Monday, June 6, 2022

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Ultraman Taro


Hey, guys. It's been a while. It seems that having a frequently malfunctioning computer can get in the way of posting.

Anyway, today I want to talk to you guys about tokusatsu. We've talked about this before, but to recap, tokusatsu roughly translates to “special filming” or “special effects”. It denotes a specific kind of filmmaking native to Japan that makes use of rubber monster suits, highly detailed scale models and numerous other handmade tricks to depict larger than life happenings. Now, on TV, one of the granddaddies of tokusatsu is the Ultra Series. While the Ultra Series started with a show called Ultra Q, which was kind of like the Twilight Zone of Japan, most of them have been family and child-oriented superhero/sci-fi shows featuring a variation of the alien hero Ultraman. The original Ultraman was an alien policeman from the M78 Nebula who was in an accident with SSSP (Science Special Search Party) officer Shin Hayata and merged with him. Shin and Ultraman would then face off any number of alien invaders or daikaiju (giant monsters). Usually at giant size. And that's usually the basic set-up, but with different aliens, officers and organizations. I mean, there are otherf detail changes, but they're more case-by-case. And the thing is, it worked so well that the series has lasted for fifty years in different forms, even building up a universe of lore similar to shows like Star Trek and Doctor Who.


What we're going to specifically talking about though, is the sixth Ultra series, Ultraman Taro. Why? Because according to a number of sources, Taro was the “fairy tale Ultraman series”.

Ultraman Taro

You see, in 1973, Tsuburaya Productions who makes the Ultra Series, were looking to make a new show that was different from their previous show Ultraman Ace. Ultraman Ace had dealt with some big, difficult concepts. Some of those concepts not even panning out all that well. And the series didn't go over as well as they had wanted with kids. So, the idea with Ultraman Taro (the name being taken from the suffix of the names of many Japanese folk tale heroes like Momotaro and Urashima-Taro) was to be brighter, lighter, more fantastical and to focus on simpler concepts and larger-than-life figures. Thus making it the “fairy tale” of the Ultra series.

I can hear people clenching up as I type this. “How dare they act like fairy tales are 'lighter' material.” Well, for one thing, it was 1973 and fairy tales were still considered light material for children. And for another, they're not exactly wrong. Fairy tales are full of simple, archetypal conflicts and over-the-top, outlandish happenings. The one thing that makes most people say fairy tales are for adults is the level of violence. And Japan doesn't have the same standards as to what kind level of violence can be shown to kids (some of the fights in Ultraman Ace show that).

So, let's talk about some of the main elements of the show and see if they're fairy tale-ish or not.

The Hero

Our hero is Ultraman Taro, the son of two high-ranking commanders in major organizations in the Land of Light (the Ultras' homeworld), the Inter Galactic Defense Force and the Silver Cross Aid. He's the sixth member of the Ultra Brothers, a group that is more a group of brothers-in-arms than actual brothers. Our hero is also the human he was merged with: Kotaro Higashi. An amateur boxer with, like many Ultraman protagonists, a stout heart and fiery sense of justice who joins a global defense team to keep the Earth and its people safe.

So, How fairy tale-ish is our combined male lead. Well, we could argue that Taro himself is a sort of prince. He's a hero who has serious legacy clout, being the son of two important people. He's also the youngest prince in a way, with five who've gone before him. This kind of loses some impact though, when you consider that his parents are not actually royalty and that there is an Ultraman King (he shows up in a later series, though). And Taro as youngest brother doesn't necessarily hold up because usually the youngest prince wins out by being pure of heart while his older brothers are corrupt and selfish. That's not something we can say about the Ultra Brothers and really shouldn't want to. As for Kotaro, he does have some Jack-like qualities (note, there is another character named Ultraman Jack who I am not referring to here. By “Jack”, I mean the English folk tale hero archetype). He does display some earnest foolishness, like in the first episode when he jumps off a ship and swims to the shore of Japan because he's decided that he wants to train to be a boxer in Japan. He also tries to take on a giant monster single handed. He's also shown to have a deep regard for his mother or women who remind him of her, which is reminiscent of the Jack from “Jack in the Beanstalk”. Though, this is a point we'll have to get back to later. The thing is that Kotaro doesn't have the trickster-ish quality that Jack commonly has. That's not necessarily a minus, though. It might just make him more fit for the Japanese tradition. You see, a lot of fairy tale heroes in Japan are kind of like Jack in that they're stout-hearted young boys without much money or standing who go off to seek their fortune. This applies to characters like Momotaro, Issun-Boshi, Kintaro and a lot of others. But they're not usually tricksters. That role usually goes to yokai like kitsune and tanuki. So, Kotaro Higashi, who's a stout-hearted fighter who loves his mother, is probably as close to an everyman fairy tale hero as the Ultra Series could get in 1973.

