People took up all sorts of new hobbies and passions during the pandemic. We had to do something to quiet the existential dread on all sides. For me, I started inhaling Japan’s long-running Ultraman series at a feverish clip. I adore the mix of sci-fi morality plays with kaiju-fighting suitmation. I’ve watched what can only be described as a metric buttload of it. Dozens of seasons, hundreds of episodes. I love it. That’s why when the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal announced it would host the North American premiere of the long-gestating Shin Ultraman feature film, I did a little dance. Director Shinji Higuchi and writer-producer Hideaki Anno’s follow-up to the record breaking Shin Godzilla not only lives up to the hype, it perfectly encapsulates what’s so great (and less great) about the Ultraman franchise.
You could not pick a better pair of creators to tackle a big screen version of Ultraman. Hideaki Anno has devoted most of his professional life to paying homage to it in some way. He directed and starred in a live-action short when he was in school. His Neon Genesis Evangelion is basically an anime version of giant kaiju battles. Shinju Higuchi spent much of the early part of his career doing special effects for the ’80s Godzilla movies and was the special effects director of the astonishingly good Gamera trilogy in the ’90s. You can feel the love and respect for Eiji Tsuburaya (special effects wizard who created the Ultra series) in every frame of Shin Ultraman, while connecting it to the bureaucratic world of Shin Godzilla.
The movie centers on the SSSP, a small group of scientists and investigators who are in charge of dealing with the myriad kaiju threats against Japan. A funny moment early on reveals that it’s only Japan that has to deal with kaiju threats, so the rest of the UN has largely left them to it. The SSSP leader Tamura (Hidetoshi Nishijima from Drive My Car) does his best to deal with the many ministers who have a say in kaiju dealings while his team finds solutions to an increasing number of threats. Early on in the film, seemingly out of nowhere, a silver giant appears and fights the kaiju, destroying it. The SSSP designates this new being “Ultraman.”
Quickly thereafter, a new recruit joins the SSSP. She is Hiroko Asami (Masami Nagasawa), a go-getting federal investigator, whose new partner is the enigmatic Shinji Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh). Very quickly, various intelligent aliens make their presence known and attempt to broker deals with Japan for their own benefit. It seems now that Ultraman has appeared, Earth is the prime target for takeover. The SSSP have to deal not only with clandestine aliens and giant monsters, but also the media blitz surrounding them once footage reveals Kaminaga is Ultraman.
Those of you who’ve never watched any of the Ultraman series probably assume Ultraman himself is on screen a lot. Not so. In order to save costs in the mid-’60s, Ultraman was usually only ever in the final act of the episode. Until then, the SSSP (or the science/kaiju-defense team of the season) dealt with it on their own. This forced the show to focus on the characters rather than the threat for most of the runtime. Shin Ultraman is no different. The five core members of the SSSP are very well defined and updating them to a government group with laptops instead of uniformed people in high-tech tanks and jets is a great method for bringing the world of Ultraman into the more realistic, disaster-focused realm of Shin Godzilla.
The movie feels very episodic, intentionally. At nearly two hours, the action splits between various alien threats, each more perilous than the last. They build on each other and, we do learn, all have a connection, but again, the movie isn’t about the villains or the fights; it’s about how the SSSP members deal with threats. The cast are excellent, especially Nagasawa and Nishijima. Saitoh has the difficult task of being the alien in a human form, but gives it real depth and pathos.
Higuchi’s directorial flare comes through here in fascinating ways. Though he has a history with effects, I was much more impressed by the way he shot the SSSP and bureaucrat scenes. The camera angle changes at various points in a given scene to all manner of angles. It gives the impression of surveillance cameras rather than cinema. You feel paranoid that the team has eyes all around them, and really they do. They are the focal point of a growing global crisis. Five people in a room have the weight of everything on them.
Strangely, I was less wowed by the effects material. Make no mistake; it looks good. The updated designs of the creatures and of Ultraman really work. The action feels smooth and kinetic. My problem is that, as the movie goes on, it feels more and more CGI and less like CGI approximating people in suits. This is surely my practical effects bias, and I know CGI is more cost effective for these kinds of things. Still, I couldn’t help being reminded that all of this was in a computer and not—as every series has done since 1966—the work of model makers and suit performers.
Sniffy pretention aside, I think Shin Ultraman is a handsome, effective, and certainly loving riff on the original Ultraman series. It references everything you would hope it does, and throws in a few surprises too. While I don’t think it redefines the form like Shin Godzilla, I think it marries the hopefulness of the source material with our dour reality in a great way. The movie made a bajillion dollars in Asia so I’m hoping it gets a decently wide release in North America. It deserves to be seen big.