Ultraman: The Next [Ultraman] (2004)

It was the age of reboots.

Or at least, in the world of Tokusatsu films.

Toho’s Millennium Series of Godzilla films had just come to an end with Godzilla: Final Wars. Of the six films, all but one were reboots. Mothra had appeared in a reboot series a few years before that had no connection to any of the past Mothra films, not even the Heisei Era ones. And Gamera had undergone a reboot in the late Nineties and would reboot itself again in 2006.

So it hardly comes as a surprise that Tsuburaya Productions rebooted Ultraman around the same time. Nor that it was a grittier and more serious take on the nearly forty year old hero. After all, that’s what Toho had done with most of those Kaiju reboots. This movie was part of their “Ultra N Project” which also included a new, grittier TV series, Ultraman Nexus.

In Japan, this film is known simply as Ultraman. Nor does the Ultraman in this one ever reveal his name, and “The Next” is a name given to it by its monstrous enemy, The One.

Ultraman: The Next starts more or less the way the original series did, with a Fighter pilot, Shunichi Maki, crashing into a glowing ball of light. Everyone thinks he died, so they are shocked when he shows up unharmed but confused.

He returns to civilian life to be with his family and is planning to take his son up for a birthday present flight, when he’s abducted by a secret government agency that thinks he’s about to turn into a monster. After all, the pilot of a deep sea submersible ran into a similar ball of light and has transformed into a monster called “The One” which can absorb animals and acquire their traits.

And The One has just escaped….

This time around, the Ultra lore which had built up over the years is forgotten — in fact, we never get much of an explanation for what has happened to Shunichi, even when, in a sort of dream state, he talks face to face with the spectral form of Ultraman. Instead we learn that he cannot use Ultraman’s full powers because they have not fully merged. While we only get minimal information, it is the only time the relationship between an Ultra and his host has really been explored in the series — along with the implication that Shunichi has to chose to merge.

I love this particular iteration of the Ultraman suit: while the originals were just a neoprene suit, this one has a complex, layered look with a mesh undersuit and separate pieces of armor on the outside. There’s a lovely sense of detail about it all as the armor is ornate and covered with engraved decorations. The One is an interesting opponent as well, as it goes through several stages before culminating in a gigantic winged form.

And, for once, the JSDF fighter jets actually get to save Ultraman and lend their assistance in the final battle!

This isn’t your father’s Ultraman. The N Project didn’t prove all that successful in the end, and the series soon returned to its roots, but this is a beautifully made film. Not only is it exciting and entertaining, with well staged fights and good effects, but finds a little new territory to explore after 38 years.

And yes, it makes the hero’s young son the very heart of the story, without indulging in the sort of mawkish sentiment or the scenes with the hordes of little kids advising the adults that show up in so many Japanese children’s films.

It is a solid offering, which will be loved by those who treasure Tokusatsu and Kaiju Eiga films — and by those who love the venerable franchise.

Even if this one isn’t quite the way you remember it…



And check out our new Feature (Updated May 16, 2019):

The Rivets Zone:  The Best SF Movies You’ve Never Seen!

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