My new article for September is up on The Cultural Gutter. The Sci-Fi Life is my “getting to know you” piece, discussing why I think “gutter culture” matters and how it came to be such an important part of my life.
The fact is that, when I’m writing about a movie, I’m much less interested in telling you how good or bad it is than I am in justifying the time I spent watching it. As such, I’m looking for those points of interest — either contained in the film itself or in the circumstances of its production — that will make the whole endeavor seem worthwhile, and prevent me going to my grave fretting over how I could have better spent that six hours I invested in repeat viewings of Tahalka.
Providing a break from the rigors of that approach are those occasions on which I encounter films whose WTF quotient is so high that they exist on a plane beyond simple judgments of good or bad–the mystery of whose very existence overshadows any questions of quality. Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen is such a film. And like another fine example of the species, the Turkish superhero mash-up 3 Dev Adam, Hanuman achieves that rarified WTF air by means of positioning some very familiar elements within a very foreign context. It’s just hard to dismiss a shockingly gory movie that teams the world’s most beloved giant Japanese superhero with the Hindu monkey god for not measuring up to some notional standard of “coherence” or “watchability”. That’s not to suggest, of course, that there aren’t those who consider Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen bad — or who, in fact, revile it. None of them, however, are going to argue that it’s not one weird little foo dog of a movie.
The thing about Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, though, is that once you start looking into the circumstances that surrounded its making — and the events that occurred in its aftermath — the actual content of the movie itself begins to seem less and less strange. In fact, the story that Hanuman sits at the center of is so insane that, now that I’ve become more familiar with its details, I’m worried that my summary of the movie, if I ever get to it, will be a little on the blase side, like “Oh, and then Hanuman and Ultraman gleefully tear the flesh from one of the monsters until there’s nothing left but a giant skeleton puppet which dances around a bit before collapsing in a heap. YAWN!” Still, I promise to bring all of my not-very-considerable professionalism to bear on the task of telling it, without losing site of my greater goal of bringing the movie itself to life for you with the magic of language.
That story begins in 1962, when a young man by the name of Sompote Saengduenchai left his native Thailand for Japan, having been granted a Thai government scholarship to study cinematography in that country. His studies would include an apprenticeship at Japan’s legendary Toho studios, during which Saengduenchai would come into contact with Eiji Tsubaraya, the master of Japanese special effects. Tsubaraya was in the middle of his career peak at the time, having over the past several years been a primary engine in the creation of such classic Japanese movie monsters as Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra. He was also on the verge of starting his own company, Tsubaraya Productions, which would go on to achieve great success in the world of television, in addition to continued success in motion pictures. Saengduenchai would eventually characterize his youthful encounter with Tsubaraya as the beginning of a long and close friendship, though, in truth, its exact nature and details would later become the subject of dispute. Whatever the case, however, there is no doubt that it had a profound effect on the path that Saengduenchai’s career would take — and grave repercussions for Tsubaraya and the company he was to found.
Upon returning to Thailand, Saengduenchai formed his own company, Chaiyo Productions, and went about fashioning himself as a sort-of Thai version of Eiji Tsubaraya. He began to produce and direct a string of special effects-driven and giant monster movies the likes of which had not previously been seen in the Thai film industry, and would continue to produce such films well into his career. (Of all of these, the only one to receive an English language release was his 1981 contribution — under the name Sompote Sands — to the Jaws-but-with-a-crocodile micro-genre, Crocodile, which featured a giant crocodile whose proportions changed radically from one shot to the next.) One of the first of these was 1973’s Ta Tien, which featured a kaiju-style battle between reanimated giant statues of Yuk Wud Jaeng and Yuk Wud Pho, two demon-like guardian spirits from Thai folklore. Of course, on the way to presenting that climactic battle royal, Saengduenchai also provided his audience with scenes of a giant suitmation frog smoking a giant cigarette, a discomfitingly ponderous dinosaur fight, and one of the most extensive and gratuitous skinny dipping sequences in cinema history.
The above serves to underscore a major difference between Tsubaraya and Saengduenchai, which is that, while Tsubaraya’s work was generally infused with a sense of fun and wonder that made it for the most part family friendly, watching Saengduenchai’s films, it’s easy to find yourself wondering who they were intended for at all. A good example of this is Hanuman and the Five Riders, a direct sequel to Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, which, along with its very kiddie-cozy depiction of masked superheroes from the Japanese Kamen Rider series and its offshoots fighting with men in rubber monster suits, also features tons of cheap-but-nonetheless-extreme gore and a Coffin Joe-like vision of Hell that includes copious amounts of female nudity. Suffice it to say that, cultural differences aside, when you watch these movies, you definitely get the idea that Sompote Saengduenchai is one weird dude.