Supporting Cast

The primary supporting cast members were the members of the latest Earth defense team, ZAT (short for Zariba of All Territories. A zariba is a protective enclosure of thorn bushes or stakes used in northeastern Africa. Honestly, it feels like an extreme way to go to define something as a “protector). These include the captain Yutaro Asahina, deputy captain Shuhei Aragaki and communications officer Izumi Moriyama, as well as what seemed like about a dozen others. The truth is, characters were kind of in and out of the group a lot. And none of them really embodied any fairy tale archetypes or tropes from Europe or Japan.

Zariba of All Territories

But one other supporting character is kind of a loaded thing: The Mother of Ultra. Yeah, remember when I said that Taro is the son of an important member of the Silver Cross Aid and that Kotaro was very respectful to women who reminded him of his mother? This is who all that leads back to. When we first meet her she's in human form as someone who is identified just as The Woman in Green. She tends to some of Kotaro's wounds and gives him the badge that would be his transformation device. Then later she appears in her Ultra form when she merges Kotaro with her son Taro and she looks, like this . . .

Mother of Ultra in silhouette

Yeah, on a side note, I don't get what the deal with this is either. I know that her costume wasn't done yet so they had to improvise. But I still don't know why they gave her costume a chest piece that big. Were they trying to use breasts as a metaphor for maternal love or something. Wouldn't be the first time I saw Japanese media going down that avenue. Anyway, later they have her look like this . . .

Mother of Ultra

Which is better.

Anyway, the first thought would be to compare her to Jack's mother from “Jack and the Beanstalk”. But the thing is that Jack's mother is usually depicted as impoverished, depressed and at her wits' end. The Mother of Ultra is too powerful to be any of those things. Given her power and her status as a Giant of Light from Nebula M78, she's more like a combination of the Fairy Godmother, Gaea and . . . the Virgin Mary (I should note that Eiji Tsubaraya who created the Ultra Series is one of those rarest of things, a Japanese Catholic. So, parallels to Christian ideas appear a fair bit). If the Mother of Ultra, later known as Ultrawoman Marie, is anyone from “Jack and the Beanstalk” it's the fairy who tells him about his father in the Andrew Lang version. So, I lean more toward her as being like the Virgin Mary acting in the role of a Fairy Godmother, which is probably more common in folklore than many people think.

The Monsters/Aliens

Looking at the various aliens and monsters, very few of them seem to have any roots in fairy tales or folklore. At least, not to my knowledge. There are some exceptions, though.

There was one monster that seemed to take inspiration from the giant centipede in the Japanese story “My Lord Bag of Rice.”


There's another that corresponds with the celebration of Setsubun, where oni are cast out by throwing beans.


There's another that's based on the tradition of making mochi for New Years'.


And there's even one that looks like Pinocchio!


Though, his story doesn't seem to have much of anything to do with Pinocchio.

To be honest, it's probably not easy to base kaiju on fairy tales. On mythology? Sure. I've seen it happen in other shows. But other than some giants (redundant here), ogres, trolls, fairies, wolves and witches who serve as obstacles or metaphors, the primary villains in fairy tales are often spiteful step mothers, cruel older brothers and greedy kings. And the giants, trolls and ogres would likely just seem like the same sort of brutish beast once translated into kaiju form. There are generally less dragons and monsters in fairy tales than people think.

The Stories

I'm going to be honest, it's been a while since I watched the series. So, some of the details are coming in a little fuzzy. I do remember that the tone was lighter than a lot of other Ultra series. Again, I know that's going to rankle some folks. But remember, this was before the “fairy tales aren't for kids” movement. The thing is, some fairy tale tropes and fairy tale logic came with it. For example, I remember one episode where someone got swallowed by a monster and managed to get out. That's a very Grimms' “Little Red Cap” thing here, but it's also very “Issun Boshi” over in Japan. I also remember some stories that drew on folklore related to holidays and festivals in Japan. And I remember there was a whole string of episodes that were inspired by Japanese nursery songs (the first ep seems to be based on this one). I don't know if that translates to “Like a fairy tale” though. The one most explicit reference was probably in a Christmas episode in which they riff on Andersen's “The Little Match Girl” by having characters look into the flames of matches. But they kind of miss the mark because they're not seeing Heaven so much as seeing what they wish for.

The Vehicles

Because every Ultraman show with a defense team has weapons and vehicles, and . . .

Sky Whale


Rabbit Panda

Yeah, I'm going to be honest, these things remind me more of the circus than fairy tales (full disclosure: I included this category so you could all see how silly these look).

So, how fairy tale is it? Well, a little bit. Their embracing of the outlandish definitely does fit the bill. Because, when you get right down to it, fairy tales are outlandish. And there are a couple of other good bits. I just wish they had invoked some more major archetypes or made some more direct references.

