Over the last few years, I started watching a lot of Ultraman. After watching the last of the Evangelion Rebuilds, it seemed natural. Without giving away too much, there are parts of the final movie that make the connection to Ultraman super explicit, and if you read anything on Hideaki Anno, you’ll probably see mentioned that one of his early film projects was a remake of the first episode of Return of Ultraman. It’s a goofy as hell movie, starring Anno himself as Ultraman Jack, but with no budget to make a helmet, so he’s just a dude in an Ultraman jacket.
This is actually episode 13 (“Execution! The Five Ultra Brothers!”)of the 4th Ultraman series, Ultraman Ace, in which all the previous Ultramen get crucified on Planet Golgatha to create the Ace Killer, a being with all their powers whose whole job is to…kill Ace. The Anno influence is obvious, but the episode (and the following one; it’s a two parter) are awesome and silly and slightly terrifying in how off-kilter they can be. It’s a great place to figure out if you are on board with this; I was.
All of this might seem unimportant when reviewing a movie, but the point is that I think enjoying Shin Ultraman requires a degree of investment in Ultraman as a whole that Shin Godzilla did not. Shin Godzilla is probably then the better movie overall for this, but I can’t deny that I had a whole lot more fun watching Shin Ultraman and peeling it apart.
The two movies almost have opposing goals. Shin Godzilla looked to take the general mythos of Godzilla and put it into a modern framework that people could connect to. Shin Ultraman instead looks to recreate Ultraman with an eye towards addressing what modern audiences might see as problems in it, but while maintaining as much of the original as possible. What this means is a drastic difference in tone; Shin Godzilla is far less goofy than Shin Ultraman, which lines up with the franchises in general. Ultraman has always had a goofy tone, constantly trapped in the liminal space between children’s show and adult TV. If you read the history of the show itself, each season of the Showa run is almost a correction for the last season leaning a bit too far the other way. Ultraman Taro, for example, is seen as pretty kid focused after the slightly more disturbing aforementioned Ultraman Ace; the next show, Ultraman Leo, does things like murder everyone on the cast aside from the main character in the last 10 or so episodes of the show.
The US theatrical release had a brief interview with director Shinji Higuchi before it where he talked about being happy about North American audiences laughing at the movie. Ultraman functions a lot like professional wrestling in a way, in that everyone is in on the joke, but it’s so much more fun to just go along with it. In the end, there’s lots of dudes in rubber suits smashing fake cities, but pretending is way cooler. This means laughing at Ultraman is part of the whole thing, and the movie tries and largely succeeds in preserving this odd tone. I laughed a good amount during this movie, and it was good to know that was on purpose.
The movie starts of with a perfect shout out to the original series.
The rapidfire intro sequence, which shows off several different kaiju attacking Japan, and the various non-Ultraman methods used to defeat them, is an attempt to finally explicitly connect Ultra Q to Ultraman. In the original Showa era series, the seasons of the show are not connected into an explicit cannon until really the third Ultraman series, Return of Ultraman. A significant amount of retconning takes place on the show, because Ultra Q, Ultraman, and Ultraseven were not ever explicitly intended to be a continuation of each other. In Shin Ultraman, the kaiju of the opening are all from the original Ultra Q, and the SSSP (the organization that the person who *is* Ultraman works for) is created specifically in response to the growing number of kaiju attacks.
The movie keeps this obsession the whole time, focused less on creating a modern Ultraman as much as taking what was of Ultraman and pushing it to be a coherent universe. The central uncommented on mysteries of Hayata/Ultraman’s identity from the original series are fully addressed. While Shin Ultraman does have one of the classic “huh, where is this chracter who seems to disappear when Ultraman shows up?” moments in which nobody connects that Shinji (Shin’s replacement for Hayata) is Ultraman, it quickly is revealed to the whole world thanks to social media. Instead of nobody knowing Hayata was Ultraman, everyone knows Shinji is.
Even the biggest changes in Shin Ultraman from the original series is part of the attempt to create coherency for the whole universe. In the original show, how exactly Ultraman and Hayata are connected is never totally clear. Somehow Ultraman exists within Hayata, but he also calls him down from space or some such. Shin Ultraman does something completely different, showing that Ultraman himself killed Shinji when he crashed to Earth, and then took on his form because he noticed Shinji was tyring to protect people, and so thought he was a good person (but also left his body just sitting in the woods because it needs to be there for a later scene, obviously). This is far more in line with Ultraseven, the show after Ultraman, and seems like an attempt to more clearly connect those two in the way that Ultra Q was connected at the start. It also lets them have some of the “alien learns to be human” silliness that permeates Ultraseven.
Sidenote: Ultraseven Is Hilarious
The first episode, in which we meet Ultraseven and his alter ego, Dan Moroboshi, includes a great scene in which the Ultra Guard meets Dan as a guy just wandering down the street, and when they ask his name, he says “Right, I’ll use Dan Moroboshi” and no one says shit. They just let him join up with them. He spends large chunks of the rest of the series trying to act human and messing it up. It’s great.
While all of this can seem a bit serious (and from the clear fan perspective that Higuchi and Anno have, it totally is), the movie does a pretty good job of keeping the silly tone going even as all this is happening. Silly shout outs to the original show in terms of some of the kaiju (a line about how Gabora is related to Pagos from the intro, for example, is a clear joke about how they bothe used the same base costume, which funny enough, was from Toho’s Godzilla franchise) and just the way Ultraman himself fights (ridiculously frozen in one pose as he flips around in the air at times, a clear visual gag about how Ultraman in flight in the original shows is clearly a static figure with no movement at all). While these nerds love Ultraman, they also are clearly OK poking fun at it as well.
Even the three main kaiju focused on in the movie are all chosen for how they reveal more about Ultraman himself and how the universe around him works, and why things happened the way they did. Special attention should be given to Zetton, who is the final kaiju in the original series, who actually defeats Ultraman and is fought off by the humans before Ultraman’s brother Zoffy comes to take him home. Of course a similar thing happens here, but the changes and twists give it so much more depth. The redesign for Zetton itself is amazing, and leads to an ending appropriate somehow both for Ultraman and the previous work from Higuchi and Anno.
All of this does have some disadvantages, in that it can feel incredibly abrupt. The original show was more than 40 episodes, and while the movie gladly cuts out a whole lot from that, it still wants to hit on a lot of material from it. Unlike Shin Godzilla, it is a movie for people who are already deeply embedded in Ultraman nerdery, and I can completely understand a lukewarm reception without that. I know there were things I missed in it, even with my general decent knowledge of the source material. Because of this, it would be easy for the audience to just think the movie is endless fan service for Ultranerds, but there is more to it. Technological anxieties combined with the general science fiction fear of other species far outpacing us crop up regularly, and even take interesting turns (the weaponization of humanity by other species is a big point, after one particularly bizarre transformation). I don’t think these themes were ever meant to be secondary to the callbacks, but the tone of the movie can often make it seem as much if you are expecting the more somber tone of Shin Godzilla.
I get how all this is a lot to ask of an audience, specifically in a country where Ultraman has never been popular, even less so than Godzilla, who is still not super mainstream in a lot of ways. There’s a reason this was shown for only two nights in theaters, long after its Japanese release. But if you can get into the right mood, to take in the knowing goofiness of Ultraman with the general weirdness of Anno and Higuchi, there’s so much there. And it’s OK to laugh at it all, because some of it is really funny.
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