Sometimes we don’t think about the structure or pacing of a story, especially when it’s released episodically, like a series of books, or a comic, or even a TV show. With streaming becoming a primary mode of content consumption for many audiences, there’s been a lot of hay made over debating the advantages of dropping an entire season of a show at once, versus having one episode a week. A full discussion of those pros and cons would be better served in a different article, but I did want to bring it up this week for a specific reason. With episode 12 airing this week, we’re now about halfway through Ultraman Decker.
Incredible to believe, right? It seems almost as if we just started these recap articles yesterday, and now all of a sudden, we’re at the midway point of the season! Here’s the summary:
The build-up to this week’s climactic battle against Sphere Neomegas, capped off by the full demonstration of the TerraPhaser’s powerful combat capabilities against it, has been so gradual and consistent that the audience may not initially realize how far the story has developed since the show’s premiere back in July.
The midway point of any story should ideally serve several functions. First, it has to tell a coherent story within its own episode, presenting both a novel conflict and resolution within that individual timeframe. In Episode 12, Neomegas’ remains (left where it was originally defeated back in episode 10) were resurrected by the Spheres and sent to rampage against humanity. It’s a similar set-up to what we’ve seen in other episodes when the Spheres possessed different Kaiju – such as Red King and Gomora.
This latest iteration of that strategy presented an even greater threat, however. Part of that was due to Neomegas’ terrifying power compared to other Kaiju we’ve seen, but the Sphere’s new ability to recreate an entire monster, rather than just possessing one that is already living, was even more worrying. In episode 10, against the original Neomegas, Vice-Captain Kaizaki warned of the dangers that would come from monstrous bioweapons falling into the wrong hands, so it’s darkly ironic that the Spheres have already exceeded her expectations here.
Although Ultraman Decker was able to defeat the original Neomegas back then, this new Sphere-altered variety exceeds expectations in terms of its sheer strength and defeats our hero instead. Remarkably, this is the first time that Decker has actually lost a fight since that time he tried to single-handedly take on the entire fleet of Spheres in space back in the first episode. Unfortunately, it’s also the first time he’s lost in full view of the rest of GUTS-Select, and they all seem to take it pretty hard.
The way each team member responds to that disappointment informs something specific about their character and their relationships to the rest of the team, however. I think those reactions serve as important benchmarks to look back on their development since the first episode.
Ryumon and Ichika immediately rally around Kanata and seek to work better as a team rather than arguing or trying to stubbornly forge on alone, like we saw in the second episode. Captain Murahoshi recognizes how his high expectations of Kanata set him up for defeat, instead of pushing him to achieve an impossible victory. Vice-Captain Kaizaki commits herself to fighting on the frontlines of the next battle, instead of hanging back in the headquarters. Even Hanejiro has obviously changed and developed because of his experience fighting alongside Kanata and the others. This episode makes an explicit point highlighting his newfound casual manner and more impulsive decision-making in the heat of battle.
If anything, Kanata feels like the odd one out this week, a character stuck in a role that seems to be more passive compared to the dynamic development shown by the rest of the GUTS-Select team. However, I think that contrast is intentional here. Earlier in the episode, Kanata has a conversation with Professor Asakage about his motivations for fighting. Even though Kengo asked him a similar question back during the crossover with Ultraman Trigger, Kanata still doesn’t have a reason to give to him, or to the audience, or to himself.
During this scene, Kanata also asks Hanejiro about his motivations for choosing to pilot the TerraPhaser robot, in contrast to the robot’s original function as a flight AI for space travel. Hanejiro has a clear rationale for this, he interprets these battles as necessary to engage in space travel in the first place, since the Spheres blocked humanity from leaving the planet. It makes sense, and the audience might wonder why Kanata remained unsure of his own reasons for fighting at this point in the show, compared to the other characters who seem to be so dedicated. Professor Asakage even calls Kanata on it, pointing out that his good intentions alone won’t carry him through that fight.
On the surface, this is an interesting way of building the self-contained conflict of the episode, showing how Kanata finds his resolution to fight in cooperation with the TerraPhaser robot, and helps to defeat Sphere Neomegas. But a good climax for the midway point of a series should do something else, even more challenging than selling a good, rousing victory for the heroes. It also needs to shift the momentum to a new conflict and push the characters and plot in a new direction that will carry the second half of the season.
The real, effective strength of this episode doesn’t just come from the spectacular explosion Sphere Neomegas made when it was destroyed. Instead, after that final blow, when the entire team holds its breath, waiting to see the aftermath of the TR Mega Buster through a haze of smoke and debris, I didn’t feel excitement or relief. I felt horrified, holding my breath as TerraPhaser stood there at the end, with the sneaking suspicion that something had gone very, very wrong.
It took me little while to revisit some of the earlier episodes, and eventually understand where that anxiety came from. It was true, Hanejiro had changed since his initial introduction to the team. He became more casual and friendly while interacting with Kanata, but he also began to act very differently in battles after he started piloting the TerraPhaser. Compare his actions in this episode to earlier ones – like #4, “The Destructive Monster Awakens” – where Hanejiro was much more deliberate and conscientious while developing a strategy to defeat monsters with Decker’s assistance.
During this week’s episode instead, Hanejiro literally dropped Kanata out of the Guts Gryphon with no warning or apparent concern for his life. Despite my jokes about Kanata’s general lack of forethought, even he’s not that reckless. Usually.
For better or worse, Kanata has used the power of Ultraman Decker as his own. While he’s made mistakes at times out of inexperience, the same resolution and determination that reached out to Decker’s power in the beginning of the series hasn’t changed. It’s almost like the reverse has happened with Hanejiro, as his own integral AI systems have altered and adapted specifically to become a weapon alongside the TerraPhaser.
Why should that be a source of horror? Wouldn’t that mean he can now fight more effectively alongside Kanata and the rest of the team? Well, if anyone in the audience has any familiarity with other Ultraman series, then you might recognize this song-and-dance already. But even within this show’s own context, there’s a clear precedent that foreshadows where the series is headed in the second half. It’s an eerie echo of episode 10, when Vice-Captain Kaizaki faced her mentor, who was determined to subvert and corrupt all other lives on earth around her into weapons that would assure humanity’s survival at any cost.
It was easy back then to call the Professor insane, to understand how arrogant and foolhardy her assumptions were. But we have a different Professor now headed down the same apparent path, and eventually it won’t be a terrifyingly spiky-looking Kaiju that Decker will have to destroy to stop their ambitions.
It’ll be Hanejiro.
And with that pleasant thought, I’ll see you next week for a fun episode of comedic relief as we recap the rest of the first half of the season! Stay tuned here to Ultraman Connection for whatever comes next.