In the Matt Damon-starrer Downsizing, a Norwegian researcher finds a way to shrink human beings to roughly five inches in height. For Jorgen Asbjornsen, the discovery has the potential to combat climate change, maximise resources and reduce human suffering. Damon’s character signs up to be downsized, as the process is known, only to have his life turned inside out.
Alexander Payne’s satire, which will be released in India on January 12, follows in the footsteps of the 1996 Japanese television series Ultra Q, in which an experiment to minimise humans to check over-population has unforeseen consequences. The science fiction show includes elements of the kaiju genre (the Japanese monster movie) and includes an episode in which a reporter unwittingly becomes part of a human-minimising experiment to find herself reduced to a fraction of her size.
Created by Eiji Tsuburaya, a special effects expert whose legacy includes the Godzilla series, Ultra Q was the first installment in the long-running Ultra series, which developed into a sprawling multi-verse with numerous titles and adaptations.
The show ran from January to July 1966 and was succeeded by the more popular Ultraman, which in turn spawned sequels and movie adaptations, including Hanna Barbera’s animated movie Ultraman: The Adventure Begins (1987).
While Ultraman and its follow-ups show humanoid aliens with special powers warding off giant beasts, Ultra Q has a clutch of earthly protagonists who grapple with different monsters and supernatural phenomena in every episode, in The X-Files fashion.
A departure from this format is the “The 1/8 Project”, which features a pilot project run by the Japanese government to reduce human beings to an eighth of their size as a possible solution to overcrowding. Yuriko Edogaa, a reporter with the Daily News, chances upon the experiment after she gets caught in a stampede in the Tokyo train station. Shut in a glass chamber, she wakes up to find herself reduced to the size of a pencil. A miniature Yuriko then has a series of misadventures that include being imprisoned for trespassing, escaping from prison and landing up in a metropolis for the Lilliputian human beings.
Playing with size has fascinated storytellers over decades. The theme has lent itself to comedy capers such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and its spin-offs, fantasy space adventures such as Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Innerspace (1987), and existential, cautionary fables such as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).
In these movies, being reduced in size is either a catastrophic event or a temporary inconvenience suffered as a means to an end.
Downsizing and Ultra Q, however, explore resizing as a carefully planned strategy to solve contemporary crises posed by exploding populations that are stretching the earth’s limited space and resources. While Ultra Q merely teases the possibility in a 25-minute clip, Downsizing builds on the proposition and examines whether thinking small may be a viable alternative to current human existence.
Downsizing also adds more contemporary concerns to Ultra Q’s basic premise, such as mass immigration and global warming, that result in a more urgent need to find a way to save humanity.
Unlike in Ultra Q, where Yuriko is an unwilling participant in the minimising project, Downsizing shows Damon’s character Paul Safranek and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) volunteer for the procedure – though Audrey later backs out and the movie explores a now single Paul’s experiences in the Leisureland community for mini-humans.
All episodes of Ultra Q are available for viewing on YouTube, in Japanese.