When Shin Godzilla (2016) was released, no one could have guessed what an enormous impact the film would have upon Godzilla fandom, lore, and cinema. It would be hard to pinpoint another single Godzilla film that has been as influential without stepping back into the Showa era. Even then, given that Shin Godzilla achieved widespread critical acclaim, up to and including receiving SEVEN awards from the Japanese academy award equivalent Japan Academy Prize, including Picture of the Year, Director of the Year, lighting, editing, and more, it’s safe to say that no other Godzilla film has been celebrated quite like this one has, with even the lauded original soundly trashed by many when it was originally released. At the very least, however any individual might personally feel about the film, Shin Godzilla has been enormously successful and influential. The follow up (if we don’t count Shin Evangelion), Shin Ultraman, thus had a lot to live up to. Directed this time again by Shinji Higuchi, with former co-director Hideaki Anno of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame handling writing duties, Shin Ultraman went through the pandemic churn-wheel of delays before finally releasing to financial success and celebration May 13th in Japan. The movie is a work of enormous affection for the source material—but arguably buckles under the weight of the expectations, while nevertheless maintaining a sense of joy riddled with irritating flaws.
The story plays out like an abbreviated, updated version of the original Ultraman TV series. The opening action sums up a long history of monster attacks in a brief montage ala Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017). We then leap forward to a present day in which this film’s version of the SSSP is monitoring an invisible kaiju with a penchant for munching on electricity. When a mysterious silvery being arrives and proceeds to make short work of the rampaging beast, the world is set abuzz by the reality of the new hero, quickly named “Ultraman.” Monsters continue to appear, as well as malevolent alien forces, and the identity of Ultraman is soon tied to one of the members of the SSSP—Shinji Kaminaga (played by Takumi Saito). Kaminaga works closely with a new analyst of the SSSP, Hiroko Asami (played by Masami Nagasawa, of Godzilla: Tokyo SOS (2003), Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), etc). Together with the rest of the SSSP, they manage to escape annihilation again and again, until an ultimate threat, with surprising ties to Ultraman’s past, threatens to destroy everything.
Shin Ultraman’s plot is a mash of story beats from the original series. Rather than featuring a “monster of the day” formula, it’s a “monster of ever twenty minutes or so,” with new creatures and new threats practically lining up and appearing as a parade across the screen, one following the next just as the previous is defeated. This succession of enemies provides a swift-moving plotline, but as the various aliens and beasties are only loosely related to one another, the story only has a weak sense of cohesion. It’s a jocular ride, but not one that feels like it has a strong sense of narrative drive. When the final threat arrives, too, while the origins of that climactic menace may be a surprise, the actual manifestation feels abstract, and the pay-off feels like more noise than smart storytelling… even if the themes of human ingenuity and teamwork are worked in to tie things up.
Characterization, too, is really a mixed bag of skittles. For me, the biggest disappointment was actually Shinji Kaminaga. In this version, he comes across as an emotionless robot, and while his lack of social graces allows for some amusing moments, that same impassive face and stilted acting created a barrier for real emotional investment. His immediate foil, Hiroko Asami (named after the female protagonists from the original Ultraman and Ultraseven series), has more life, and she gets a lot to do, providing an active role in the fights against several of the monstrous threats. However, her characterization can come across as obnoxious—one of her primary characterization quirks is a propensity to grab her own butt in an attempt to psyche herself up. This affectation provoked more of a cocked eyebrow than a chuckle from me. Shin Ultraman has a humorous mood that pervades the characterizations, but it’s a mood that only sporadically struck my funny bone. An evil alien menace with numerous catchphrases and a sly manner can have charm, but the sort of winking self-awareness of the film can occasionally grate more than delight. I enjoyed the characters and their interactions perhaps about half of the time, but the other half sometimes felt forced or even unfunny, which is unfortunate in the aftermath of the truly anti-comedic disaster that was What to do with the Dead Kaiju from early this year. That film also was obviously heavily influenced by Shin Godzilla, and also wore that influence with an annoying smirk.
