Once upon a time, in 1966 to be exact, there was a weekly TV show in Japan that gave viewers a different giant monster in every episode. It was called “Ultra Q” and its original aim was to be an anthology show telling different, unrelated stories about unnatural occurrences in a science fiction vein, in the style of “Twilight Zone” and “Outer Limits,” two American sci-fi shows that had become quite popular in Japan around this time. The producers eventually settled on a handy formula that featured a trio of paranormal investigators (two male pilots and a female newspaper photographer) as regular characters confronting unusual monsters and other kinds of phenomena.
I managed to find a DVD containing the first four episodes of this series and, like most Japanese pre-records I’ve picked up from Japanese video stores, it was in Japanese with no subtitles. However, the emphasis on the visual aspects of the stories, rather than the scientific exposition, made them easy to follow and fun to watch, with only one episode offering an “explanation” that suffered without subtitles.
The series was the brainchild of Japanese special effects genius Eiji Tsuburaya, who’d formed his own company to produce series for television. Tsuburaya was renowned for the special effects he’d created for every Godzilla movie up to that time, as well as many other giant monster and science fiction movies produced by Toho Pictures. Most of the monsters in “Ultra Q” were created in the time-honored Tsuburaya fashion of rubber suits worn by actors who then stomp around miniature sets.
What drew me to pick up the DVD was a picture on the DVD case of a giant ape resembling King Kong from KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962). It jogged my memory of seeing mention of a series that had made use of the giant monster suits created for the Godzilla movies. I knew it was a rare find and purchased it, even though I didn’t know the name of the series and had to look it up when I got home.
The first episode on the DVD tells a story very much like that of RODAN (1957), the first non-Godzilla giant monster movie produced by Toho (although eventually Rodan would be integrated into the Godzilla series). Here, we see how mining activity disrupts the slumber of an ancient dinosaur-like creature called Gomess who emerges to wreak havoc. (The monster suit used for Gomess is indeed a “repurposed” Godzilla suit with some interesting modifications.)
Also discovered in the mine is a giant egg which soon hatches a Rodan-like giant bird which fights Gomess.
There’s a nerdy local boy who uncovers the ancient legend which describes both monsters and figures out that the egg needs to be hatched in order to stop Gomess.
It’s amazing how the miners, engineers, reporters, investigators and police all listen to the boy and take him seriously and follow his advice.
Would that have ever happened in an American science fiction show from that period?
The second episode involves a giant ape encountered in the woods near “Monkey Mountain,” who turns out to be a monkey who’d somehow ingested a formula from a local lab that had made him grow to King Kong proportions.
The monkey had been a pet of Goro, a deaf-mute custodian at the facility, who then endeavors to gather enough fruit and cans of milk to keep the giant monkey from going hungry.
When Goro is arrested for stealing, the monkey follows him to the city and looks for him, picking up a police car and looking inside it before tossing it.
Only when they figure out his attachment to Goro, do they convince Goro to feed him drugged milk so they can subdue him.
What I like about this episode is the fact that the monkey never behaves like King Kong or any other famous giant ape, but instead continues to act like a monkey throughout, first seen swinging from the lines carrying cable cars up and down the mountain and then struggling with the milk containers and spilling milk all over himself. He’s cute and endearing, but not really monstrous. (And, yes, it’s the King Kong suit from KING KONG VS. GODZILLA that is used in this episode.)
The third episode involves these little spheres that came from outer space, via an unmanned space satellite that crashed to earth, and, upon exposure to heat, grow to giant size and hatch giant slugs. There’s a lot of exposition in this episode so I never quite got the explanation for these creatures. Not a lot actually happens involving the slugs either. They don’t really do much. But they do look like giant slugs might look, at least in terms of their slime texture.
The fourth episode was originally designed as the pilot and offers the most clever threat—a giant plant that sprouts underneath Tokyo and sends vines throughout the city streets and into office buildings, including the one housing our heroes.
A flower bursts through the top of one such building, giving the effects crew the opportunity to create some beautiful and unusual imagery that would have looked truly spectacular in color.
The series was in black-and-white, but its success in Japan allowed Tsuburaya Productions to shoot its next series, and all subsequent series, in color. The next one was “Ultraman” and the rest, as they say, is history. “Ultraman” productions are still being regularly produced in Japan 46 years later.
More information about “Ultra Q” can be found in the books, The Dorama Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese TV Drama Since 1953, by Jonathan Clements and Motoko Tamamuro (Stone Bridge Press, 2003) and Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, by August Ragone (Chronicle Books, 2007), and in an episode guide on the Kaiju Fan website: The Q Files
Also, here’s a link to my IMDB review of “Ultra Q”: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058851/reviews-2
ADDENDUM [October 11, 2013]: Since doing this piece, I have acquired from Amazon.com a box set entitled, “Ultra Q: The Complete Series,” containing all 28 episodes–subtitled! When I get around to watching it, I’ll do a new entry on the series.