Shin Ultraman is a loving tribute to the classic 1960s version of the tokusatsu franchise wrapped in a frustrating, poorly directed shell. For incoming audiences expecting a contemporary reimagining of a classic franchise that might provide a clean entry point into a cornerstone of Japanese geek culture, well, no. This isn’t Shin Godzilla (although it’s part of the same series of conceptual remakes by this creative team). Anyone expecting the same level of craft and coherency will be disappointed. There are enough moments of throwback brilliance scattered throughout to make fans scream in delight, and they should as this was made solely for them — and nobody else.
In broad strokes, the story of Ultraman follows an alien hero who merges with a human government agent to protect the world from giant extraterrestrial monsters (kaiju). Ultraman grows to massive height, a gleaming silver colossus armed with the ability to fly, a mastery of martial arts and a Spacium Beam that can annihilate entire mountains. As a human, this version of Ultraman borrows the body of Shinji Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh), who was killed when the hero crash-landed on Earth. Kaminaga was a strategy office for the SSSP (S-Class Species Suppression Protocol), an intergovernmental agency tasked with fighting kaiju.
This version of Ultraman is directed by Shinji Higuchi and co-produced, written and edited by Hideaki Anno. The duo’s reputation proceeds them. They were integral to the creation of the acclaimed anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, as well as other classic Japanese science-fiction films. Bringing them aboard a trilogy to reimagine classic franchises is like a fanboy dream come true (the aforementioned Shin Godzilla came first, with Shin Kamen Rider arriving next). These are perennial franchises because they can grow and evolve over time. Bringing on the creators of Evangelion to play in the sandbox of their youths seems like a no-brainer.
Indeed, the parts of Shin Ultraman that directly call back to the original 1966 series (and its predecessor, Ultra Q) are very fun, embracing a goofy, playful tone that fits right in with children’s programming of that era. The creature designs are updated but not in the way American productions try to naturalize kaiju. These are impossible monsters. There’s even an eeriness to the alien Ultraman, who is not a loveable, huggable hero. The opening runs through the lineup of Ultra Q monsters as a prologue and subsequent foes are all pulled from the classic show and altered to fit a modern aesthetic. There is only one that feels unnecessarily removed from its classic form, but it makes enough sense to work in the context of the story.
Unfortunately, most of the material surrounding the monsters in Shin Ultraman is frustrating on a very basic level of craft. The story is structured like a compilation movie built from a story originally told across 50 episodes (a common practice in anime), and the result is a bunch of characters who get little real characterization before they’re swept up in the momentum of the plot. Kaminaga’s teammates at the SSSP (portrayed by Hidetoshi Nishijima of Drive My Car, as well as Masami Nagasawa, Daika Arioka and Akari Hayami) are the primary focus for much of the film, but they never serve as compelling characters in their own right nor do they reach the level of archetypical simplicity that would’ve sufficed in a more coherently paced film (or children’s program, for that matter).
The question I’ve grappled with in the days after watching Shin Ultraman is whether or not the seemingly low-effort filmmaking throughout the more expository sequences is supposed to act as a throwback to the creative constraints inherent to all the TV depictions of the character across time. Anyone who has watched any level of tokusatsu programming knows it isn’t often A-grade material.
Giving it some thought, I just don’t think this is the case. I think most of the non-kaiju aspects of Higuchi and Anno’s film are simply under-written, under-shot, low-priority material compared to the more elaborate and expensive fight sequences. That’s unfortunate because the pacing of the film requires efficiency in its expository moments rather than repetitive sequences of forgettable folks spewing half-baked philosophical ideas about Japan’s place in the world hegemony. Each dialogue scene is edited with with a manic lack of patience, switching angles on a character mid-sentence for no real reason. It’s as though Higuchi and Anno were bored with it, too.
There are enough fun throwback elements to make Shin Ultraman popular with fans aching for a slightly more upscale take on their favorite franchise. The more familiar you are with the lore, the more likely you are to enjoy it. If you’re a novice, though? At the very least, spend a few hours on Wikipedia beforehand. Otherwise, there isn’t much for you.