This one wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
Or maybe it was. I’m not sure.
After all, I’ve been waiting for it a long time. It was announced, supposedly due to be released, delayed, delayed again, and finally came out — in Japan.
What I expected, when it was first announced, was a bold (i.e., nearly unrecognizable) reimagining of the classic Tsubaraya TV series, along the line of, well, Shin Godzilla (2016). After all, both films had been created by Hideaki Anno, the legendary creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion and they were both promoted as a new look at an old franchise.
Mind you, the trailers had already revealed that it wasn’t quite as much of a reimagining as Shin Godzilla. Not only did we have some sort of important agency fighting monsters — like the Science Patrol in the original series — but they wore blazers (even if they were black instead of bright blue) and a pin reminiscent of the originals.
And you have to remember that the Kaiju fighting agencies changed from show to show.
What was even stranger was that this Ultraman was a very simple, man in a neoprene suit sort of design. I was expecting something closer to the suit in the grittier, more realistic Millennium Era reboot of the series, Ultraman: The Next [Ultraman] (2004), which was quite ornate, with a mesh undersuit with pieces of armor on top of it, and a lot of engraved detail on those pieces.
Or, yes, something closer to the grotesque mutations of Shin Godzilla.
Instead, we get a very classic Ultraman design, which looks very much like that in the original series.
It wasn’t a surprise, however, that this version of Ultraman did not have the wide variety of Science Fictional vehicles the Science Patrol and its successors had. The series always had a sort of Gerry Anderson/Thunderbirds vibe with its collection of fanciful high-tech vehicles, but they do not fit well with the very grounded, realistic style of the Shin films.
Now I have to admit that the fanboy in me really loved the opening, which in a ridiculously short amount of time rushes through the events which led up to the main events of the film. It recaps, with a lot of text thrown up on the screen (which is mildly daunting in the subtitled version) the first appearances of the monsters they have dubbed S-Class Species, the establishment of the S-Class Species Suppression Protocol and the founding of the agency enforcing the protocol, the SSSP.
If you are at all familiar with Tsubaraya’s series, Ultra Q (which is generally called the first series in the Ultra franchise, even though no member of the Ultraman family appears in it), you will recognize that these monsters first appeared on that show, and the intro even throws in a few details about how they were defeated in the original.
But the latest monster, which can make itself invisible, tunnel under the earth, and is hungry for radioactive materials, proves too powerful for them to deafeat.
Which is when a mysterious ball of light falls from the sky, and Ultraman emerges…
As in Shin Godzilla, Shin Ultraman spends a lot of time behind the scenes, showing us how the SSSP has to work within the bureaucracy and its struggles to convince those in charge of their theories. There is a lot of very cynical talk about Japan’s relationship with the United States, and we are not given a very flattering picture of either Japan’s leaders, or those in other countries and the UN. For most of the film the leaders at the top aren’t willing to accept that Ultraman is there to help them, and the SSSP has to repeatedly try to warn them about other aliens who show up promising to help us.
It can be a bit dry at times, although there are enough great Kaiju battles most people won’t mind, and a few good moments that don’t have anything to do with giant monsters. However, there is a somewhat episodic feel to things, where we are suddenly faced with a new development, without any warning or buildup, as in the moment when we are told a major character has vanished, only to have her reappear moments later in a very unexpected way.
You might almost think someone had stuck a bunch of TV episodes together into a single movie.
Which, yes, has happened fairly regularly with Ultraman in the past. So I guess you can say that’s traditional.
Perhaps the most interesting choice was to eliminate the so-called color timer, the device on Ultraman’s chest that changes color when he is nearly out of power. Instead, the red on Ultraman’s suit changes color, from dark silver when we first see him, to red, and then to green when his power is nearly depleted. It’s an interesting variation and far more elegant than the original.
Although I find it curious that this version of Ultraman seems far more alien than any version we’ve seen before, as if there is very little of his original host still in there. Nor do we ever get to see the original personality for more than a moment or two so we have no idea who he really was anyway.
But then, the Ultra series has always struggled with the relationship between the Ultraman and his host.
The effects are quite impressive, and feature a mix of practical effects, men in suits, and digital effects. It looks remarkably solid and realistic and fits in well with the look and tone of the whole film.
While Anno provided the script again, Shinji Higuchi, who co-directed Shin Godzilla, is listed as the sole director this time. Higuchi worked on an impressive number of anime and tokusatsu TV shows and movies during his lengthy career, as a writer, director, special effects artist, producer and animator, including the live-action Attack on Titan movies. He does quite a respectable job here, particularly when it comes to the many action scenes, although it might have helped if he had spent a little more time on the characters and gave us a glimpse of what Shinji Kaminaga was like before he became Ultraman.
It’s all quite impressive, although I can’t help thinking that it seems far less like a true rebirth to the franchise (which is still going strong) than just another entry into the series. A good entry, I’ll admit, but one which does not challenge anything about the basic format the series has returned to again and again.
Which you can’t say about most of the Ultraman theatrical movies they’ve made.
Up next is Shin Kamen Rider. I’ve never seen the original series, which is one of the most beloved of all the Tokusatsu TV series, but I have sinking feelings about this one.
After all, the only publicity materials out there right now are showing off just how close it looks to the original.
It’s a bit worrisome that this is the only thing they can find to say about it…
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