As for Tsubaraya, in the years immediately following his first meeting with Saengduenchai he would produce what would become one of his most loved — not to mention lucrative — creations: the skyscraper-sized kaiju-fighting superhero Ultraman. Ultraman would make his way to the States just a couple of years after his 1966 Japanese debut and begin a long life in syndication on American television. As such, he would become a favorite of successive generations of our great nation’s hyperactive ten year old boys, not to mention the cause of untold playground injuries, and the inspiration for some of those ten year old boys, once grown, to inflict Power Rangers on generations to come.
But while America had only the very manageable one Ultraman to account for, the Japanese had a whole army of them to keep track of. This is because, whenever one Ultra series would end, Tsubaraya Productions, rather than simply producing a second season, would instead create a sequel series featuring a whole new Ultra hero. The initial wave of Ultra hero series, between 1966 and 1975, resulted in seven separate, successive shows, including Ultraman, Ultra Seven, Ultraman Ace, Return of Ultraman (which, despite the name, featured a completely different Ultraman), Ultraman Taro and Ultraman Leo, all of which included, in addition to their main Ultramen, ancillary Ultra characters as well. This proliferation has continued, with some interruptions, to the present day, with the depressing result that a concept as simple as a giant superhero beating up men in monster suits has grown to become as needlessly complex as the Lord of the Rings cycle.
One of the many places where Ultraman was very popular was Thailand, and in 1973 Sompote Saengduenchai approached Tsubaraya Productions with the idea of coproducing a series of films that would team their heroes with figures from Thai folklore and mythology. Sadly, Tsubaraya senior had passed away by this time, and his son Noboru was now in charge of the company. For whatever reasons, Noboru saw fit to give this idea the go-ahead, and the first of these features, Giant and Jumbo A — a teaming of the aforementioned Thai giant Yuk Wud Jaeng with one of Tsubaraya Production’s lesser heroes, Jamborg Ace — went into production. Following immediately on the heels of Giant and Jumbo A came Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, which featured Ultraman, Ultra Seven, Ultraman Jack (from Return of Ultraman), Ultraman Ace, Ultraman Taro and Ultraman Zoffy (a supporting Ultraman introduced in the original Ultraman series) joining with Hanuman to defeat an assortment of monsters salvaged from past Ultra episodes. (That, if you’re counting, only adds up to six Ultramen, which suggests that the “7” in the title includes Mother of Ultra, the matriarch of the whole Ultra clan, who’s seen only in the sequences on the Ultra brothers’ home planet, M-78.)
To me, a mystery equal to that of the circumstances surrounding Ultraman and Hanuman becoming partners on screen is how figures of Hindu mythology such as Hanuman came to be part of the culture of Thailand, a predominately Buddhist country. Of course, Hanuman was an important character in the Ramayana, a central epic of the Hindu religion. The flow of trade between India and Thailand insured that the Ramayana would eventually make its way to Thailand and, when it did, it apparently became quite the hot read. As a result the Thais adapted their own, more culturally and geographically specific version of the Ramayana in the form of the Ramakien. Though practitioners of pure Hinduism never became more than a minority in Thailand, the symbols and characters from the epic became so entrenched in the culture of the country that today most Buddhists there see no incongruity in paying tribute to Hindu deities alongside their observance of traditional Buddhist practices. Shrines to Hindu gods such as Ganesh, Vishnu and Hanuman can be found throughout Thailand, and they are visited by Hindus and Buddhists alike.
Figures from the Ramayana play a part in the prologue to Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, as do the members of the Ultra family. In fact, the whole film strikes an interesting balance between being a Bollywood style “Mythological” and a kiddie sci fi movie. Scenes of scientists in space-age control rooms launching rockets are interspersed with those of Hanuman traversing the heavens to make appeals to Rama as he circles the Earth in his flaming chariot. Representing a sort of meeting-in-the-middle is the fact that Ultraman and company are presented in a seemingly more God-like manner than in their usual incarnations, constantly watching over the Earth from their perch in the heavens and descending from the clouds to intervene in times of trouble.
