"Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! ... Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven!"
- from the theme song
The less well-known (in the United States) follow-up to the cult tokusatsu (Japanese superhero) show Ultraman, Ultra Seven (1967-68) received only limited exposure in America up to now, but in many respects it's a superior show, with less adherence to genre formula, more imaginative storytelling and better characterizations, a more adult approach (if still firmly a family show), and what seems to have been a slightly larger budget.
In Japan, Ultraman and its innumerable spin-offs and sequels have rarely been off the air since 1966 and westerners may be surprised to learn that its characters are far more popular and familiar to ordinary Japanese than Godzilla and the rest of Toho Studio's monster stable. There are Ultra movies and the characters appear in myriad television commercials (often for otherwise unrelated products) and in public service advertisements. Although the original Ultraman symbolizes the franchise in the same way Mickey Mouse serves is Disney's ambassador, Ultra Seven seems to be the most enduringly popular character.
Created by special effects legend Eiji Tsuburaya (1901-1970) as a co-production of his tiny studio, Tsuburaya Production, and the Japanese television network TBS (the Tokyo Broadcasting System), Ultra Seven nonetheless closely resembles the kaiju eiga ("giant monster movies") and other sci-fi spectaculars Tsuburaya was simultaneously overseeing special effects for at Toho. As with Ultraman, Ultra Seven utilizes many of that studio's familiar props, costumes, sound effects, and culls guest stars (Kenji Sahara, Akihiko Hirata, Susumu Fujita) and character players (Kazuo Suzuku, Senkichi Omura) from Toho's stock company of contract players.
Set in the near future, Ultra Seven follows the adventures of the Ultra Guard, elite members of the Terrestrial Defense Force fighting weekly battles against all manner of would-be alien conquerors. Similar to Ultraman, the group is composed of familiar stock military types: no-nonsense Commander Kaoru Kiriyama (Shoji Nakayama); bullish weapons expert Shigeru Furuhashi (Iyoshi Ishii, who played an almost identical role on Ultraman); Anne Yuri (Yuriko Hishimi), the token but assertive female member of the team; expert marksman Officer Soga (Shinsuke Achiha); and strategist Amagi (Bin Furuya). Furuya was the guy actually inside the Ultraman costume in Ultraman, though another actor, Susumu Kurobe, played him in human form.
In the first episode, Ultra Seven (Koji Uenishi), a benevolent alien from the Land of Light in the Nebula M-78, creates an exact duplicate of a stranded mountain climber named Jiro and in human form (and played by Koji Moritsugu) assumes the name Dan Moroboshi. After helping the Ultra Guard defeat a monster in the first episode, Dan-san joins the team as its sixth member.
Although the show's mainstay was its lively Ultra Seven vs. Giant Monster climaxes, the program admirably veers away from this and plays with the format considerably. Compared to current tokusatsu, including most of the recent "Ultra" shows, Ultra Seven is far more plot- and character-driven, and while produced fast and cheap by American standards, it overflows with imaginative concepts executed with great flair and energy.
Where American television rights to Ultraman* were quickly snapped up by United Artists' television division and the show widely syndicated for about ten years from the late-1960s, the fate of Ultra Seven is intricately more complicated, and indeed the fate of much of the Ultra library of approximately 25 TV series and as many movies is a rather sad and cautionary tale.
Despite the popularity and familiarity of Ultraman, subsequent Tsuburaya series inexplicably proved a hard sell in America. In the case of Ultra Seven, the series went into limited self-syndication when Tsuburaya-Hawaii Inc. began broadcasting the program throughout Hawaii in the 1970s. Ultra Seven didn't reach the mainland until the 1990s, when it began airing on Ted Turner's Atlanta-based TNT cable network. Bizarrely, TNT opted to broadcast it in the wee hours of the morning. Further, the English dubbing of those broadcasts took a decidedly campy approach at odds with the slightly more serious intentions of its creators.
