Half way between nostalgia vehicle and (post) modern relaunch, Shin Ultraman is the second in a trilogy of largely unconnected movies rebooting Japanese cultural mainstays (to be concluded in 2023 with Shin Kamen Rider). The film follows 2016’s critically acclaimed Shin Gojira—or Godzilla: Resurgence in the West—and while it loosely follows the same credo, reimagining a long-running property as contemporary political critique, it doesn’t quite hit with the same visceral impact as its kaiju predecessor. However, despite its occasional failings, the 46th film in the “Ultra Series” has much more on its mind than your average blockbuster.
Shin Ultraman doesn’t yet have a North American release date, but it’s part of the wide selection of recent East and Southeast Asian films programmed at the 20th annual New York Asian Film Festival (or NYAFF), which runs until July 31. The film was directed by Higuchi Shinji and written by Anno Hideaki, the duo who not only co-directed Shin Gojira, but were responsible for much of the writing in Anno’s landmark ’90s mecha anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, a dissection of the mecha and kaiju genres. They’re big-idea creators, and with Shin Gojira, they turned their love of horrifying spectacle and spiritual introspection into a satirical take on the beloved monster. Shin Gojira returned the giant lizard to the nuclear roots of his 1954 debut—a reflection of the atomic horrors of World War II and beyond—in a modern tale of boardroom bureaucracy that mirrored the Japanese government’s widely-criticized response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The result was box office success, lofty accolades, and even loftier expectations for what Anno and Higuchi would conjure next.
In 2019, after Anno completed work on his fifth and final Evangelion film (Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time), their Ultraman project was announced. Anno and Higuchi would be handed the reins of the beloved superhero, who—even though he hasn’t crossed over to Western audiences the way Godzilla has, or even the way footage from tokusatsu series Super Sentai was repurposed for Power Rangers—retains a Superman-like cultural stature in Japan, dating back to his first TV appearance in 1966. And while there’s scarcely been a year since without some major Ultraman story, Anno and Higuchi’s take—an inevitably deconstructionist one, given their track record with popular Japanese genres—would also need to work as an introduction to unfamiliar viewers. However, the new film isn’t all that concerned with existing lore; the broad strokes of the character remain, in that he’s an alien peacekeeper who arrives on earth to battle giant monsters—he’s a key example of kyodai, a tokusatsu sub-genre involving heroes who grow to enormous scales—but the film’s thematic focus feels entirely unique to the series.
Shin Ultraman deliberately inserts itself into the cinematic lineage Anno and Higuchi cemented with Shin Gojira—not only through its similar name, but by opening with the title for Shin Gojira, which briefly appears on screen before being subsumed by the logo for this new Ultraman film. The opening scenes of Shin Ultraman evoke the 2016 landmark even more directly, with the appearances of numerous kaiju reminiscent of Anno and Higuchi’s disturbing, deep-sea-fish conception of Godzilla (albeit somewhat sanded down and simplified). In an opening montage, they each attack various nuclear facilities, but are each also swiftly dealt with by the Japanese military. This opening sequence both establishes the sheer common-ness of these apocalyptic occurrences—one kaiju resembles a turkey; another is equal parts pangolin and power-drill—while also immediately turning the film into a spiritual sequel to Shin Gojira, if not a literal one. You could, if you so choose, assume that they took place one after the other.
The film largely follows a group of government agents, the SSSP—or the S-Class Species Suppression Protocol, led by Tamura Kimio (Nishijima Hidetoshi of Drive My Car)—who are tasked with battling and studying these monstrous kaiju, but by the time the story truly begins, their cadence is distinctly workaday. To the SSSP, mass casualty is run-of-the-mill, and disaster is as mundane as a 9 a.m. meeting. And so, where Shin Gojira played as a metaphor for post-Fukushima failures, Shin Ultraman plays distinctly like a parable for climate change, and climate nihilism, given the vast swathes of populated land casually wiped away in these attacks, and the repetitive nature of each escalating disaster. There exists, among the film’s human characters, a sense of submission to overwhelming natural forces, and general apathy for the ensuing collateral damage—that is, until one of these monsters is defeated by a humanoid giant, with a slender red-and-silver façade and glowing yellow eyes. This massive, magnanimous figure crosses his forearms and fires lasers from his wrists (as the “Ultras” often do in the franchise), and he moves and poses like a cheaply-assembled action figure. It’s wonderfully childlike, with sophisticated visual effects used not to recreate reality, but to recreate—closer, larger, and in more vivid hues—a bygone era of small-scale, practical filmmaking where charming simplicity was king. It feels, at times, as if there are still real men inhabiting these humongous suits.
The new film isn’t all that concerned with existing lore; the broad strokes of the character remain, but the film’s thematic focus feels entirely unique to the series.
