In the wide world of tokusatsu, there exist a small handful of properties who’s history and influence on the sub-genre, and pop culture, are undeniable. Of these films, few in Japan rise to the prominence of the sub-genre’s giants, and in the case of Ultraman, this is meant literally. A supremely important piece of media to Japanese pop culture , Ultraman brought together the scale of popular kaiju-based films with the episodic storytelling of a weekly show like Kamen Rider, to massive success. It’s my belief that Shin Ultraman represents this format in a way that will feel familiar to fans, while still an exciting and fairly easy to digest experience for people who might not be familiar with the Giant of Light.
Shin Ultraman is a re-imagining of the original 1966 TV series penned by what might be the best known fan of the series, Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion). He’s joined by regular collaborator, director Shinji Higuchi, known for his work on Gamera and Neon Genesis Evangelion, to form a powerhouse team who’s resume makes them perfect choices to bring Ultraman to a new age.
The film follows the activities of Japanese Government organization “S-Class Species Suppression Protocol”, a task force dedicated to the elimination of kaiju threats, and primarily SSSP member Shinji Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh), a strategy officer and former National Police Agency Security Bureau member. During an attack by one of these giant monsters, an unknown, silver humanoid giant appears and quickly dispatches the monster. Dubbed by one member of the team as “Ultraman”, the giant continues to appear to meet kaiju threats of escalating levels of danger. Through his regular disappearances during kaiju attacks, Shinji is quickly revealed to the viewers as Ultraman himself, wielding an alien technology called the Beta Capsule.
Meanwhile, we follow other SSSP members, including Captain Kimio Tamura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), Analyst Hiroka Asami (Masami Nasagawa), Biologist Yumi Funaberi (Akari Hayami), and unparticle physicist Akihisa Taki (Daiki Arioka), as they struggle to keep up with the quickly escalating power level of the kaiju, as well as investigating the appearance of Ultraman, attempting to surmise friend or foe of the giant. While the team has mostly written off Kaminaga’s convenient disappearances during these kaiju attacks as regular and non-notable occurrences, Asami quickly notes something amiss, and attempts to grow closer to Kaminaga to attempt to piece together some of the mysteries in play.
Before long, less friendly and more sinister forces enter the fray in the form of Alien Zerab (VO: Kenjiro Tsuda), who kidnaps and impersonates Kaminaga and Ultraman, revealing Kaminaga’s secret identity to the world. As he attacks, Asami is revealed to have Kaminaga’s Beta Capsule, and appears to free him from capture. With his Capsule returned, Kaminaga transforms and dispatches Zerab, but the damage is done; he is a wanted, international criminal, and has to take to hiding. A major development is revealed around this time that re-orients the story and narrative in a way that might feel familiar to those experienced with the ’66 series.
Nearing the climax of the film, a new player appears in the form of Alien Melfias (Koji Yamamoto). He offers humanity the Beta technology that Ultraman uses to become a giant, and gives a demonstration in the form of a captured Asami, which he grew to kaiju proportion and set loose on a city. In a show of good faith, Melfias releases Asami and shrinks her back to normal, eventually leading to a deal between himself and the Japanese Government for the Beta technology.
Melfias then meets with Ultraman to discuss his true plan; the machine that contains the Beta technology he is offering will have monstrous consequences for humanity, to say the least. Ultraman cannot intervene per intergalactic law, but Kaminaga can, leading to an all out battle between Ultraman and Melfias, witnessed live by the entire world. The battle ends abruptly when a new player enters the fray from Ultraman’s planet, and Ultraman must make impossible decisions and scramble to prepare humanity for an encounter with an apocalyptic weapon.
As a fan of tokusatsu as a genre, and a growing Ultra fan myself, this movie hits many familiar notes in fresh ways. Director Higuchi and Screenwriter Anno understood the assignment; Shin Ultraman succeeds in creating a story and pace that fans will feel right at home within. With this in mind, while I don’t believe unfamiliar viewers will struggle, there is definitely more mileage to be had in the experience if you are even remotely familiar with the source material or the structure of tokusatsu storytelling.
“Our goal is to create a world of Ultraman that is not for children, but for the generation that watched Ultraman back then, and that they want to watch now that they are adults. We aim to create entertainment for adults that is consistent with the modern age, a coexistence of dreams and reality that can be depicted only with special effects images.”
– Hideaki Anno, Shin Ultraman Design Works
Much like Shin Godzilla, the social commentary in this film is hard to miss. Anno seems to again point a spotlight at his perception of the Japanese government and it’s bureaucracy, spending a noticeable portion of the narrative with characters tied up in various hurdles related directly to the government response to the kaiju and the difficulties it creates, the most obvious example of this being the acceptance of the Beta technology by the Japanese government, and their attempt to control Ultraman, regardless of his own will.
With that said, it’s still not quite as thick as Shin Godzilla‘s focus on the topic, with Director Higuchi saying the film was more a theoretical commentary on how the government might approach contact with alien races and monsters, and that “if we just did the same thing [as Shin Godzilla], it’s kind of pointless.”
While a couple of characters might be not quite fully fleshed out, every primary member of the cast has at least one moment to shine, including biologist Funaberi and unparticle physicist Taki, members of the team that otherwise feel a little underutilized. The film is absolutely the Kaminaga and Asami show, and while the films ending seems definitive and final, things may not be as they seem. The Shin Japan Heroes Universe announcement (a collaborative work across multiple companies to unite the Shin movies led by Anno) and some smaller details within this film hint at a larger cinematic universe at play, including characters appearing in both Shin Ultraman and Shin Godzilla.
I could spend so many more paragraphs praising this movie. I left the film feeling ready for more of the Shin universe, and actually cheered at several scenes, including the iconic Specium Ray he uses to dispatch the first kaiju of the film, Neronga, himself a monster whom first appeared in the original ’66 series, and an Easter Egg in one of the transformation sequences near the end of the film. Anno himself, as well as the first suit actor for Ultraman, Bin Furuya, provide motion capture for Ultraman, bringing Anno full circle, as he once portrayed Ultraman in his college fan film called Return of Ultraman.
My recommendation of this film comes with few caveats, and I truly believe that any action film fan, even those turned off by Shin Godzilla or those unfamiliar with tokusatsu outside of knowing who the original Power Rangers are, can have a great time with it. While not a perfect film by any means, the love and reverence for the source material is in every frame of this film, and it would be hard to come away from this film not craving even just three more minutes of action.
If this is an indication of what’s to come for Anno’s Shin Kamen Rider, this collection of live action films will be absolute giants of the big screen, and they leave lots of room for possibilities to carry this modern re-imagining of an iconic hero deep into the future.
Shin Ultraman was screened as part of the 2022 New York Asian Film Festival.