At the opening of the film, Thailand is suffering a severe drought, and we see a group of children doing a ritual dance in the ruins of an old temple in the hopes of bringing rain. The obvious leader of the group is a boy named Piko, who is wearing a Hanuman mask and doing a dance involving lots of scratching and monkey-like capering that we will have become well familiar with by the movie’s end. While the kids dance, a gang of bandits comes into the temple and steals the head from a statue of the Buddha (something that Ong-bak has already taught us is a very bad idea). Piko sees this and takes off after the bandits, grabbing onto the back of their jeep as they make their getaway. It is at this early point in the movie that we get our first notice that, despite the advertised presence of Ultraman, someone very different from who you’d normally expect is calling the shots, as one of the bandit’s response to this is to draw a gun and shoot Piko point blank in the head, after which we get a nice shot of the kid screaming with blood pouring down his face.
Fortunately, the Ultra family has been watching all of this transpire from their Olympian perch up on M-78, and the Mother of Ultra reaches down from the clouds with an enormous hand to pluck Piko’s lifeless body up and whisk it back to their home in the Land of Light. Just as each of the Ultra heroes was created by being merged with a human who could transform into him at will, the Ultras restore life to Piko by merging him with Hanuman, which, again, makes them seem pretty God-like. (It also makes me wonder if the Ultra’s life-restoring procedures are faith-tailored; for instance, if Piko had been a Christian, would they have merged him with Jesus?) The Ultras then return Piko to Earth where, now granted the ability to transform into Hanuman at will, he sets about getting some big time monkey payback on the trio of thugs who killed him.
And Hanuman, when he appears — a gigantic, pure white monkey in elaborately ornamented traditional raiments, with hollow eyes and a creepy fixed grin — is pretty terrifying, and made nonetheless so by all of his constant jabbering, scratching and capering. This initial impression of him is backed-up by the treatment he gives the bandits once he’s caught up with them; one he simply steps on like a bug, another he crushes under a tree, and a third he grabs in one fist and smashes with an outstretched palm, jabbering and laughing nightmarishly the whole time. Then, with vengeance swiftly dealt, he levitates the Buddha’s head back into its proper place, then takes a surreal victory lap in the skies over Bangkok before taking off into the heavens to chat up some of his fellow deities. Meanwhile, a dashing young scientist at a high tech meteorological research facility is launching the first of what looks like a huge arsenal of cloud-seeding rockets into the atmosphere. This appears to work, but since we’ve also been watching Hanuman’s efforts up in the heavens to strike a deal with Rama on the Earth’s behalf, we’re not sure whether to credit this win to science or faith.
I was initially convinced that the aforementioned dashing young scientist, Professor Virut, was played by the actor Sombat Methanee. That is not just because he looks like Methanee, or because Methanee starred in both of Saengduenchai’s preceding films, Ta Tien and Giant and Jumbo A; but also because it’s very difficult to find any Thai film from the seventies that Methanee didn’t star in. Methanee was Thailand’s biggest action star of that decade, a position he stepped into on the occasion of Thai cinema king Mitr Chaibancha’s accidental death in 1970. (Chaibancha died while performing a stunt for Insee Thong, one of several films in which he portrayed the masked hero Red Eagle.) Similarly to other Asian film industries, the work ethic of Thai movie stars at the time was truly a world away from that found in Hollywood, where being a star meant having the luxury to appear only in the one or two hand-picked prestige projects you’d deigned to appear in that year. For a Thai actor, being a star meant maintaining a constant presence on the country’s movie screens, week in and week out — a practice which, in Methanee’s case, meant appearing in as many as a dozen films a year, and which now accounts for him having over 600 film roles under his belt.
However, as more scrupulous research on my part later revealed, Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen was in fact not one of those over 600 films burdening Sombat Methanee’s belt loops. That is because Professor Virut is instead played by Yodchay Meksuwan, another dashing young Thai actor who — if I may be so churlishly reductive — seems to have starred in all of those Thai movies from the seventies that Methanee couldn’t fit into his schedule — and even starred opposite Methanee in Killer Elephants. Meksuan, like Methanee, would become a familiar face in Saengduenchai’s films, not only starring in the aforementioned Hanuman and the Five Riders, but also 1977’s Yod Manut Computer, a bizarre hybrid combining Thai folklore with a sweded version of the Six Million Dollar Man. All of which is to say that I owe Mr. Meksuwan a profound apology for my previous oversight.