The SSSP nicknames this new hero “Ultraman,” and his sudden arrival marks an immediate respite. The destructive kaiju may still spawn at random intervals (human intervention, it turns out, is at the root of this), but there’s now a real hope that Ultraman, humanity’s new savior, can equal these intricately-designed monsters in laser-battle. His intervention is practically divine, which is fitting, giving the series’ titling convention. “Shin” can be roughly translated to “new” or “true”—perhaps Anno and Higuchi hope to create the definitive versions of these icons—but it can also mean “god,” and where their Godzilla arrived with the fury of a vengeful deity, their conception of Ultraman represents the flip-side to that coin. He’s as cool as he is Christlike, willing to sacrifice himself for humanity’s sins.
However, where the story’s initial act sees Ultraman rescuing Japanese cities, the rest of the movie approaches a more complex moral idea: given the chaos humanity has unleashed, does it deserve to be saved?
Before long, more extraterrestrials enter and exit the story, each with their own function with regards to this existential question. One of them is distinctly Ultraman-like in appearance, a superior of sorts to our silver hero; a higher rung on an inter-galactic hierarchy, whose role is to pass down judgements on existence and survival. Another alien, named Zarab, resembles a hollow, robotic owl dressed in a fedora and a trench coat. This delightfully bizarre creature, who seems to know more about Ultraman than he’s letting on, brokers backroom political deals with the Japanese government and other global superpowers, thus unfurling their self-serving nature even in the face of impending global disaster. Shin Ultraman is many things—at times, too many—but it can’t be accused of subtlety, or half-hearted critique.
In weaving together governmental scrutiny with stylized genre throwback, the film initially succeeds at aping its predecessor’s tonal juggling act—not to mention, its breakneck momentum—but eventually loses this balancing act in attempting to present too many different ideas and draw from too many varying influences. This is by no means an impossible task, but it weighs down the film’s middle portion, causing it to sag under large stretches of dialogue, which are forced to stand in for moral dilemmas that might be dealt with through action. While the human characters are at least fun to follow—a rarity in the kaiju genre!—they aren’t allowed to engage with the film’s ethical conundrums, something left instead to Ultraman, who questions both his place among the humans and, in the process, his essential nature.
It’s wonderfully childlike, with sophisticated visual effects used not to recreate reality, but to recreate—closer, larger, and in more vivid hues—a bygone era of small-scale, practical filmmaking where charming simplicity was king.
While Ultraman’s armored appearance is re-created from other media, and the reveal of his human alter-ego is unlikely to surprise long-time fans, these familiar tidbits come wrapped in heady metaphysical ideas which the film creates whole cloth, and which it allows to unfold in distinctly reflective moments atypical of the genre. It’s a far cry from recent Hollywood attempts at similar themes, like Marvel’s scattershot Eternals and Thor: Love and Thunder, which place the relationships between gods and humanity in their crosshairs before sweeping these ideas under the rug. Shin Ultraman is a much more thoughtful extrapolation of philosophical ideas that large-scale blockbusters—especially in Hollywood—tend to use as little more than plot-fodder between action scenes. Here, they aren’t the garnishing, but the whole meal. For instance, you wouldn’t expect diplomacy to be the resolution of a major battle, but in Shin Ultraman, it doesn’t so much rob the film of action or tension as it does inject it with a sense of gravity. The same can be said of its climactic scenes, which, rather than hinging on punches and “pew pew” laser fights, border on abstract manifestations of intimate spiritual dilemmas.
One of the film’s relevant touchstones happens to be a Western contemporary of the original Ultraman series: Star Trek, an influence signaled to the audience both through the Trek memorabilia lining the SSSP’s shelves, and via the organization’s distinctly Starfleet-esque insignia. In that sense, the film most certainly succeeds at presenting and resolving its intergalactic dilemmas through intellect and understanding. In addition, it also presents a particularly momentous vision of kyodai action, with its camera weaving between buildings alongside its flying heroes, in ways that may not have been possible during the characters’ early years with more rudimentary technology. However, the film is seldom able to weave together these two contrasting modes of expression.
Where Shin Gojira was the result of fusing the imaginative camp of the late Shōwa era (the likes of Son Godzilla in the ’60s and Terror of Mechagodzilla’70s) with a devastating sense of national introspection, Shin Ultraman instead presents two stories in parallel, which it’s unable to reconcile. On one hand, it gazes lovingly at Ultraman as a fixture of Japanese popular culture—both Anno and Higuchi have professed to being lifelong fans—while on the other hand, it hopes to delve into existential questions whose burdens feel at odds with the escapist action spectacle. The film even seems to pull from later Evangelion entries for its most metaphysical and religious imagery, but it doesn’t slow down to let the theological implications marinate the same way.
That being said, as an action blockbuster rooted not only in dazzling fireworks, but in dazzling ideas, it’s an imperfect success, whose imbalances speak not to a fatal flaw of imagination, but merely a temporary failure of its renowned creators to achieve aesthetic and thematic harmony. It aims high enough that even falling short of its objectives lands it somewhere in the vicinity of solid, smart franchise filmmaking, bolstered by rich ideas and ambitious images, rather than the mundane repetition of its Hollywood peers. It could have, and perhaps should have, been great, but pretty damn good is still pretty damn good.
Published on July 26, 2022