I’ve loved Ultraman since I was 12. I remember finding the original from 1966 Ultraman on a website that was probably full of viruses. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was the impact it had on me. From its handsome monsters to its lovable cast, Ultraman stayed with me. As I got older, I touched on the rest of the franchise. I remember watching Ultraman X (2015) around bowls of cereal in my freshman college housing.
But no matter how many Ultra shows I watched, I kept coming back to the 1966 series. This year ShinUltraman is like multiple episodes of the series expanded and strung together. While on paper it might seem inscrutable to the uninitiated, I actually think it has the potential for wider appeal. I think that’s what’s at the heart of ShinUltramansomething that’s been at the heart of the Ultra franchise since its inception: the theme of hope.
Our Culture magazines ShinUltraman as part of this year’s selection International Fantasy Film Festival.
Monster attacks have taken place all over Japan, leading to the creation of the SSSP – the S-Class Species Suppression Protocol Enforcement Unit – whose job it is to stop them. When a new monster wreaks havoc, a silver giant falls from the sky and defeats the creature. Much like in the original series, this being (eventually named “Ultraman” by humanity) merges with SSSP’s Shinji Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh). As the world’s attention turns to Japan and the arrival of Ultraman, various aliens show up with all sorts of weird and sinister offers to humanity. The appearance of Ultraman – and the aliens who arrive in his wake – irrevocably changes the course of humanity’s future in the universe. The consequences are both on a galactic scale and intimately human.
The world visited by Ultraman is troubled. As soon as he arrives, politicians notice that he has upset the world order. The other aliens make the situation worse; The Japanese government is seeking treaties and contracts with them to get above the new paradigm – fully aware of the international position. Jhere’s an argument to make that Ultraman isn’t upsetting the world order at all. Rather, it simply illuminates the fragility that was already there.
When the various aliens arrive (all updated characters from the original series), our world seems small. Frighteningly small. Aliens and humans comment on the insignificance of humanity. Talk of galactic treaties between myriad alien species makes Earth – makes us – seem like nothing. And yet, paradoxically, this is how ShinUltraman manages his marvelous hope. If it is an intrinsic fact of the universe that we are insignificant, that our planet and all its inhabitants mean nothing to the vast cosmos, then the fact that we always choose to care for each other, be decent and loving, means something. Ultraman embodies this choice in the film.
In previous Ultra series, the people of Ultraman act out of simple good-guy morality and a sense of duty to defend Earth. In ShinUltraman, however, the people of the “Planet of Light” are anything but interested in our well-being. This means that Ultraman’s choice to help us is his own. The effect this has on the members of the SSSP is palpable and achieves a hopeful ending that, while open with its message, hits this reviewer in just the right way.
It all comes with very affectionate cinematic direction. The film retains much of the same visual style from 2016 shin godzilla – whose creators were behind ShinUltraman if it wasn’t already obvious. References to the original series abound, from using Kunio Miyauchi’s 1966 soundtrack to literally recreating move-for-move combat between Ultraman and his enemies.
Ultraman and the movie’s monster roster are rendered in CGI. On the one hand, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed. The beautiful effects work of the original series – not to mention the amazing practical effects of modern Ultraman shows – is wonderful and it would have been nice to see a continuation of this approach in ShinUltraman. On the other hand, digital effects are always attractive on their own. Admittedly, they look more visually arresting than the CGI used in Hollywood efforts.
Admittedly, the film struggles with its characters. The film’s aliens (including Kaminaga/Ultraman) are wonderfully portrayed, especially Koji Yamamoto as Alien Mefilas. However, the members of the SSSP leave something to be desired. They’re not terrible, but their characters don’t feel as developed as those of Shin Godzilla. One thing (among many others) that ShinUltraman share with shin godzilla is a penchant for silly humor that doesn’t always land. It wouldn’t be out of place in an Ultraman show, but it feels out of place at times given the movie’s rather serious tone. It’s by no means a dealbreaker, but like Satomi Ishihara’s grimace “Where’s Zara?” stand in line shin godzillathere are a handful of moments in ShinUltraman which could have been abandoned.
To make a final comparison with shin godzillaI’m sure – as with this movie – my take on ShinUltraman will grow, change and evolve over time. But so far, for this 12-year-old who loved the original series, I enjoyed it. I can’t wait to see him again.