I know they can do it, too. Why?

Well, the next year Tsubaraya released another Ultra show that was often a much more serious show: Ultraman Leo. But in the middle of all this seriousness, was a string of episodes called the “Japanese Folk Stories Series” which drew on the following tales: “Issun Boshi”, “Momotaro”, “Urashima-Taro”, “The Fox Kid”, “The Crane's Return of a Favor”, “Withered Trees Made to Blossom” and “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”.

Ultraman Leo as Issun Boshi

Why do this for Leo and not Taro? I don't know. Maybe a more serious show like Leo was a better fit, considering many Japanese tales have bittersweet endings. While European stories often end with someone (but not everyone) living happily ever after, Japanese stories often end with a reminder that the good and beautiful things in life don't last.

Anyway, whether it's a fairy tale or not, I do recommend folks check out the Ultra series. Though, I very much know it won't be everyone's cup of tea. Luckily, a lot of them stream for free with ads on Tubi.

Until next time.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Bambi


Hooray! It's Public Domain Day! Or at least close enough to it! Lately, every New Year's Day has been a big deal for not just college football fans but also English majors, art lovers, movie buffs and people who just like intellectual property law to be used fairly. Because of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (which was largely concocted to protect the rights of Disney's cartoon “Steamboat Willie”), nothing had entered the public domain in the United States in years. But since January 1, 2021, things had started to once again become free to use and inspire further creativity without the need to pay pricey licensing fees.

So, today we're going to welcome a classic to the public domain: Bambi: A Life in the Woods by Felix Salten!

The cover of my current version of the book.

Uh . . . what's that? You thought I was going to say Winnie-the-Pooh? Well, Milne's first Pooh book is entering the public domain and the media and people online are making a bigger deal out of it. But the thing is, I already did a Pooh spotlight.

Anyway . . .

Uh, yes . . . you thought Bambi already came into the public domain last year (or was it the year before? ). Well, the thing is that due to English language version of the book being copyrighted later in the United States than the German version was in Europe, it actually has a later public domain debut over here in the U.S.

Guys, I really can't keep stopping to answer questions.

Anyway, first a little about the author. Felix Salten was born in Pest, Austria-Hungary on September 6, 1869 as Siegmund Salzmann. He was the grandson of an Orthodox rabbi. About a month after he was born, his family relocated to Vienna, Austria as many Jewish families did at the time after the Imperial government granted full citizenship rights to Jews in 1867. Salten went to work at 16 after his father went bankrupt, but also started submitting poems and book reviews to journals and became part of the Young Vienna movement. He then went on to be a full-time art and theater critic and started Vienna's first, short-lived literary cabaret. At the height of his productivity he averaged about one book a year and wrote for pretty much all the major newspapers in Vienna, as well as writing film scripts and librettos. His books were briefly banned in Austria, but for the most simple and obvious reasons (he was Jewish and Austria had been taken over by Nazis). Salten ended up moving to Zurich, Switzerland and spent his final years there, dying in 1945.

The most popular of his works, though, is Bambi (or Bambi: A Life in the Woods if you're in a mood for lengthy titles). It was a big hit when it came out. The English translation that came out in 1928 by Siegel and Shuster ended up being a Book-of-the-Month club success. It was also novel because it was one of the first “environmental novels”, which looked at nature and was critical of humanity's impact on it. The irony is actually that most of the criticism and the antagonistic role in general is laid on a human hunter and Salten himself was an avid hunter.

First edition cover of Bambi

The story follows the life of Bambi, a young roe deer, from his birth to when he comes of age. The story deals with the changing of the seasons and the hardships and joys of his life, like his meeting with his childhood friends Faline and Gobo, his interactions with other forest animals like the hare and the owl, his brief but meaningful interactions with his father the great “Prince” who watches over everything, the struggles to find food in the winter, his reunion with Faline as a young adult and his rivalry with other male deer named Karus and Ronno. This book is actually a bit hard to describe because it's meant to be a life story. The plot is basically just “Bambi grows up”. But there is one driving antagonist that does hang over the entire thing: HIM! Or, as you probably know him from the Disney adaptation: MAN. The animals of the forest do not seem to have a word for Humanity. Humanity is always referred to as “He” or “Him” (note, I will be completely capitalizing these words going forward when referencing humanity's actions in the book for clarity's sake. Also, for dramatic effect). This is actually a very effective way of advertising what a strange and ominous force humanity is in the forest. Humankind is spoken of as if it's some mysterious, confounding and ultimate dangerous force. Some strange mix of god, demon, otherworldly invader and all-around boogeyman. And the things he does are strange and insidious. We all know that HE killed Bambi's mother. In the course of the book he also nearly gets Bambi killed by using a deer call that Bambi thinks sounds like Faline. Probably the biggest, most impactful thing (other than the death of Bambi's mother) is what HE did to Gobo. Gobo was Faline's twin brother. He was also kind of weak and frail for the majority of his fawnhood and had trouble keeping up with the other deer. Now, during the hunt that killed Bambi's mother, Gobo is injured and then disappears for probably months and maybe even years. But then suddenly Gobo shows back up again but he acts strange for a deer of his age. He's cocky and childish and seems to have no sense of caution. He regularly brags about how he is special to HIM and how close they are. Here's what happened: the humans took Gobo home and made him a pet. As a result he got too close to humans and too comfortable with them. He also missed out on learning a lot of what a young deer needs to know. And I'm going to tell you that the first time I read this book I thought there was something creepy about Gobo. The way he talked about his closeness to HIM sounded to my ears like someone who had been inducted into a cult. Anyway, you can probably guess what happened to Gobo the next time a hunt was on. He went to greet HIM, convinced of his own specialness and “BANG”!

