Six years after delivering Shin Godzilla (2016), Shinji Higuchi and Hideaki Anno team up again to deliver their re-imagination of one of their childhood heroes, Ultraman. As both are devoted fans of the titular hero, they will deliver without a doubt a film that remains faithful to the original, but can they deliver a film that is satisfying for fans and non-fans alike?
Japan has, since many years, been under attack from different giant monsters. As the result of these ongoing attacks, the S-Class Species Suppression Protocol Enforcement Unit (SSSP) is established. The current kaiju the SSSP is trying to eradicate is Neronga, an electricity-eating Kaiju. Just when they feel like they are running out of options, an object from outside the atmosphere crashes nearby. A silver giant appears, defeats Neronga in an instant, and flies away.
A few days later, analyst Asami Hiroko (Masami Nagasawa) is transferred to the SSSP. The captain, Kimio Tamura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), asks her to lead the investigation into the mysterious giant. In her investigation, she is helped by Yumi Funiberi (Akari Hayami), who is specialized in biology, Akihisa Taki (Daiki Arioka), a geek specialized in physics, and police inspector Shinji Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh), who is rather reserved and somewhat socially inept.
Yet, the second time the giant appears, the SSSP is baffled and the mystery concerning ultraman heightens. He does not come from the sky like last time and, instead of being completely silver, his appearance is a combination of red and silver. Not much later, another extra-terrestrial, Zarab (Kenjiro Tsuda), appears in the office of SSSP and demands to meet the prime minster of Japan (Kyusaku Shimada). He seems friendly, but secretly plans to cause a war to wipe out all Homo Sapiens. One of his first steps in his plan is taking control over Ultraman and weaponize him.
Shin-Ultraman is a film made by fans for fans. Yet, the ‘religious’ attempt at recreating the past in a modern jacket ultimately results in a narrative that, despite delivering a lot of pleasing moments, is unable to fully satisfy the heart of spectators of those who are not yet fans.
The main problem of Shin-Ultraman lies in its narrative structure – a structure pushed forward by the question of what Ultraman is and the riddle what the source or cause of the frequent appearances of Kaiju is. While the structure balances seriousness and light-heartedness well to give the re-imagining of Ultraman a similar tone as the original series, the focus on echoing the nostalgic feel of the series and remaining faithful to the narrative beats of the original ultimately causes Higuchi and Anno to forget to give the structure of the narrative the necessary dramatic and emotional build-up that would make spectators truly feel what is at stake and allow the finale to fully satisfy the spectator (Structure-note 1).
The main theme of Shin-Ultraman is the seductiveness of power – international as well as intergalactic. With his narrative, Higuchi reveals that what divides humans and what makes international relations precarious is nothing other than the thirst for more power and the desire to rewrite international power relations in one’s favour (Narra-note 1). Such thirst does not only gives birth to political games (e.g. the sudden establishment of the Counter-Extra-terrestrial Team) but underpinned the politician’s haste (e.g. by attempting to use the kaiju-threat to justify the arming of Japan with nuclear weapons, by swiftly making treaties and deals with extra-terrestrials like Zarab (…), and by trying to detain Ultraman to realize their own fantasies of dominance and to outdo other countries at the level of military power. Shin-ultraman nicely illustrates that the promise of power, a phantasmatic pearl shining just out of reach, invites those thirsty for power to fall victim to deception and lead humanity, happily, to their own destructive exploitation.
Yet, Shin-Ultraman is also a narrative about hope, about the hopeful belief that humanity can unite and can overcome what seems impossible via international cooperation and by sharing, beyond language barriers, scientific knowledge. It is not by relying on Ultraman in a religious way that humanity can be saved, but by working together to one common goal that humanity can avoid their enslavement and their bio-weaponization (Narra-note 2).
