Monday, June 05, 2006
In August of 1968 we got our very first color television set just in time for that month’s debut of Cincinnati’s first commercial UHF station, WXIX-TV Channel 19. XIX quickly became a kids’ paradise in the late afternoon starting with Larry Smith’s puppets and soon adding CAPTAIN FATHOM, JOHNNY CYPHER, THE MARVEL SUPERHEROES, PRINCE PLANET and my favorite, ULTRAMAN.
ULTRAMAN was an early Japanese import. In the Americanized version it told the story of Hayata, a member of the THUNDERBIRDS-like Science Patrol who was involved in an accident with a giant spacecraft. The ship’s occupant saves Hayata’s life by merging with him. He then gives the Earthman a "Beta Capsule" which, when held to the sky enabled Hayata to actually become the giant hero in a time of need. And need there was! As anyone who ever saw a GODZILLA film knows, giant monsters somehow gravitate toward Japan on a regular basis and there were many! Hayata and the other members of the Science Patrol (who, in the classic tradition were not privy to his secret identity) would try to take them on but inevitably Ultraman would be called on to save the day. In an exciting if repetitious finale to just about every episode, our metallic looking silent space hero (silent except for a few non verbal exclamations such as "Su-WATT!") would use martial arts against the rubber-suited creatures. When that failed, he would shoot rays from his hands. Ultimately, the light bulb indicating that his energy levels were failing rapidly would start to blink and it looked like sudden death. Then, of course, he’d regain his strength and zap the baddie into oblivion! On one occasion, the giant monster actually WAS Godzilla, albeit with weird flower petal thingies around his neck that Ultraman plucks during the battle!
With international popularity came lots of merchandising, rip-offs such as ZONE FIGHTER and eventually sequel series, most of which attempted to outdo the original to varying embarrassing degrees. The most recent, to my knowledge, was an Australian co-production within the last ten years. My son the Pokemon trainer, to whom all things Japanese are good, used to get up very, very early to watch it with me on Saturday mornings during its brief US run but it just wasn’t the same as when I was nine years old. The original Ultraman was just too cool!