I want to make a brief aside about the name of Ultraman’s counterpart, Shinji Kaminaga. The original hero who became Ultraman was named Shin Hayata, ironically making the original Ultraman a sort of “Shin Ultraman” himself. Renaming him Shinji is presumably a reference to how the protagonist of Neon Genesis Evangelion was ALSO named Shinji, and THAT character was named after this movie’s director Shinji Higuchi. To bring that naming convention into Shin Ultraman, though, feels kind of narcissistic. Giving him the name Kaminaga, which is a combination of the kanji for “god” and “long,” meanwhile, seems downright cheesy. The kanji for his given name, Shinji, is also suspect. While different from the kanji used in the director’s name (真嗣, which means something like “real heir”) and the anime character (which is just rendered in katakana asシンジ), the new Ultraman Shinji used the kanji 新二, or “new” and “two.” This is a legitimate way to write the name, but… “new two”? Perhaps the name is a way of expressing that “this is a new, second Shin Hayata”, or just pointing out how this is a new, second live-action film in the Shin series, or… I don’t know, it just strikes me as a groan-worthy naming convention. Then again, this kind of naming-pun seems very much accepted in Japan, as I am reading a mystery novel in Japanese which is filled with these sorts of contorted, forced references.
Still, so much of the audience appreciation for Shin Ultraman will stem from their reaction to outside influences upon the film, as the movie is infused with endless callbacks. Those references can be a pleasure to identify, but constantly threaten to overwhelm the movie. In addition to the previously mentioned naming conventions, all the monsters are new versions of old favorites. Scenes constantly reference iconic Ultraman sequences and episodes and encounters. Even lines of dialogue are references, such as an awkward line begging Ultraman to return. The music, the shot composition, the themes—everything, everything feels like another easter egg. I personally often liked this hyper-fan-referencing, and as a less seasoned Ultra-fan, I am sure I missed reams of them. I loved the monsters, I loved that they used old-school sound effects and special effects techniques and songs, and some of the updated remixed scenes are very fun in their modern-day guises. Yet I can also certainly understand how many fans may react with a sense of nostalgic overload, or simple disdain that the film doesn’t seem to have a soul of its own.
On my second viewing especially the Shin Godzilla references felt overdone. I delighted in the opening homage to Shin Godzilla (which vigilant viewers could watch legally online shortly after the movie was released), but the lengths to which the film seems to chew up and spit out the 2016 movie makes the Shin Ultraman feel bastardized at times. We have quick shots of tanks firing that seem to reference the 2016 film, similar themes of an incompetent Japanese prime minister, endless sequences of techno-babble and people in suits sitting at tables. In a montage of monsters, one receives a similar denouement to the kaiju king from 2016. The US military is ineffective and flying the same bombers again that appeared in that film, and shot composition has absurd camera angles and “clever” framing techniques which are so nutty in the first hour or so that it becomes parodic (the shot compositions calm down by the end of the film, though). Again, these references can provide a measure of amusement to fans looking for them, but the uneasy sense of déjà vu smells almost of creative bankruptcy.
The special effects have also been a spot of contention for many. Like with Shin Godzilla, Shin Ultraman eschews traditional suitmation for computer animation—but with arguably inferior results. Both movies continue to take advantage of motion capture, and Shin Ultraman uses the opportunity to bring back Bin Furuya for some motion shots, and even Hideaki Anno reportedly donned the mo-cap suit, reliving his Ultraman fan-film days. The animators also apparently used actual monster suits for reference shots, and attempted to ape how traditional Ultraman costume creators would salvage previous monster costumes to create new ones by reusing animation assets when building the CGI creatures featured as Ultraman’s foes. But whether it was because of the sheer number of monster shots, or a deliberate attempt at handicapping the animation to mimic old-school flavor (such as with a stiff CGI model used when Ultraman is flying), many effects shots feel far less convincing than Shin Godzilla—and certain futuristic technology featured in the movie, including shots of the final menace, look so unsophisticated in their rendering as to summon forth in my mind some of the lesser computer-animated efforts from the 1990s or even 1980s. On the other hand, I do like how several of the monsters look, how the animation achieves detailed movement of backplates on the monsters or particular attacks are filmed that may have been difficult or impossible to achieve through practical effects. Some shots in the film also manage a sense of scale and grandeur that resonated with my fanboy core. Flying battle sequences, too, may have looked chintzier with models or suits (at least from a modern viewpoint), such as an elaborate fight between Ultraman and a foe over the city as they grappled and blasted one another. Still, the oscillating inconsistency of the effects was disappointing coming from the director who spearheaded the awesome effects of the Heisei Gamera trilogy.