Anyway, bolstered by the success of his first rocket, Meksuwan’s Professor Virut launches a second with far less satisfying results. The rocket explodes on the launching pad, leading to an impressive sequence of Thunderbirds-style miniature mayhem as a chain reaction causes all of the many rockets on the pad to explode. In turn, the Earth underneath the launch base is rent apart, and the five bad guy monsters come marching single file out of the bowels of the Earth to wreak havoc. These monsters include Gomora, one of the most iconic beasts from the original Ultraman series — and here equipped with Godzilla’s roar — plus a trio of Monsters recycled from Ultraman Taro. Also in tow is a fifth monster from another Tsubaraya hero series, Mirrorman, who I guess must really be called “Dustpan” because — as hard as I find that to believe — I can’t find any source that refers to him otherwise. At first, most of the monsters’ havoc-wreaking consists of them just bouncing from foot to foot while waving their arms around and rearing their heads back as if they were laughing as everything blows up around them. There is also a lot of garbled Thai dialog on the soundtrack that seems to suggest that the monsters are supposed to be talking — and from the tone of it, they’re heckling, maybe even calling the assembled human race “bitches” or something. Mutual back slapping can also be observed among the monsters, and at times they appear to be on the verge of giving each other high-fives.
Because nobody wants to see a bunch on giant monsters high-fiving one another like drunken frat boys, the Air Force is called in, and soon toy jets are being swatted out of the sky left and right. Finally, Piko transforms into Hanuman and, between dancing, scratching and jabbering, manages to put up a pretty good fight against the chatty creatures. Just when it looks like they’re about to get the drop on him, the six Ultra brothers sweep down from the sky, signaling the beginning of the real mayhem. At this point, the monsters are so outmatched that the simple substitution of tragic music would have revealed the fight for the brutal slaughter that it is. Monster heads are sheared off, torsos bisected, bodies incinerated, and finally, as alluded to earlier, one ogre-like beast has the skin unceremoniously stripped from his bones. When it’s all over, standing amidst the steaming offal that was once their adversaries, the Ultras watch, perhaps in bewilderment, as Hanuman does one final dance for them. The monkey god then gives each of the brothers a hug, bidding them farewell before they take off back to their home planet. The end.
The fact that Tsubaraya’s effects team participated in the production of Hanuman is obvious from the final thirty minute sequence described above. The special effects and model work are quite impressive, and actually better than a lot of the work done on the various Ultra TV series. One of the reasons for this is that the producers wisely narrowed the scope of the action, limiting all of it to the area around the rocket base. Because of this, only a small number of models needed to be built, and what budget there was could be devoted to making them look as good as possible. On top of that, the physical action is very nicely choreographed, with both Hanuman and the Ultras doing all kinds of crazy flips and cartwheels in the course of the battle, all while constant, large explosions are going off on all sides of them. This frenetic activity helps a great deal to distract from the somewhat restricted scale of what’s going on, and contributes to making Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen a pretty wild ride overall. Some people who hate the film for other, largely understandable, reasons name as one of its many sins that it’s shoddy looking, but they’re clearly looking at it through jaundiced eyes. You can certainly complain that this film makes no sense (it doesn’t), but there’s no getting around the fact that the kaiju battle action it delivers is wholly first rate.
As mentioned earlier, Sompote Saengduenchai quickly followed Hanuman and the 7 Ultras‘ 1974 release with a sequel, the noticeably seedier Hanuman and the Five Riders (which was, in contrast to the two Tsubaraya co-productions, completely unauthorized by Kamen Rider‘s copyright holders). His appetite for co-opting Japanese Tokusatsu characters seemingly quenched, he then continued in his pattern of making movies about giant lizards, snakes and statues well into the nineties, leaving everyone outside of Thailand, excepting those unfortunates heedless enough to rent the VHS of Crocodile, largely unbothered for the next twenty years. Tsubaraya productions, for their part, would continue on in the lucrative Ultraman business, creating their sixth Ultra hero series with Ultraman Leo in 1975, and then a seventh with Ultraman 80 five years later. Though production of new Ultramen would slow down a bit for a while after that, the fact that Tsubaraya’s original creation was one of the most recognized characters in the world insured that fees from licensing and merchandise would continue to stream uninterrupted into the coffers of the company he founded. Life in the Land of Light was indeed ultra good.
Then, in 1995, Noboru Tsubaraya died, and very soon thereafter Sompote Saengduenchai made a dramatic re-entrance into the lives of Ultraman and his corporate guardians. On this occasion, Saengduenchai produced a contract that he alleged had been made between Noboru and himself in 1976, granting Chaiyo Productions exclusive international rights to all of the Ultra series made up to the time of Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen‘s production, as well as to the series Jamborg Ace and the two co-produced movies. While it’s true that a previous contract had been made between the two companies granting Chaiyo television broadcast rights to those same properties, this was something of an entirely different magnitude altogether. Saengduenchai would claim that Noboru had granted him these rights in order to settle a debt — a debt that arose in part as a result of Noboru entering into a licensing agreement with Shaw Brothers Studio for the Hong Kong rights to Hanuman without Chaiyo’s approval. It would later be shown, however, that it was in fact Saengduenchai who had entered into that contract with the Shaws.
