There have been moments in my life where I’ve regretted not discovering Japanese science fiction until later than most genre fans. On the one hand, I like to think that my not extensively delving into kaiju eiga until adolescence and early adulthood has allowed me to think more critically about this genre: demanding, in most cases, that these films tell a story in addition to splattering effects on the screen. Nevertheless, there exist certain movies and television shows that, despite leaving me cold as I watch them, seem like something my five-year-old self would’ve adored. Sampling various Ultraman shows in my twenties, for example, I couldn’t help but feel how many parents must feel when forced to endure Godzilla movies; and yet the shows’ mix of simplicity and visual zaniness provided a childlike atmosphere I’d probably latch onto—if only there were that element of nostalgia.
Lacking that, I never felt any great urge to explore the Ultraman movies until I learned of the latest, Shin Ultraman; and my interest in this particular film—which has earned a reported $31.2 million in Japan and is slowly migrating around the world—derived solely from its creators, Shinji Higuchi and Hideaki Anno (the former having directed a screenplay from the latter). While I admittedly never shared the dominant opinion regarding their previous collaboration—2016’s Shin Godzilla—the sheer talent between these two was evident in that film’s best moments and left me hoping they could put together a sci-fi feature I’d enjoy. And so I remained cautiously optimistic for Shin Ultraman—only to be aggravated by the end result.
I won’t pretend to know what—if any—new ground Shin Ultraman breaks for its franchise (the only narrative callback I recognized was a scene of the female lead grown to skyscraper-size—à la what befell Hiroko Sakurai in an episode of the original 1966 show), but Higuchi and Anno’s film represents a departure from their previous kaiju effort. Whereas Shin Godzilla mocked bureaucratic inefficiency and advocated political swamp-draining with a soft nationalistic flavor, Shin Ultraman occupies itself more with surface-level humor and loony sci-fi situations. Watered down political mockery occasionally streaks through (the best gag consists of a scientific leader questioning the prime minister’s speedy approval for an attack, stating it came too quick for a Japanese politician) along with references to otaku culture (a government agent brings toys to work; kids on the street remark how cool monsters are); but the supposed message this time is fairly tame and takes a backseat to a story episodic in nature, with new threats and mini-narratives arriving every twenty or so minutes. All of which could be wonderful—were it not for a pathetic script and insipid execution across the board.
Anno’s screenplay jumps straight into the action with a rapid-fire prologue detailing how Japan’s been raided continuously by giant monsters, the government eventually developing a special team called SSSP to help contend with threats. No sooner has the backstory been delivered when another vicious creature rises to threaten civilization. The beast, which consumes electricity, ravages a rural town, finally stopped by the eponymous alien superhero. (In what remains faithful to my memories of the original Ultraman show, the giant uses a member of the SSSP as a human vessel—this time forming a physical duplicate while leaving the original lifeless on the ground.) Meanwhile, more monsters—and then more aliens—threaten humanity in their own assorted ways. With the government and military woefully ineffective, it’s ultimately up to the SSSP—and Ultraman himself—to save humankind.
An inept sci-fi comedy with flourishes of pseudo-humanism, Shin Ultraman blunders from the start. The film early on introduces a slew of excruciatingly basic characters (the stoic leader; the bland technical girl; the geeky agent—none of whom are sufficiently written or acted to be much fun) and charges them with spewing technobabble and delivering childish—not childlike—humor: a perky female agent (Masami Nagasawa) slapping her rear and sometimes the rears of her colleagues when it’s time to take action; the same character apologizing to Ultraman’s human counterpart for not taking a shower while he memorizes her scent. (Don’t ask.) Every now and then, Anno’s script attempts to rise above its juvenility: e.g. mocking social media when the agent played by Nagasawa discovers she’s become an SNS trend. But in what represents the movie’s habit of not fleshing out interesting concepts, Nagasawa’s no sooner started fretting when an alien visitor disposes of the social posts—a clever bit of mockery ending on a whimper.
Higuchi and Anno’s pretense at a humanistic message likewise comes up short. The theme—we’re told via banal dialogue—is one of hope: hope for mankind’s future, embodied by Ultraman’s efforts to protect us. Unfortunately, the film stumbles pathetically in dramatizing this subject. Minus an admittedly touching scene wherein Ultraman (in human form) converses with a fellow alien near families at a playground, the film shies from extensively detailing the protagonist’s interactions with the earthlings he’s supposedly committed to saving. Even the opening scene wherein Ultraman’s host rushes to save a child during a monster attack—an action segueing to him becoming a vessel for the alien hero—is treated more like an obligatory MacGuffin; we don’t even receive what could’ve been an awe-inspiring moment of the kid reacting to Ultraman’s appearance. (Indeed, the aftermath reveals the child having been unconscious the whole time.) Lacking personality and any sense of wonder, the eponymous extra-terrestrial is little more than an impersonal plot device—a problem not alleviated by his human counterpart somehow being even more stone-faced and boring than the giant form he assumes for fighting monsters.
Script failings included, Shin Ultraman might’ve allowed for superficial pleasure with good direction; alas, Shinji Higuchi’s guidance proves to be the film’s crushing death knell. Taking a cue from Shin Godzilla, Higuchi resorts to rapid editing and gimmicky camera angles likely intended to evoke Kihachi Okamoto (one of his and Anno’s directorial idols and an acknowledged influence on Shin Godzilla); the camerawork’s not particularly inspiring, falling back too often on the same tricks (e.g., characters framed behind chairs, remote controls, sometimes the laps of the person seated between them and the lens) and consistently wrecked by garish lighting and fourth-rate sets. (The SSSP’s headquarters this time consists of depressingly gray walls—a major step down from the lively, imaginative HQ stocked with neat gadgets that I remember from the 1966 show. That HQ, which also benefited from a populace of charming actors, seemed like a fun place to hang out.) Accepting these mediocre elements, Higuchi’s efforts, relentless as they are, demonstrate yet again that mere imitation of another filmmaker’s style does not equate quality.
Of the film’s remaining components there’s little to be said. The computer generated effects are no better than expected for a modern Japanese film (passable at best, unwatchable at worst) and utilized on dull action often reminiscent of cut scenes from a video game. (Two of the fights end just when they seem to have started.) Meanwhile, the score—a pastiche of stock music from past Ultraman shows and new compositions courtesy of Shiro Sagisu and Kenshi Yonezu—meanders impassively in the background, seldom fitting the images on screen. The only cast member worth mentioning is Masami Nagasawa: occasionally she manages to squeeze juice out of her role, though the character’s quirks become tiring and her performance still amounts to little more than a nice try. (The actress is also victimized by her director’s weak attempts at spectacle. In one sore thumb moment, Nagasawa “performs,” via digital composite technology, what’s now an action movie cliché—hurled into the air toward a birds-eye view camera before falling back towards earth—all the while not even attempting to simulate terror.)
I went into Shin Ultraman hoping its makers would yield a compromise in my history with its franchise: something that wouldn’t necessarily transform me into an Ultraman fan but nonetheless provide entertainment suitable for my wavelength. If the film has succeeded on that front whatsoever, it’s simply in making the childlike shows I’ve sampled seem that much better in hindsight. I remain convinced the visually stimulating, well-acted 1966 Ultraman would resonate with me were there nostalgic longings. But I can’t imagine any version of myself not disinterested in Shin Ultraman’s vapid characters, turned off by its ugly imagery, pounded into boredom by the distinct lack of fun and wonder.