Fantastic Fest: Shin Ultraman Treats Us As Adults and Still Gives Thrills and Action

Review by: Geoff Arbuckle

In 2016, Shin Godzilla was released to quite a bit of fanfare. The film was the first Japanese Godzilla film in 12 years. For most fans, it was a rousing success. As a Japanese film, it won fairly prestigious awards. Directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi were immediately handed the keys to another, sort-of relative of the Big G’s, franchise with Shin Ultraman.

Hideaki Anno already had plans to reboot the Ultraman franchise as early as 2013. Anno would not co-direct this film, but would write and co-produce. However, long-time partner, Shinji Higuchi was the right man for the job. And after Shin Godzilla’s massive success at the box office, critically, and with fans, well… It was all but a slam dunk that Shin Ultraman would be highly anticipated.

The movie begins with a wonderful 60s style pop jazz score from Shirō Sagisu. Familiar faces from past Ultraseries are shown rampaging through Japan and subsequently defeated. Very quickly we understand that these are classified as “S-Class Species” or “Kaiju” which leads the Japanese Government to establish the SSSP, the S-Class Species Suppression Protocol, to defeat future incursions of these creatures. This group is mostly made up of brainy folk and, even when the military is involved, they are instantly handed control to lead the mission to defeat whatever monster has arrived.

Right away, you know this is the same duo that did Shin Godzilla. Not only do you see a true love for not just the Ultraman series, but also for the giant monster, tokusatsu, genre. Most importantly, though, this is for the grown-ups that liked kaiju flicks as kids. This isn’t a monster shows up, the SSSP comes in with the exact tool needed to destroy monster and/or a costumed hero or other hero monster shows up, and monster is defeated. Oh no. This is in the exact same vein as Shin Godzilla. There is discussion. There is consideration in real terms how to deal with these creatures that can, and will, destroy towns and kill innocents in their paths. There is a wonderful realism to it.

Even when, suddenly, unexpectedly, and out of nowhere, a beam of light flies down from the sky, and a giant savior arrives, it still feels real in this world of the movie. Still, the SSSP studies the monsters’ attack on this strange, silver being from the stars (our titular Ultraman) and its counterattack. This opening sequence gives us a combination of that wonder we get from this genre, the thrill of something inconceivably powerful, and what the bystanders must do to understand what they saw. That’s immediately followed by us overhearing what people on the streets are saying to each other about what happened. This is not universally accepted as a good thing.

I wanted to go deep into these first minutes of this movie because this is a fairly adult film meant to be taken seriously. Even comedic elements are uniquely wry and high brow in their maturity. There’s a wonderful moment in which Ultraman’s presence has gained the interest of the United States. Before, when Japan was only dealing with various terrestrial monsters, the U.S. were all too happy to sell Japan massive amounts of weapons whereas now that an alien has shown up, now they want in on all the study. Of course, later, when Japan needs weapons, a legitimate, laugh-out-loud joke comes when the head of the SSSP wants to make sure that the US bills the department of defense and not them for some bombs they purchased on the spot.

Knowing how Anno and Higuchi operate, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this movie that features an alien that can grow to large sizes to fight rampaging monsters, and, in a Superman-esque way, impersonates a member of the SSSP and even gains an admirer in his SSSP partner, there is actually a political intrigue vein that makes up the entire plot. A tricky little alien named Zarab has come to Earth with plans to turn the human population against each other by exploiting Earth’s reliance and usage of countries to separate people. In order to do this, he needs to cozy up to Japan and give them more perceived political power, but the deal that would go into place with Zarab would ultimately make Japan utterly subservient to him. In order to force their hand, he needs to make Japan believe Ultraman is an enemy.

The movie kind of acts as a sort of anthology of sorts. The first half is Ultraman appearing, being thought of as a friend, only for subterfuge to be put into play by an alien with bad intentions, only for Ultraman to clear his name. The first part of the second half involves yet another intrigue with another alien race using SSSP agent Asami as an example that their technology could make her, or any other human, a gigantic, nigh-indestructible kaiju. This would then throw the world into chaos as every country would vie for the technology to use for war or for general supremacy. If one country could have a hundred Ultramen, who could possibly stop them? However, this other alien, seems to be promising defense against the next extra-terrestrial attack. It is basically a similar deal to Zarab, but with a different, better plan of action to get the humans to agree to a peaceful takeover of the world. The final 30 minutes or so deal with Ultraman having to come to terms with his breaking a solemn rule that he decided to take a human alter ego on Earth.

Up and down this production, the movie is smart. It has a fast pace and the dialog is snappy. I like that Higuchi and Anno have a healthy distrust of government – at least so far as bureaucracy and how governments deal with the strange and the “other”. With Ultraman disguising himself as a member of this agency with a ton of high clearance, he asks his partner, the admiring Asami, what would the SSSP have done if they learned his secret that he was not who he said he was and, in fact, an alien. Way back during the earlier days of the show that was much more directed at naïve children, we would have assumed, and expected, that the SSSP would welcome them as a valuable protector of Earth. Our reality, though? Let’s be serious, we would likely dissect him and taken his secrets for our own.

To fully understand how this movie really understands how tension and excitement can build without needing to rely on the special effects and the giant monsters fighting a giant alien man, Anno has this brilliant scene between Mefilas, the second person vying for the planet, and Ultraman having a literal sit-down at a Sushi bar. Mefilas and Ultraman discuss this grand scheme, both looking like to normal Japanese human beings. Mefilas calmly explains the measures he’s put into place to ensure Ultraman does not fight him. He basically explains how his own code of honor will prevent him from interfering. Meanwhile, Ultraman, also calmly, explains that what his opposite has planned cannot stand, and therefore he will respond with brute force. There is not a punch thrown. There are no size changing shenanigans. There are no costumes. There aren’t even raised voices. These are just two people setting the stage for what the next stage of the movie will bring. It makes for an even more impactful physical confrontation when it eventually happens.

This movie has many positives going for it. It’s greatest positive is that it is a recognizable property that was made for kids that was allowed to grow up with its audience. The movie works in the sense that it doesn’t just rely on a deus ex machina, but instead wants to try to explain how the world would react to these threats and this new facet of a larger universe that humanity is now thrust into. It examines the pros and cons of humanity as individuals and as a world. While I would say that there may be a little bit too much included in this roughly 115 minute movie that includes three separate plots as if it’s a series of episodes of Ultraman strung together into a larger arc, generally, I liked this movie a lot even if it’s not quite at the same level as Shin Godzilla. That said, if you liked the style and the maturity of Shin Godzilla, Shin Ultraman is going to check a lot of boxes for you.


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