Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Return of Ultraman: Yoru o kechirase – review

Director: unknown

First aired: 1971

Contains spoilers

Ultraman was, and still is, a highly successful franchise in Japan. This series – also known as Ultraman Jack – was a 51 episode series that ran through 1971 and 1972. To me, the fact that it had a vampire episode shows that the vampire genre, imported into Japan from the West, had taken a cultural hold (indeed it was created during the period when the Toho film company was creating its three “bloodthirsty” vampire films).

The basic premise is that Earth is in the age of monsters – these being Kaiju, the Japanese giant monsters typified by Godzilla and Gamera – and this means that each episode features a kaiju either of earthly or alien origin.

Ultraman revives Goh
In the first episode we get a fight between two kaiju and during this the young racing car driver Goh (Jiro Dan) is killed saving a young boy and a dog. This is observed by Ultraman who, impressed by the heroic effort, merges his lifeforce with Goh reviving him. Goh can now turn into Ultraman; this is done when in peril at first and later through choice and, I understand, unusual as no device was needed to allow the change. Ultraman grows to the size of the kaiju, though he can maintain human size too. Goh is conscripted into MAT – the Monster Attack Team.

Rumi Sakakibara as Aki
Again unusually (for the series' formula) we see Goh’s private life. He lives with the mechanic Ken Sakata (Shin Kishida), Ken’s little brother Jiro (Kawaguchi Hideki) and their sister Aki (Rumi Sakakibara) – Goh and Aki are almost an item. Whilst the series is a joy of kaiju fun, with men in rubber suits stomping scale model cities, there are some elements to the series that don’t pass modern muster. Goh giving Aki (and another woman in another episode) a good smack because they disagree with him seems awfully misogynistic and simply wrong in its message now – and I can’t imagine that it was much different (in the West at least) when it aired. However, these moments are few and the general tone of the series has a warmth and also a sentimentality to it.

bite marks
As for this episode. It begins with Goh and another MAT member in a car tracking down a strange energy reading. It seems to be coming from a woman, Midori, walking ahead of the car. She turns a corner and then seems to have vanished. We see her approach a house and claim, to a young woman at the gate, that she is Midori’s sister as Midori died some six months before. The woman is struck by the likeness and lets her in. They share a room that night but during the night there is a scream. Two men from the household run into the room and find the woman dead, bite marks at her neck. Midori is flying off into the night. Note Midori is able to walk around in daylight.

Midori's sarcophagus
The MAT team discuss the vampire attack (it is the 15th such attack). All the victims are rich young women and Goh makes a leap of faith and connects it with the mysterious girl they saw (Goh does that a lot). The police hand the case over to MAT and MAT go undercover to try and solve the case. They visit Midori’s father who says she died of myocardial infarction. He then admits that he didn’t cremate the body and takes them to a cave where the sarcophagus is hidden. Opening it, he discovers the body has gone.

When the team went into the cave they left the only female team member, Oka (Mika Katsuragi), outside. The misogyny I mentioned can be seen, in a casual sense, through this character. She is more than capable as an agent but tends to be left behind. In this case it left her to be attacked by Midori – who has some clownish lipstick on now. Midori is foiled and takes to the sky and Goh and Kishida (Ken Nishida) chase her in a jet until she vanishes. However, she managed to lead them to a spacecraft.

Now I am spoiling this totally as it is an episode of an old series but because it is fascinating too. The MAT team watch the spacecraft and during their vigil the alien makes telepathic contact with Goh, addressing him as Ultraman, calling him a traitor and asking why he, as an alien, sides with the humans. We discover he has been killing women in a convoluted plan to stop humans breeding! Then, as night falls, the spaceship takes off. The team attack the craft and cause it to crash land. However, this forces the alien – called Draculas – to take its true form.

Its true form is something that looks like a cross between a rabbit and a bat, with bat wing ears and bat wing membranes on its arms and legs. It is probably the epitome of crap bat syndrome and I absolutely love it. Of course we know where the name Draculas comes from. The episode doesn’t mention the name of its home planet, however according to the Ultraman Wiki it is the planet Carmilla. The MAT team engage the kaiju, which for a moment changes form into a giant version of Midori. This causes the father to run out and Goh to go after him – separating him from the rest of the team and giving him chance to transform (no-one knows he is Ultraman).

Of course the two then fight. Draculas can fire energy beams from its mouth and also emit a fog that temporarily blinds Ultraman. More tellingly it bites our hero, sucking his blood and depleting his energy. This makes it quite a threat as Ultraman only has enough energy for a three-minute appearance. An indicator on his chest is blue for the first two minutes then becomes a red flashing light with an alarm for the last minute. To defeat Draculas Ultraman uses his Ultra Bracelet to create a blinding light (the alien in its natural form cannot stand the strong solar energy of the sun) and then impales it with his Ultra Cross – the alien crumbles to dust and Midori’s body can be returned to her father.

biting Ultraman
The idea of an alien entity possessing a dead body and making it a vampire was explored in the 1968 Japanese film Goke, Bodysnatcher from Hell - though what impact the earlier film had on this is unknown. I also don’t know how much impact the Toho films had on this but the year before the Bloodthirsty Doll did feature the idea that the vampire (which was created in that by hypnosis, to be fair) was a girl who had (at least ostensibly) been buried rather than cremated.

shooting at Draculas
This is a great episode for picking up some of the Japanese ideas around vampires. The genre is very Dracula driven (as it was in the West to be honest) and the concept that the kaiju is called Draculas seems to be a step towards the name becoming a genus. The Sakata family are barely in this episode and their brief appearance centres around Jiro hanging garlic to protect them from vampires. Interestingly one of the MAT team suggests that they thought there were no vampires in Japan anymore – indicating the idea that there had been vampires in the past. Vampires are, of course, often representative of “the other” – Dracula especially so. That year the Toho film the Bloodthirsty Eyes had the origin of the vampire as a foreigner who came to Japan – you can’t get much more foreign than an alien, though, of course, that was half the premise of the series as a whole, with the threat to Earth coming from space.

MAT team members
If you do not like Kaiju films/programmes you might struggle with this. It is also not the easiest series to track down – I have a Malaysian DVD set and the subtitles for the English are quite literal. However, I think it is great fun and worth it for the design of Draculas itself. 7 out of 10.

The episode's imdb page is here.

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