Sobering stuff, right? Well, the book is pretty sober and serious. It was originally intended for an adult audience and it's mostly honest about what life is like for deer in the forest. Like the threat of mankind, the hardships of winter, the realities of predation and the food chain and the fierceness of rivalries over mating. Though, right there is where the book pulls its punches a little. When Bambi is young there are some mentions of there being times when his mother can't be around. It's never explicitly stated, but it's highly suggested that that's because it's the rutting season and she has to run from all the aroused males. But other than that, it's pretty honest. The ultimate message the book tries to send is about the basic similarities between all the creatures here on Earth. HE may act like he's superior to other animals but in the end, human beings live, eat, mate and die just like every other creature. The only being that may be superior is one above us all.

Roe deer, like Bambi

While Bambi may not be that popular now in book form as it was, it's legacy does still go a bit deeper and further. Felix Salten did write other animal stories. Some of them touched on characters related to Bambi. Most did not. He also wrote a sequel Bambi's Children which was published in 1939. It follows the life and coming-of-age of Bambi's twin children Gurri and Geno. A new wrinkle is added to this because Salten adds a new kind of HIM to Bambi's world, a game warden who is trying to preserve and protect the animals of the forest. Though his actions still confound Bambi and his family.

And then there's all the Disney stuff.

Look, I'm not going to sit here and pick on the Disney Bambi movies. I'd seem like a colossal hypocrite. I own the original on DVD and it's not bad. It's not exactly like the book, but it's not bad. Most of the thematic underpinnings are still there, even if they added in movie-only stuff like the characters of Thumper and Flower. I do kind of think they could have kept all the European wildlife the same rather than swapping them with North American ones, including changing Bambi and his family from roe deer to white-tailed deer. Even the straight-to-video sequel Bambi II isn't particularly bad all things considered. Interestingly enough, the first movie wasn't really a hit when it came out. It was criticized for being too serious and too dark. Critics and moviegoers weren't really comfortable with how far Disney seemed to be going from the familiarity of Snow White and Mickey Mouse. It's kind of funny because compared to the book, the movie can be kind of lightweight. I mean, Walt Disney practically went out of his way to avoid acknowledging the fact that animals eat other animals in that movie. Oh, well. For the record, Disney also made two other Salten books into movies. He adapted Salten's book Perri about a squirrel into one of his True Life Adventure nature documentaries also named Perri (which I take to mean, Disney made a nature documentary about a squirrel and then gave it the same name as the book and then said “See, it's an adaptation). And he also very loosely adapted (think “inspired by” rather than “based on) Salten's dramatic novel The Hound of Florence into, of all things, the comedy The Shaggy Dog. Disney also bought the rights to Bambi's Children but never intended on making it into a movie. He just didn't want anyone else to.

Bambi movie poster (1942)

It's still continuing on, though. In January of 2020 (you know, around the time Bambi went public domain everywhere but the U.S.) Disney revealed that it would be using its process to use high quality CGI to mimic animal life, last seen in movies like their remakes of The Lion King and The Jungle Book, to make a photorealistic Bambi remake. No release date was given. Neither was a start date. Plus, we had a pandemic in the middle there which is still ongoing. So, who knows where this project stands. I'm not sure about this movie, honestly. One frequent complaint about the Lion King remake is how inexpressive the characters are. And if lions aren't very able to convey human-like expressions, deer certainly aren't. Plus, as good as the original movie is, it has a reputation of traumatizing young viewers. Seeing Bambi's mother die in realistic CGI might be a little much. Never mind the fact that Saturday Night Live already made a joke out of the very concept.  But here's hoping. After all, no one wants to make a bad movie.

But even if Disney's new take doesn't do well, it's not a problem. Because the book is in the public domain and anyone can adapt it. Not to mention share it, reimagine it and remix it. So, welcome to the public domain, Bambi! May you have many creative years ahead of you!