At first glance, Ultraman Decker episode 11, “Machine God Deployed”, couldn’t be more different from what we saw last week. Episode 10 was restrained, quiet and introspective. It focused mostly on the perspective and past of Vice-Captain Kaizaki and her conflicted relationship with her former mentor’s dangerous research. When that conflict escalated past the point of argument and into a realm of monstrous powers, only Ultraman Decker could protect her – and symbolically, the rest of humanity – from the uncontrolled destruction unleashed by Neomegas.
Episode 11, on the other hand, was a spectacle from the very beginning. Immediately, the audience was introduced to the “new weapon” that was hinted at last week – the DG001, named “TerraPhaser”. We were also introduced to the threats it immediately drew as soon as the opening credits finished rolling, as the monster Gazort attacked right behind it! Episode 10 produced its emotional weight because of a slow build-up to the full, terrifying scope of the threat faced by the main characters. This week’s episode instead dropped in quite literally feet-first, with guns blazing.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the spectacle of giant robots in an Ultraman show. It isn’t even the first time the characters have seen giant robots in-universe either! Kanata pointed out that many of them were kids when King Joe STORAGE Custom first fell out of the sky from another dimension (back during the crossover between Ultraman Trigger and Ultraman Z last year). It made sense to explain their gleeful enthusiasm as they watched the TerraPhaser’s test-run here. Personally, I think the idea of giant super robot fights is just inherently cool all on its own. However, the extra effort put into the continuity helped to lend important verisimilitude to the setting, and it was also funny seeing Ryumon get just as fired up as Kanata in these opening scenes.
Speaking of which, aside from the spectacle, this episode also did a great job of handling humor. The opening exposition between the main team and Professor Asakage about the TerraPhaser’s development was balanced with some genuinely hilarious comedic timing. Rather than just being a cut-and-dry “Well, as you know–” sort of recap, the audience got to see how the setting developed in response to the challenges humanity faced in Ultraman Trigger, as well as getting some insight into Professor Asakage’s character himself.
Previously, he’s been a background character who has just showed up to exposit on new technology the team uses. And that’s sort of what he does here too. But like Kaizaki getting a chance to put those skills to work in an episode custom-tailored to her strengths last week, Asakage’s research came to the forefront here too. Before, he might have seemed straightforward and dry, but his genuine dedication – one might even say fondness – for his work was made obvious in those scenes.
In addition to his dedication to seeing the TerraPhaser’s development finished, that dedication also drove him to fight alongside the rest of the GUTS-Select team later in the episode. After the initial scuffle against Gazort, more Kaiju showed up to harry the TerraPhaser’s tests, and knocked out its main AI control unit, crippling the robot. The Professor could have retreated and drawn up new plans to rescue or repair the robot from the relative safety of the team’s headquarters. Instead, they devised a scheme to replace the control unit with Hanejiro, so he can pilot it and fight back! A truly slapstick scene ensued with the team tossing the tiny robot back and forth like a rugby ball, dodging monster attacks all while trying to get to the downed robot.
Another thing that struck me about this whole sequence of events – in between bouts of laughter – was how seriously everyone took the idea of the TerraPhaser robot being their best hope to fight back against the monsters. Or rather, they wanted to fight to protect the robot, and prove that it could be valuable in their fight against those threats.
The stakes weren’t necessarily about saving their own skins, they all could have just run away and left it. However, it was important to Professor Asakage to prove that his life’s work developing the robot was not in vain, and because it was important to him, it was also important to the rest of the team. Including Kanata.
Yes, Kanata Asumi. The same guy on the team who can also turn into a giant being made of light and effortlessly toss enemies through wormholes before making them explode with lasers he shoots out of his arms. He could have done the same here, the moment they saw the TerraPhaser robot downed, and realized that the team members at the test site were in danger. Eventually, he did transform into Decker, although in slightly different circumstances compared to his usual fights.
Rather than trying to defeat the attacking monsters himself, facing them with his full strength and full size, Kanata transformed into a much, much smaller version of Decker. This was probably accidental on Kanata’s part – hardly surprising, since many of his abilities and actions as Decker in other episodes appeared to be instinctual rather than intentionally thought out. Not that Kanata exactly puts a lot of forethought into any of his actions anyways, but I’m getting off-topic.
I’ve seen several pieces of speculation about why Decker fights at ground level in this episode, but I think the main reason is psychological. Kanata always fights as Decker to protect others, and the best way he could do that in this episode was to fight with his team-mates, on their own scale, against the human-sized versions of the Hinabasser Kaiju.
Plus, just like the scheme with Hanejiro being tossed like a football, it also was the single funniest way they could have played out that scene.
Aside from the humor, this episode really stood out because of how little it focused on the titular hero. Decker himself played a relatively minor role; helping mostly to get Professor Asakage and Hanejiro to the downed TerraPhaser, then delivering the final blow against the monsters. If anything, this episode struck me as more like an episode from a classic super robot show – and I don’t just say that because it features a giant super robot in the first place.
It’s because it featured a giant super robot that first appeared while being carried by tethers pulled by a fleet of helicopters. And is powered by vaguely defined energy particles that form fancy-looking wings when it powers up. And can also shoot heat-seeking, curving laser projectiles.
Yeah, I think it’s clear that the director and visual storyboard artists for this episode have done research into this genre.
Aside from the giant robots, the humor and spectacle also seem to put this episode in dramatic opposition to the tone from last week. Episode 10 dealt with some of the most crucial themes of the Ultraman franchise, but they’re also themes inherent to tokusatsu in general. What is humanity’s place in a universe where the very forces of nature seem to overwhelm us? To what extremes must human beings go to just ensure our survival? What about humanity is worth protecting considering the terrifying extent of those threats?
The week was sold more by the simple joy of watching a group of characters come together to reach new heights and successes that they couldn’t attain on their own. That’s something I generally associate with the more heroic “super” robot series, but there’s a place for that spectacle in Ultraman as well. This is, ultimately, a franchise aimed at a younger audience and needs to sell cool-looking toys for them to get excited about. But the best part of this franchise, as I’ve said before, is its ability to handle multiple parallel themes on multiple parallel levels.
There’s no reason why that spectacle can’t also serve a deeper thematic purpose beyond just eye-candy. I genuinely think that the “wow factor” of TerraPhaser’s debut, and the importance the other characters placed on its success, reflected some themes carried over from last week. The Professor in episode 10 was obsessed with creating a weapon to ensure humanity’s survival, regardless of the cost. It’s not hard to see how Asakage’s dedication to the TerraPhaser could easily be twisted to similar dark extremes. Will this new superweapon be a force for good, or evil? Will humanity use it to become like gods, or devils? Wait, I’m in the wrong franchise again…
I suppose we’ll just have to come back next week to find out what the future has in store for the TerraPhaser, and the GUTS Select team!