Why You Should Watch ULTRA Q, the Japanese X-FILES

We’re all looking for stuff to watch during this open-ended quarantine. Stuff to take our minds off of the uncertainty and transport us to a fantastical world. At least that’s what I’m doing. I’ve been watching stuff like marbles racing for weeks. But as a big fan of both sci-fi and whimsy, I’ve found a ton of comfort in Japanese tokusatsu, or special effects, shows. The one that has truly blown me away is Ultra Q. Though The Twilight Zone was the contemporary American show it sought to emulate, it feels to me more like The X-Files but with giant monsters. It rules.

In the mid ’60s, following the continued success of Toho’s giant monster movies, the special effects supervisor Eiju Tsuburaya launched his own production company. Tsuburaya pioneered the mix of model, miniatures, puppets, and performers in monster suits. This became the standard for Japanese effects for the next 50 years and beyond. So when Tsuburaya Productions sought to make their first television series, the result was the most expensive, most cinematic show ever on Japanese TV to that point.

Ultra Q's Balloonga, a terrifying space...potato?

United Artists Television

Airing weekly on the Tokyo Broadcast System between January and July 1966, Ultra Q was about mystery, science, and monsters. Our main characters are Yuriko Edogawa (Hiroko Sakurai), an intrepid young reporter; Jun Manjome (Kenji Sahara), a pilot for Hoshikawa Air Service and an amateur sci-fi writer; and Ippe Togawa (Yasuhiko Saijou), Jun’s eager young apprentice. Yuriko initially hires Jun and Ippe to fly her around to sites of the unexplained; eventually the trio partner to investigate strange occurrences all across Japan. Occasionally they seek aid from Professor Ichinotani (Ureo Egawa), a renowned scientist who faces the unexplained through the lens of hard science.

That’s already a pretty great set-up for a show; like The X-Files, the heroes can get embroiled in any sort of strange plot since they’re supposed to investigate anyway. But because TBS wanted Tsuburaya’s trademark giant monster effects, the vast majority of the show’s 28 episodes deal with some kind of behemoth kaiju. The show’s opening episode, “Defeat Gomess!” is probably the closest the show gets to a Godzilla-esque kaiju movie. A mining team’s excavation unearths a giant, bipedal, tusked creature named Gomess. They also unleash the massive bird Litra that protects Earth from Gomess.

Peguila, the ice monster, on Ultra Q.

United Artists Television

And there are certainly other giant monsters, a couple of whom recur. Episode five, “Peguila is Here!” introduces the Antarctic menace, Peguila, which fires ice beams; it returns in episode 14, “Tokyo Ice Age,” in which a nuclear reactor explodes near Antarctica which sends Peguila heading north. Another recurring monster is Garadama. This monster sprang forth from a meteorite and looks like a mix of a hedgehog and a toad. Garadama appeared in episodes 13 and 16.

Namegon, a giant snail.

United Artists Television

Other monsters like a giant octopus, a gargantuan snail, and a big ol’ mole also pop up in various episodes. And if this were just a show where big monsters destroy stuff, as impressive as the effects are for the time, Ultra Q would have been pretty boring. But very quickly, the writers of the series began to play with the format, and even the well-trod effects Tsuburaya invented.

In the episode “Metamorphosis,” an entomologist and his fiancee travel to an island to look at rare Amazonian butterflies only for the butterflies to poison the man and transform him into a giant. We’ve seen all manner of men in rubber suits in this show, but here we see just a guy marauding through the miniature sets. It deconstructs the whole idea of what a “kaiju” actually is. Ultimately, it’s just a guy, whether he’s in a monster suit or not.

Yuriko gets small in the Ultra Q episode The 1/8 Project.

United Artists Television

In another episode, “The 1/8 Project,” Yuriko feels overwhelmed by humanity and the rush of life in Tokyo. She decides to look into a project to reduce population growth, only to discover it’s an experiment to literally shrink humans to 1/8 their size. The project forcibly shrinks her and takes her to a warehouse in which they’ve built a scale model of a city for all the humans to live in. This leads to Jun and Ippe walking through the tiny city looking for their friend. They, in effect, become the kaiju, as the shrunken citizens run in fear from the well meaning but clumsy heroes.

