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