This one was both eerie and a lot of fun, both for the elaborate Mission Impossible style safe-locking sequence, the corpses themselves – all young and male, barefoot, and wearing the same dark suit, looking like Paul McCartney on the cover of Abbey Road – laying on slabs in the “morgue.”

Each episode was an example of the three categories they fall into: Spy movie shenanigans, the Ultra Guard team working together and overcoming some problem, and strange occurrences caused by aliens that are revealed at the climax.

Runner-up goes to “The Forsaken Earthman” which is a rather run-of-mill one about an alien posing as a human scientist, but the kaiju he turns into makes one of the eeriest noises I’ve ever heard from the series, a sort of electronic wheezing, while tricking Ultraseven with a series of illusions.

In the end, though Ultraseven had its moments, I never became comfortable with it. For the Ultra fan, though, it’s not something that could be skipped, simply because it lays down so many of the aliens and kaiju that reappear in later series, as well as the character of Ultraseven/Dan himself, which was the start of the idea that the Ultra character has a personal life as well as the human ones. It’s both transitional, and an anomaly.

Yet, as  time has passed, the Ultrasevenverse has proved to be popular on its own; a series of shows were created much later that spun off on it, where the characters had never heard of the original Ultraman and his kindred. Perhaps I need a re-watch of the original to really do it justice.

My next Ultra-review will be of 1971’s The Return of Ultraman, so stay tuned!

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