The relational frictions between Asami and Akihisa do not merely provide a dash of light-heartedness, but also echoes how different subjects can conceptualize their own position within the world. While Akihisa sees his existence as cut of from the societal game – the other never crosses his mind, Asami sees herself a deeply societal being, fully realizing that what gives meaning to one’s life, what shape one’s ego, are the relationships that one establishes with others. This effect of such radical different view on subjectivity is sensibly in the difference in their presence. While Asami’s speech is easily fuelled by her underlying emotions, Akihisa’s speech is logical and empty of his subjectivity – the robotic rhythm of his speech does not change. Akihisa undergoes some ‘humanisation’ throughout the narrative, yet due to the problems at the level of the narrative’s structure the effect of this humanisation on Akihisa’s signifiers and acts lacks emotional impact (Structure-note 2).
The composition of Ultraman stands out due to its rich and engaging dynamism. Yet, the fabric of the dynamism is not always well thought-out. While Higuchi proves that he can use shakiness in an effective way – i.e. to emphasize the violent impact of kaiju and giants on the environment, to reverberate the fear these giants instil in human beings, and to echo the urgency of certain situation, there are also various shots marked by shakiness where it has no added benefit (Cine-note 1). The same is true for the moments of snappy editing. While some are effective in heightening the tension in the narrative, other sudden changes in the visual rhythm make no sense.
Static moments, on the other hand, are effective in highlighting the beauty of the destructive kaiju and giants and in allowing the impact of explosions and kaiju-violence to be felt. Higuchi’s play with more unusual camera-perspectives and movement works well as cinematographic decorations.
Shin-Ultraman offers the spectator a fluid combination of visual effects and practical effects (e.g. the miniature sets, … etc.) and thus a very satisfying visualization of kaiju, extra-terrestrials, and Ultraman. The effort that is made to visualise destruction and the impact of explosions (through visual and practical means) gives a much-needed weight to the presence of the kaiju within their surroundings and the fluid visual collages of humans, often fleeing, with ravaging Kaiju in the background gives the presence of these gigantic monsters the necessary sliver of believability.
The designs and the way the monsters and Ultraman are brought to life (e.g. the way they move, the feel of their skin, … etc.) reveals that a lot of effort was made to do right by the iconic status of Ultraman and its titular enemies. In fact, Shinji Higuchi proves, with his visuals, that it is possible to serve nostalgia and offer a dash of visual modernity at the same time.
The nostalgic flair is also evident in the musical accompaniment and the peculiar way music is often used to heighten the drama. Besides the nostalgic application of music, musical pieces are also utilized, with great effect, to reverberate the tension that accompanies and the urgency that marks the search for a way to defeat the destructive Kaiju.
Shin-Ultraman delivers everything that fans need from a re-imagining of their beloved character, but not enough to charm people who are new to the franchise. Higuchi and Anno deliver an impressive love letter to their childhood, yet their devoted love, which is sensible in every aspect of the narrative, might not be able reach those who do not call themselves fans. Ultraman, while being a very pleasant and enjoyable narrative that delivers an important message of hope, ultimately stumbles because it is too devoted to the past and too concerned with satisfying nostalgia (Score-note 1).
Narra-note 1: Shin-Ultraman also fleetingly touches upon the destructive impact that humanity has on his natural environment – a destruction linked, in the narrative, with the awakening of Kaiju. It is quite evident that the blind pursuit of technological advancement is, at a certain level, always driven by power fantasies.
Narra-note 2: For some, Ultraman is a godly presence, an existence that, due to his material presence, offers a radical support (i.e. the signifier Ultraman) that enables them to safeguard their hope for the future.
Structure-note 1: Light-heartedness is infused into the narrative via the dead-pan delivery of certain statements and via the expressive style by which certain actors bring their character alive.
Structure-note 2: In fact, Anno and Higuchi gamble too much on the fact that fans will infuse their love into the narrative and breathe emotion into its unfolding. As a result, the film does little to charm newcomers and make them become fan of Ultraman.
Cine-note 1: Small trembles in the frame are, for that matter, utilized to subtly strengthen the impact of explosions and the impact of the gigantic body of the Kaiju as they hit the ground.
Score-note 1: Fans of the Ultraman series can ignore the official score and accept the score below.