Look out, Jun! It's a giant spider!

United Artists Television

The episodes that really knocked me out were the ones that played with the format even more. For example, in “Baron Spider,” Jun, Yuriko, Ippe, and some of their friends get lost on a back road and seek refuge at a seemingly abandoned mansion near a swamp. Jun remembers legends of a mad scientist obsessed with spiders who lived out in such a place. As they hang out in the cobwebbed old house, they soon realize man-sized spiders are stalking them. Amid all this Godzilla-style action, we get an episode that’s straight-up Gothic horror.

Another horror-themed episode is “The Devil Child,” which honestly feels like it could be a Twilight Zone or X-Files episode. A traveling magic act finds a man hypnotizing his young daughter while she sits in a box with a window for the audience to view. To the surprise of the crowd, the girl appears on top of the box and answers questions from the audience. It’s a great trick, but Jun soon suspects something sinister when a series of deadly road accidents coincide with people believing they’ve seen a little ghost girl.

Garadama, the meteorite monster, on Ultra Q.

United Artists Television

There are purely comedic episodes as well, most of which hardly feature our main characters, if at all. All of these episodes are aimed at children, as they were a major audience for Ultra Q. And while the comedic episodes do tend to seem inconsequential and frothy, they nevertheless employ some real creativity and a great use of Tsuburaya’s effects.

The heroes of Ultra Q.

United Artists Television

But while the monsters and effects are the draw, Ultra Q gives us a trio of compelling leads. Also like the later X-Files, there’s something of an unspoken infatuation between Jun and Yuriko, and Ippei exists to third-wheel it on occasion. It’s a really fun dynamic; Jun and Ippei have a master/student relationship (Ippei even calls Jun “Senpai”); Yuriko and Ippei are best buddies who go hang out together. Closer in age, the two relate a bit more like school chums and it’s fun to watch. And Jun, as played by the handsome Kenji Sahara, is both the heroic lead and a great foil for when the other two characters step up.

Easily my favorite episode is episode 19, “Challenge from the Year 2020,” which is strangely fitting. People begin to disappear when they come in contact with a strange, gelatinous substance. Weirder still is that all of these occurrences appear word-for-word in a novel Ippei loves. The author, a scientist who disappeared years ago, insisted his account was a true telling of first contact with an alien race. Very soon, as even Jun disappears, Yuriko and Ippei realize the last of a dying alien race, the Kemur, have infiltrated Earth. The episode ends with the strange Kemur creature coming to Yuriko looking like Jun, attempting to entice her to him to abduct her for organ harvest.

Is it Jun or the evil Kemur alien?

United Artists Television

This episode is one of Ultra Q‘s most visually striking and nightmarish. Yuriko meets the Kemur at a fairground at night. The rides and their glowing lights illuminate the otherwise pitch-black scene. Eventually the Kemur itself displays lights emanating from its strange head. It grows ten times its size and begins destroying the fair. It’s like some kind of David Lynch- or Carnival of Souls-type craziness. I love it.

Ultra Q was a massive ratings smash and immediately led to TBS asking Tsuburaya for another series, in color this time. Premiering only two weeks after Ultra Q‘s finale would be the series that made Tsuburaya Productions a powerhouse. That of course is Ultraman, the first in a long line of giant-hero shows. But without Ultra Q and its blend of science, spookiness, and suitmation, it never would have happened.

Ultra Q, along with several other Ultra series, have recently gotten an HD Blu-ray release from Mill Creek. It’s a gorgeous transfer, making the most of the 35mm film stock. You can also get the whole series on Amazon Prime Video, or if you do a cursory search on one of your Tube sites, you can find the whole series colorized. While it looks fine in color, I think the black & white really ups the eeriness factor. Which in truth is what Ultra Q really brought to the party.

Featured Image: United Artists Television

Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!
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