Meanwhile, across the Pacific, Thai businessman Sompote Saengduenchai began challenging Tsuburaya Productions over rights to some of the company's most valuable assets, including all rights outside of Japan to all six "Ultra" TV series created from 1966-1974, including Ultraman and Ultra Seven. Saengduenchai had partnered with then-company president Noboru Tsuburaya (one of Eiji's sons) on a few Japanese-Thai co-productions and had licensed some Tsuburaya-produced shows for Thai television. Many believe Saengduenchai was foolishly left alone in Tsuburaya's office long enough for Saengduenchai to steal or otherwise use the company's sacred hanko, the official and unique company seal used to finalize legally binding contracts.
Regardless, Saengduenchai made no claims on these alleged rights for more than 20 years. That is, until immediately after the death of Noboru, the only other "witness" to the supposed agreement. The alleged contract was viewed by most as an obvious forgery, a document rife with misspelled names and series titles, and even the company's name was spelled and abbreviated incorrectly. Further, handwriting experts dismissed Noboru Tsuburaya's signature on the agreement as a forgery. Incredibly though, courts in Thailand and Japan sided with Saengduenchai largely because of that company seal, awarding him certain but not unlimited rights, and various appeals in both countries have clouded the ownership to nearly all of Tsuburaya's pre-1975 library. Potential licensees outside Japan have been understandably skittish about signing an agreement with either party.
All of this explains why BCI Eclipse's DVDs of Ultraman in 2008 and this release now of Ultra Seven from Shout! Factory are slightly compromised. Each apparently sourced material provided them not from Tsuburaya and TYO (who bought Tsuburaya Productions in 2007), but rather from Chaiyo, Saengduenchai's company, albeit via an intermediary, Golden Media Group. In short, heirs to Tsuburaya Productions receive no licensing fees, nor were they involved in this release at all. So acrimonious is the relationship between Tsuburaya and Chaiyo, some reports indicate the latter provided masters ripped from commercially available Japanese DVDs rather than first-generation masters derived from original film elements, a theory that makes sense when one considers the picture quality.
Video & Audio
Despite this, the audio and video quality of Ultraseven - The Complete Series is reasonably good, and a marked improvement over BCI's flawed Ultraman releases. (A note on the back reads, "This DVD was made with the best available source masters furnished to us by the licensor.") There is some minor artifacting but, overall, it's in every way serviceable. My only real complaint is that, as with BCI's Ultraman, each episode ends with an abrupt fadeout and without what I assume originally followed, a preview of the next week's episode and perhaps short end titles. Otherwise though, especially taking into account that Ultra Seven was filmed in 16mm, not 35mm, it's decent for what it is, and a legally unfortunate release is certainly better than none at all. (Conversely, given the revelatory high-def work done to 16mm television productions like The Sweeney, Poirot, and others, it's a shame we may never see the full visual potential of these classic "Ultra" shows. Such work is expensive and time-consuming, but the series are popular enough to support new transfers, at least in Japan.)
Audio-wise, the Japanese tracks have that same remixed-for-stereo audio (most noticeable with the sound effects) as BCI's Ultraman release, which is good, and thankfully the series is offered in its original Japanese with optional English subtitles. Rather surprisingly no English-dubbed version is included. Perhaps TNT did or outsourced its own dub of the series?
Forty-eight episodes are presented across six single-sided, dual-layered discs, i.e., eight per disc. "The Complete Series" technically is a misnomer. In an absurd bit of political correctness, episode 12 ("From Another Planet with Love") was withheld for release on DVD in Japan (and, therefore, is missing from this set, too) even though it was broadcast in Hawaii and shown on TNT.
The set includes a full-color, 22-page booklet headlined by an essay about the show by August Ragone. Though making no mention of Tsuburaya's legal battles, it discusses the program's origins, including impressively detailed accounts of Tsuburaya's relationship with TBS during the development stage, background information of the key creative personnel and cast, and the Hows, Whys, and Wheres of the withdrawn episode.
Despite less than ideal though still-acceptable available video masters, Ultraseven - The Complete Series is an enormously fun show and being able to see it in its original Japanese adds interest and enjoyment. Kids love it; my five-year-old daughter eats them up like potato chips - she can't watch just one. Highly Recommended.
* The box art calls this Ultraseven while elsewhere the Japanese title, Urutora seben is slightly more often seen Romanized as "Ultra Seven." I've chosen to use the latter for the purposes of this review.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.