“Ultraman’s the closest thing the modern world has to a god. No wonder people cling to him.”
SHIN ULTRAMAN (2022) is #2 of 3 in Hideaki Anno’s Shin series, which are not narratively connected, but are his takes on iconic Japanese sci-fi characters. The first one was the excellent SHIN GODZILLA and the third was the recent SHIN KAMEN RIDER. I was really excited to see this in its theatrical showing but it was two nights only and it turned out night two was dubbed. But now it’s on blu-ray (ironically with kinda messed up subtitles on my copy, but apparently they’ve fixed that).
Though this one is written by Anno, it’s directed by his SHIN GODZILLA co-director Shinji Higuchi. While Anno had done live action movies before (such as CUTIE HONEY), he’s primarily known as the anime visionary behind Neon Genesis Evangelion. Higuchi is maybe a more natural choice for something like this – he did storyboards for some anime, but he came up in the world of kaiju movies, starting as an assistant modeler on THE RETURN OF GODZILLA, and then as effects director of the excellent GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE, GAMERA 2: ATTACK OF LEGION and GAMERA 3: REVENGE OF IRIS, where he was a real pioneer in the field of combining traditional rubber suit monsters and animatronics with early digital FX.
Now, in collaboration with Anno, Higuchi has created an Ultraman movie with an approach right in the middle between the satire-heavy modern spin of SHIN GODZILLA and the berserk fan film of SHIN KAMEN RIDER. The movie opens with a quick but excellent montage of giant monster attacks, and the combination of high quality modern FX and retro music perfectly captures the sort of tone this movie will have in its best moments. Like the other SHIN movies, the music is credited to Shiro Sagisu (composer for Evangelion and other anime), but I love how much of it is just taken from Kunio Miyauchi’s scores for the original shows. I was mildly disappointed that the finale gave up and started doing rockin’ guitars and techno beats.
We’re told these kaiju attacks only happen in Japan, where the government forms an agency called S-Class Species Suppression Protocol (SSSP) to respond – predicting future attacks, evacuating danger areas, etc. During one of the kaiju attacks, a mysterious giant silver man (an Ultraman, if you will) flies down from the sky and defeats a monster called Neronga. Meanwhile, SSSP agent Shinji Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh, 13 ASSASSINS) runs in to try to save a child who failed to evacuate, and gets injured. We will soon realize that this alien force Ultraman somehow merged itself with Kaminaga, so now he’s a super hero who turns into a giant silver alien on occasion. (Possibly unethical given his job.)
The lead of the movie is an analyst named Hiroko Asami (Masami Nagasawa, PYROKINESIS, GODZILLA: FINAL WARS), who has just been transferred from another agency. She coins the name Ultraman, and she also seems attracted to Kaminaga. Similar to SHIN GODZILLA, though not to the same extent, this works as kind of a procedural about how government agencies would try to handle these kaiju situations. You might be surprised how many scenes have this small team in their business clothes sitting in regular offices and conference rooms. They don’t get a cool command center with a giant screen or anything like that, which adds a little bit of groundedness to the proceedings. A little bit. At the same time, Higuchi and cinematographers Osamu Ichikawa (SHINE KAMEN RIDER) and Keizô Suzuki (TOKYO DRAGON CHEF) seem very dedicated to coming up with the most playful and unexpected camera angles they can. Here are a couple:
I was thinking of KNOCK-OFF-era Tsui Hark even before this shot from inside a bag of potato chips:
Anyway, this office life is contrasted with weird tokusatsu alien shit. A non-giant (in fact “pint-sized,” somebody says) alien named Zarab starts showing up and trying to make contact. What I like about this guy is that he’s crazy looking, he has no neck, just a giant weird metallic head that comes out of his shoulders, but he puts on a fedora and sneaks around trying to talk to the agents like he’s Deep Throat. I’m surprised we don’t see him on the street pretending to read a newspaper to hide his face.
It’s even better when he drops the disguise but sits in a car having a conversation like a normal earth person.
Anyway, this Zarab guy figures out that Kaminaga is Ultraman, and Kaminaga figures out that Zarab doesn’t come in peace, he’s trying to manipulate the different countries to fight each other so he can conquer the planet. As some of these aliens do. Not all of them – that would be a generalization. Zarab subdues Kaminaga, leaks video of him transforming into Ultraman, and also turns into Ultraman himself and attacks the city, to make Ultraman look bad. But they get out of that one and clear Ultraman’s name and all that. Like SHIN KAMEN RIDER this is very episodic, going through a bunch of different incidents with a bunch of different monsters, like you’re watching a bunch of episodes of Ultraman in a row.