The goal of Shin Ultraman’s effects was not realism, or even heightened realism per se—not in the way that Hollywood films attempt to create photorealistic effects at least. I suspect CGI was chosen as the vehicle for the effects because of shifting expectations, because Shin Godzilla used CGI, because Hollywood uses CGI, because many Japanese sci-fi and fantasy films have increasingly rely on that CGI aesthetic. My suspicion is that, for many younger viewers, had the film used models, puppets, and suits, it would have been derided as rubber monsters bashing cardboard buildings (which even previous generations have said about contemporary films). For older viewers looking in, their knee-jerk response to the CGI, though, seems to be “that looks like a video game, yuck.” Shin Ultraman made a choice of a look that tries to bridge the gap between the expectations of older and younger fans, but probably won’t satisfy anyone.
Perhaps more important than just the look is the question as to whether the action sequences are exciting. For me, they achieved thrills and dynamism at times, such as when a particular monster blinked in and out of visibility, or the way that Ultraman’s Specium beam burned through the countryside or blew a monster into a fiery inferno. I also liked sequences in which a particular menace is knocked into the side of a building, causing a shower of glass and bits as the creature attempts to maintain its shape, or a battle in which Ultraman’s cutter attack bounces across the ground, causing horrific damage to the surrounding buildings. However, usually at least, these fights didn’t inspire a great deal of narrative tension for me—not like, say, Top Gun: Maverick did with its slow burn focus and steadily raised stakes narrative. Instead, sometimes the sequences can look impressive, but feel narratively inert. Most frustrating from a storytelling perspective, the final fight, for me personally at least, generated the LEAST tension and excitement. It felt like an abstract conflict, as if the Anno was trying to spell out the value of human life through a geometric display—and I couldn’t connect much emotionally except via the timer showing how close disaster is coming on our heels.
How about simply the look of Ultraman? Well, this is definitely Thin Ultraman! The new Ultraman attempts faithfulness to original Ultraman designer Tohl Narita’s design, even eschewing the Color Timer and replacing it with a new mechanism that I won’t delve into here for sake of spoilers. Suffice to say that arguably later Ultraman incarnations are referenced in how Ultraman operates, and leave it at that. The aforementioned thinness, combined with the silvery look and emotionless face and oddly-shaped head, made me think of alien Grays. The new Ultraman, too, seems less prone to martial arts, and manifests cool powers and stages a few great entrances or dramatic exits. I do think the CGI sometimes looks artificial in an ugly way, but when it works, Ultraman looks quite cool, and I didn’t mind that he didn’t yell much.
Turning to music for a moment, you remember how exciting it was to hear Akira Ifukube’s remastered music on Shin Godzilla? It was cool, right, even if it may have sounded a bit strange in a modern movie? Well, Shin Ultraman takes that to the nth degree, with many songs from the classic show—snazzy jazzy feel and all—and including them here. That combined with the use of classic Showa sound effects makes the movie feel gloriously retro, and, while I am not enough of a fan to recognize the themes and match them to what monsters or original contexts they came from, I LOVED this part of the movie unabashedly. I was only a bit disappointed when, as the film progressed, the music seemed to modernize, too. I wish we were getting those brass-heavy bangers all the way to the end.
With all its patchwork feel, its akimbo jokes, with its overstuffed narrative, with its abundance of monsters and characters and action, Shin Ultraman feels about ready to split and spill and narratively can seem like a sprint that stumbles at the end. Still, regardless of its issues with effects and perhaps too many references (even Star Trek and Thunderbirds show up in the background), the movie I think perhaps is best received as an expression of ecstatic fondness for the genre—both as it was in the 60s, and the creature it has become in a post Shin Godzilla world today. As a movie, I don’t think it’s very successful as it just barely holds together, and the characters just aren’t as compelling as perhaps the creators hoped they might be. But as an expression of tokusatsu admiration, and as an anthem in celebration of the fandom, Shin Ultraman is kind of a beautiful, awkward, ridiculous-on-purpose thing. Fans who can accept it for what it is will find something to celebrate, too.