Wednesday, February 07, 2007



Off-topic vacation blogging continues. Other entries in this series: Giant Robot

So you are Shin Hiyata, pilot and deputy captain of Science Patrol, Earth's last desperate line of defense against a never-ending horde of giant monsters emerging from the oceans, mountains and from the rubble of man-made disasters. You are tracking a blue sphere of unknown origin when a second sphere, a red one, appears from nowhere, collinding with your ship, obliterating it and killing you instantly.

Lucky for you, the creature in that red sphere is Ultraman, a giant super-powered being from a far-off nebula tracking the blue sphere into Earth's quadrant. Ultraman feels so guilty for killing you while you were in defense of your own planet that he grants you his lifeforce, reviving you. He also gives you the Beta Capsule with which you may summon Ultraman, tramsforming yourself into the giant hero in times of Earth's greatest need.

This was the premise of the original 1966 Japanese series Ultraman. Like its cousin Giant Robot, Ultrman came to the US in the great pre-Star Wars sci-fi reawakening of the 70s. I would have been watching Ultraman on TV sometime between 1975 and 1977. Although not quite as influential in my formation as Giant Robot, Ultraman was a show I ran home from school to watch.

Ultraman was a 30-minute show that lasted two seasons. Episodes would always start with some monster appearing and threatening civilization, whereupon Science Patrol would hit the scene. Inevitably, they would be unable to stop the monster, or someone was in too great danger, or the city was threatened and Hiyata would whip out the Beta Capsule, which looked a little like a toothbrush holder and click the button and Ultraman would appear. He would wrestle and tussle with the monster, there would be stuff destroyed.

Ultraman's one weakness was that he could only survive three minutes in Earth's atmosphere. At two minutes, the timer light on his chest would begin to blink, getting faster and faster until Ultraman's energy would begin to dissipate. When the colortimer on his chest began to blink is usually when Ultraman would whip out one of his special powers, such as the specium ray, ultra-slash or shield wall. Once the monster was on the ropes Ultraman would perform his finishing move, make sure the humans were safe, and then fly off into space. Hiyata would then come running back onto the scene with some Clark Kent story about hitting his head or getting trapped in wreckage to explain his absence during the action.

I have just acquired season one (nominally for my kids) on DVD and I will be getting season two as soon as we get through season one.

Ultraman continues to live on in American and Japanese pop culture spawning no less than 18 other shows and 35 total Ultramen in 40 years. It was a very important series to me growing up and when I was planning my off-topic vacation posts last month I had planned to include one on Ultraman.

So imagine my surprise that when watching the Super Bowl on Sunday I see what amounts to a 30-second episode of Ultraman in the guise of a Garmin GPS commercial. A man in a car opens a map, it takes on a life of its own, bursts out of the car and becomes a giant map monster, destroying the countryside. Another motorist steps out of his car, holds a GPS device to his belt and is transformed into a giant silver hero that wrestles kata-style with the map monster before finishing him off with a ray from his belt device. It is so clearly inspired by Ultraman that there must be more of us out there than I thought if Garmin is paying that much for the privilege to mine my demographic during the Super Bowl.

The Garmin commercial is here on YouTube, and the Garmin press release for the spot is here. As with Giant Robot, the first episode of Ultraman is YouTube, and you can go see the source of the homage yourself. Part one is here, note Hiyata's transformation at 9 minutes 30 seconds and part two is here, note Ultraman's specium ray power at 2 minutes 40 seconds.

Wikipedia entry on Ultraman.

Image from Garmin Super Bowl 41 ad via New York Times here. The piece calls the Garmin an homage to 'monster movies,' and makes no reference to Ultraman. A good article commenting on the prevalance of violence in this year's Super Bowl ads.