This other alien named Mefilas shows up and pulls the crazy move of turning Asami giant in the middle of downtown. She looks just like herself, dressed nice with her business pumps and everything, but she’s almost as tall as the skyscrapers. She’s mind-controlled, so she walks through as if in a trance, at one point elbowing a building.
When she’s returned to her normal size she sees everybody’s videos of her giant escapade all over social media. I believe it’s indicated that some of them were pervs looking up her giant skirt, but I like the idea that all the attention was embarrassing to her anyway. I mean, wouldn’t you feel weird about it if everybody in the world saw you turn giant and walk through downtown in a trance? Maybe at first it would be a novelty but man would you get fucking sick of hearing about it. Yeah, it’s me. I was the lady who turned giant. But that was only briefly and it was a long time ago. I don’t wanna talk about it anymore.
Despite turning giant, she seems like the audience surrogate character, the diligent hard worker who always feels awkward and self conscious because she’s working with a handsome dude who turns into a giant silver alien god. In one scene she’s worried that he smells her b.o. and apologizes that she hasn’t had time to shower between all the alien encounters. But eventually, when he’s about to possibly sacrifice himself to save the world from an abstract space giant called Zetton, she gets up the courage to slap him on the ass right before he transforms.
We learn more about Ultraman when his space boss Zōffy shows up on earth and is mad at him for merging with a human. Turns out the human died trying to save those kids and Ultraman was so impressed by his sacrifice that he combined his life force with him. Zōffy is a gold version of Ultraman who floats in the woods and makes this amazing proclamation:
“I am known as Zōffy. Because you broke the Code of the Planet of Light, I am now the watcher of the indigenous creatures known as humans on this planet. Simultaneously, I am their adjudicator. They will very likely evolve in the same manner as our species. Therefore, we have decided that they must be disposed of.”
But in the final battle Zōffy sees that the human side of Ultraman is willing to die to save the world and this impresses him too. “Accepting the inevitability of death while thirsting for life is the core of human nature. These beings are fascinating. I respect humanity’s bravery, intellect, and vitality that led you to victory. I now believe they are too precious to destroy.”
The kaiju battles in this are really beautiful. They’re either mostly or entirely animated creations, not the traditional rubber suits. But they have a very tactile quality to them, they’re very much in the style of the rubber monsters, but with much more mobility and strange touches like Gabora’s organic drill tentacles and spinning neck petals. They manage to get a miniature model look to some of the settings while taking advantage of the technology to provide much more dynamic camera movements, floating and spinning around Ultraman as he floats and spins around. And the attention to atmospheric effects like smoke, sparks and debris, not to mention details like making the camera jiggle a little or go out of focus, really add depth and realism to it.
And then in the battle against Zetton, which takes place in space, the imagery turns psychedelic. Good shit. Good movie.
Just like with Kamen Rider, it turns out Anno is a life long Ultraman nerd, and he’s been trying to make a movie of it for around ten years – maybe longer. He made an Ultraman fan film as a project in film school. Higuchi is also a big time fan. I’m not familiar enough to know what that means as far as their choices in adaptation, but there’s an obvious joy to this thing. They’re having a great time. And I do know of one perfect in-joke: for the appearance of the monster Gomess – who on the original show was portrayed by a modified Godzilla costume – they altered the CG model of one of Godzilla’s forms from SHIN GODZILLA.
I also read that they based the body of their Ultraman on original suit actor Bin Furuya, and even got him to return to do motion capture for the character. There’s definitely a strong character behind these movements, so I think it was a great choice even for those of us who would never pick up on such a thing.
The pair also made a spin-off miniseries called Shin Ultra Fight that sounds kinda fun. In tribute to the low budget quality of their beloved childhood favorite they have episodes repurposing footage from the movie, and I guess did purposely cheesy motion capture and graphics. Probly won’t ever make it to the states, I imagine, but I hope some Japanese youths and/or old people got a laugh out of it.
I enjoyed the whole SHIN trilogy. I would watch more.