Still, Saengduenchai’s dubious assertion of Noboru’s debt was only one of many compelling reasons for Tsubaraya to consider his contract a joke. For one thing, there was the matter of the wording in the contract itself, which misspelled or misnamed not just the titles of most of the subject TV series, but also that of Tsubaraya Productions. But most damning of all was the simple fact that Saengduenchai had stayed quiet about the contract for twenty years — never stepping forward to assert the rights it allegedly granted him, while that whole time Tsubaraya was happily exploiting its licenses across the globe — and only came forward with it once the only person who could dispute its contents with firsthand knowledge had been silenced forever. Still, astonishingly, the Thai Intellectual Property and International Trade Court largely affirmed the legitimacy of the contract in a 2000 decision, which was in turn upheld by the Japanese district court in 2003, saying that, while Tsubaraya retained the copyrights to all of the characters and series covered, the contract did grant Chaiyo license to exploit those series outside of Japan.
This legal victory seems to have emboldened Saengduenchai, for not only did he quickly begin to robustly exercise his newly legitimized rights by licensing as much Ultra product as he possibly could within the shortest time possible, but also to expand exponentially upon the grandiosity of his claims. Soon Saengduenchai was saying that he had, in fact, contributed to the creation of Ultraman, suggesting to Eiji Tsubaraya back in 1963 that he create a character whose appearance was based on Thai statues of the Buddha. Even Ultraman’s name, it turned out, had been Saengduenchai’s idea; he would later claim that, with the idea of evincing the mien of an armored Turkish warrior, he had suggested the name “Ottoman” to Tsubaraya, and that that had been the inspiration for the character’s final appellation. In a further suggestion of a sort of creepy assimilation, Saengduenchai and his associates began referring to an entity called Tsubaraya Chaiyo Co., which would be the home of all of their future Ultraman related projects.
More damaging was the fact that Saengduenchai’s tendency to confabulate extended beyond just the nature of his relationship with Eiji Tsubaraya and his involvement in the origin of Ultraman, but also to the scope of the contract itself. Though subsequent court decisions would actually limit Chaiyo’s rights, it seems that Saengduenchai continually chose to view them as expansions of them. As a result he began talking up all kinds of grand schemes, from the creation of an Ultraman theme park in Thailand to the production of new series featuring Thai-specific Ultraman characters that would be the exclusive property of Chaiyo, one of whom was to be called Ultraman Millennium. Providing a further suggestion of what were beginning to seem like some fairly complex motivations on Saengduenchai’s part, to say the least, his lawyers announced plans to initiate a lawsuit again Tsubaraya, projecting that the outcome of such a suit might be Saengduenchai actually taking over the company!
It took until February of 2008 for Tsubaraya and the courts to deliver a final legal smackdown to Saengduenchai, though not before Chaiyo had invested a lot of money in a new Ultraman series starring Ekin Cheng that probably no one will ever see. Looking over the cold facts of the case now, its hard to find any overt clues to the personalities involved. But in the case of Saengduenchai, it’s very easy to see the whole affair as an extreme case of over-identification. There are reports that Saengduenchai had a framed portrait of his good friend Eiji Tsubaraya prominently displayed in his home, and I can’t help imagining based on that that he also had a secret room off of his bedroom plastered with disturbingly lipstick-smeared snapshots of Tsubaraya, and perhaps newspaper clippings in which Tsubaraya’s name was scratched out and Saengduenchai’s crudely written in with pencil.
Though it’s easy to hate — or at least be mildly creeped out by — Sompote Saengduenchai, perhaps our judgment of him can be tempered somewhat by the fact that, somewhere within the confused tangle of his motivations, was a certain misguided affection. For myself, the fact that Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen — a film that’s very enjoyable to watch while drunk — was a product of that affection goes a long way toward seeding forgiveness within my heart. I’m easy that way. However, had Saengduenchai succeeded in his scheme to introduce yet more Ultramen into the world — and perhaps, in the process, inspired other countries to pitch in with their own versions, prompting a sort of Tokusatu equivalent of the Eurovision Song Contest — forgiveness would not have come so easily. There are just too damn many of those guys.