Monday, January 16, 2023

Not-Quite-a-Review of Shin Ultraman.

Okay. So, start off with: this isn't exactly a review. Or a critique. Or any sort of useful, impartial judgement of objective quality. My emotions are way too involved for it to be that.

So, you've been warned.

So, for the past four years or so, I've been really into a Japanese science fiction television show called Ultraman or the Ultra series. The history of the show actually starts in 1966, with an anthology TV series named Ultra Q. The show wouldn't really reach its most iconic form until it introduced the concepts of an alien who would fight with monsters on behalf of Earth and a defense team of humans who would investigate strange phenomena called the SSSP (Science Special Search Party). This show would also premiere in 1966, but just the latter half. (For context, that's three years after the United Kingdom's Doctor Who and the same year as the United States's Star Trek. Just in case you're wondering where we are in terms of 1960s science fiction series).

Anyway, yeah, the show went on to spawn roughly fifty years of content with different variations on the concept like The Return of Ultraman, Ultraman Taro, Ultraman Tiga, etc. right up until the recent series Ultraman Decker. I haven't managed to watch all of them, but it's safe to say I've become a fan since they started releasing the show on blu-ray and DVD here in the United States in 2019.

The same year that they released a movie reimagining the franchise in Japan: Shin Ultraman, written by Hideaki Anno and directed by Shinji Higuchi.

Japanese poster for Shin Ultraman

Now, mind you, us here in the U.S. weren't even sure we would get to see this film. However, it did end up coming to the United States as two special Fathom Events showings. And, as excited as a child headed for Disneyland, I had my ticket in hand and went to see it this past weekend.

If you don't want to know anything more, be aware that from here forward there will be SPOILERS.

So, first of all, the thing you need to know is that I was probably a little too excited. So, I wasn't quite able to engage with it as I might have hoped.  At least, not enough to give an objective analysis.

The truth is that it was pretty good but not really what I expected. The movie referenced and drew from a lot of stories used in the original series. However, it took some rather sharp departures. For one thing, the SSSP was a totally new group. Instead of an action team with a host of gadgets and vehicles and aggressively orange uniforms, they were a group of government analysts who tried to figure out how monsters and aliens operated and then directed the JSDF (Japan Self Defense Force, the actual defensive military of Japan) as to how to deal with it. All the characters were new with new skills and backgrounds. The movie's SSSP is not the Special Science Search Party but the S-Class Species Suppression Protocol. Even Ultraman's alter ego is new. Instead of Shin Hayata, it's Shinji Kaminaga formerly of the National Police Agency Security Bureau (best description I can give is that it's kind of like Japan's answer to the FBI).

All this kind of caused my excitement to wane a little. And I sort of slid back as I watched the movie from “super-excited” to “Hmm. Interesting. I wonder why they made that choice.”

Ultraman firing his Spacium Beam.

And like I said, not a bad movie in concept. It does work with the central theme of the Ultraman series, which is belief in humanity. Ultraman himself is an alien but he believes in the people of Earth. And the people of Earth mainly find themselves in the most trouble when they either choose to rely too much on Ultraman or other aliens. Twice in the movie, humanity gets taken in by aliens that do not have Earth's best interests at heart (Zarab and Mefilas).

But I still found myself missing things from the original show. Things I didn't think I'd miss too. I've said before that I really like the Ultra shows that sidestep the militaristic defense squads. However, I missed them here. Maybe it's because this group weren't as likable as the protagonist's motley collection of friends in Ultraman Geed or the ragtag group of paranormal investigators in Ultraman Orb. They did at least give a nod to the old vehicles by having one character's desk covered with plastic models of planes and rockets not dissimilar from the ones used for the effects in the older shows.

And they had some other interesting additions. One of the traditional limits on Ultraman is that he expends energy quickly, which is usually indicated by a device called a color timer. Here they did away with the color timer but replaced it with Ultraman himself changing color. The idea of an Ultra changing color is probably a nod back to late '90s shows like Ultraman Tiga where the character would change fighting modes.

One thing I really did love about the movie though, is just how much of a science fiction movie it is.

Ultraman can be kind of a hard thing to pin down for a lot of people. Some look at it and say it's a “kaiju show” meaning it has giant monsters in it. But it's more than just monsters stomping through a city. Others look at it and say it's a “superhero show”. But while it does have a heroic, super-powered protagonist, it doesn't follow the traditions of superhero tokusatsu shows that came after it by having a hero or team of heroes fighting against a series-long villain. The truth is that Ultraman is a “science fiction show” because every episode has the characters dealing with some kind of science fiction concept or predicament. The concept or predicament just happening to lead to a giant monster fighting a giant superpowered alien. And one thing this movie definitely had in spades is people trying to solve problems with science.

Ultraman with the SSSP at a helipad

So, Shin Ultraman did not become my new favorite thing. Or even my new favorite Ultra thing. But I hesitate to call it a bad movie. The only really big flaw it had as a film is that the final act got kind of messy. And not only am I glad I saw it, I'm glad I got excited over it. I mean, as an adult, how often do you get to experience that “kid in a candy store” level of excitement?

And I look forward to viewing the movie again and reassessing it.

Until next time.