By RayCarter 0 Comments
The formula for the Ultraman series has been pretty consistent for close to half a century. You have a bunch of giant daikaiju monsters running around the city, and a team of quazi-science-military personnel constructed to fight said daikaiju. Thanks to plot convenience one of the members of said team can transform into a giant alien warrior who is a part of the Ultraman race. The Ultraman of the series would fight off different monsters of the week for as long as the show is on, and it’s on to the next Ultraman series.
Now here comes the curveball: what if I told you that the titular Ultraman character gets marginalized? That this awesome force of might gets 5 minutes of screen time (tops!) and fights in one-sided battles that are worth skipping? It’s similar to having a Terminator movie without the Terminator [Salvation doesn’t count in my book; it’s more like a cameo in that instance]. How weird would such a twist be for longtime fans of the Ultraman series?
Well, Ultra series fans need not use their imagination, because one of their own has flipped the sacred, half-century-old franchise formula on its head. Meet Ultra Seven X, a 2007 re-imagining of one of the series’ most popular iterations in the late 1960s, Ultra Seven. An amnesiac secret agent, whose job is to track down and kill aliens, is given the power to transform into the titular Ultra Seven to fight monsters; in the span of an episode (20-something minutes) this agent, Jin, takes up at least 20 minutes solving mysteries and sleuthing around. Ultra Seven shows up and does his thing in under 5. Shocking as this arrangement sounds, Ultra Seven X is still a rock solid show that does more right than wrong.
The one big takeaway I get from watching this 12-episode series is how it handles its themes and tones. The Ultra series that I’ve watched usually has a moral or two to give to its audience at the end of each episode. Unfortunately those efforts are usually geared towards an incredibly young audience, so at times the lessons felt a bit pretentious and preachy. But Ultra Seven X separates itself from its brethren because its themes are much more subtle. It allows the audience to deduce for themselves what each episode wants to convey.
Throughout the show, I got the sense that the city Jin lives in is a future dystopia in more ways than one. Not only are there aliens running around, the work and expectations heaped upon people can get overwhelming. Individuality is a sin. There is no safety net for anyone down on financial luck, leaving people susceptible to alien attack. The Big-Brother government is apathetic to these problems, not to mention patronizing when it thinks it knows how to make people happy or how people should live their lives. With no end to the suffering in sight, people want to get out, even if it means traveling away with aliens!
Most other Ultra shows would have a happy ending and message to each episode. “Sure, this problem exists,” says a character or two, “but with hope, determination and whatnot we can solve this problem”. Save for one episode, Ultra Seven X skips these shenanigans, understanding that the problems it addresses have no easy solution. Almost every Ultra Seven victory is bittersweet. In one episode, the monster of the week is destroyed, but that means the homeless people it took fall back to square one, living in poverty. Mind you, Ultra Seven X should not be confused with Children of Men or 1984, but compared to other Ultra series it has a maturity in its handling of themes and social commentary that I definitely appreciated.
One other way the show subtly provides its lessons/morals is through its presentation, as Ultra Seven X is a good show graphically. The red alien fighter himself looks updated and sleek, a decision that allowed the hero fit into more modern times and tastes. The lighting is also handled expertly, going hand in hand with the difficulty of living in the city. It’s eerily dark almost all the time in the streets and in the bars. Even bright days have flushed out colors, as if there really is no “color” in the setting in more ways than one. As most dystopias go, the depiction Ultra Seven X’s is well above average.
The vast majority of Ultra Seven X has the format of a Scooby Doo show. Jin and friends are given an investigation to head from their enigmatic superior, the gang snoops around, finds the perpetrator then resolves the conflict one way or another. Perhaps it's too simple to boil down the many stories in this show as such, but as someone who's new to the detective genre I found the mysteries to actually be well constructed. I found it hard to predict what would happen next until the part when the show spills the beans for me with effective results.
One episode involves a "Red Coat Killer" who is after drug syndicate members. A witness of this killer said that this alien was in fact his girlfriend, and because she got shot by the syndicate she became the rampaging killer donning the red outfit. But Jin and friends realize that this testimony was only a fabrication; the witness was in fact the rampaging alien, and when he got shot he inadvertently killed his human girlfriend. The camera slowly phases away to show actual reality: The alien man was wearing a red coat and high heels to complete his charade. It was an intense episode to say the least, and it is an indicator of how well written individual episodes are in this Ultra Seven X.
Because the audience will be spending a vast majority of the show with Jin and his crew solving alien mysteries, it is a good thing that the characters are likeable if at times flat. Jin is the weak link as a generic do-gooder, although his amnesia allows for an interesting backstory. Agent K, Jin’s partner, is slightly more complex, with a smiling, jokey exterior that masks cold-blooded determination and bad-assitude. Agent S as an action girl, and kicks all sorts of butt. She butts heads with K on several occasions, providing the belligerent sexual tension and genuinely funny moments throughout the show. The cast is not awesome overall, but at least its quality does not drag down the show.
What does hamper the show is that Ultra Seven feels so out of place plot-wise because he does so little. The fights he gets into are so short, 5 minutes tops. The brevity of fights isn’t the worst thing in the world; what kills the action is that it is almost always incredibly one-sided to Ultra Seven’s favor. There’s even one episode where all Ultra Seven does is wave goodbye to an alien ship! Compare the action sequences for the humans. It is fast paced with a balance of martial arts and gunslinging. The combatants were even, so there is the tension that something can go wrong. I sometimes wonder aloud why this Ultra Seven has to be in the show in the first place.
The people behind the show is also dropped the ball when it came to the music. Granted, there were some positive spots. There is a rocking guitar for some fight scenes, and the show usually makes a good choice of when to put music in the scene and when to keep things quiet. But there are some glaring omissions. The lack of an opening disturbs me the most, because a great opening theme can leave an indelible impression to the audience and be what connects people back to the show for years to come. The ending theme is mixed for me. “Another Day Comes” by Pay Money to My Pain is a good song, but like Ultra Seven himself the tune feels out of place.
Ultra series are almost intended for children, because there is the need to sell toys/ models of Ultramen and daikaiju monsters. Ultra Seven X seems to fit more to the teenage crowd or above, perhaps aiming for longtime fans of the Ultra series that are now in adulthood. The decision to cater to a new age group is not without its hiccups, because the show seems to forget what made the Ultra series special: Giant brawls between Ultraman ___ and monsters. But its attempt to spin a darker, more complex tale is spot on both narratively and graphically, and the show should be given credit for such an effort.
For about 4 and a half hours of your time to see the whole show (12 episodes, ~23 minutes each) on YouTube, you can certainly do much worse than Ultra Seven X.