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Review

by Jean-Karlo Lemus,

Shin Ultraman

Synopsis:
Shin Ultraman
Giant monsters—kaiju—have begun to appear in Japan. Fearing the incursion of giant monsters worldwide, the world's governments have pushed for Japan to establish the S-Class Species Supression Protocol. Members of the SSSP collaborate with Japan's armed forces to push back against the kaiju threat when the mysterious lifeform known only as Ultraman descends from the Land of Light. What does this strange creature from another world want with Earth? What is the secret to his Beta-technology? And how will humanity react to him?
Review:

You can summarize Shin Ultraman thusly: in many of the shots taking place in the SSSP ofice, SSSP member Taki's model of the USS Enterprise is proudly seen on his desk, surrounded by other models of cars and the vehicles from Thunderbirds. At the end of the day, what saves humanity is not advanced weaponry, technology, or even fisticuffs: it's making the best of humanity being thrust into circumstances it isn't prepared to face, and the best of humanity taking that little nudge to come together.

Much has been written and joked about with regards to Hideaki Anno and his passion for classic tokusatsu like Ultraman. Much has been said about his dedication to detail—such as Ultraman never originally having had a three-minute limit to his powers, or his original design not incorporating his Color Timer (neither of these details are in Shin Ultraman). But Anno's true passion lies with capturing the tone of Ultraman. The same way Shin Godzilla re-introduced filmgoers to a creature more akin to a walking natural disaster and a government that was wholly unequipped to deal with it (a sharp jab at the Japanese government's response to the Fukuoka nuclear disaster), Shin Ultraman presents us an Ultraman with intrigue and heavy questions about humanity's place in the world, the many threats that face us in the future, and the many frightening things that lurk in the shadows waiting to take advantage of our ignorance. You can't even say “This Ultraman isn't like the others, it's about the humans!” because that's always been what Ultraman was about; the Science Patrol was just as key to the resolution of each episode's plot as the titular red-and-silver giant.

In a move that could have only come from a man that really, really, really wanted to show off how he gets to play with all the toys, Shin Ultraman covers some of the biggest story beats from the original Ultraman television series and cobbles them together into a satisfying arc where originally there was none. The original stories of the SSSP's encounters with Alien Zarab, Alien Mefilas, and the dread Zetton are thus crafted into a very episodic three-act structure. But the overarching plans for world domination, separate as they may be, come into sharper contrast when put together, meshing together in ways you'd think had always been part of Ultraman lore.

And through it all is the figure of Ultraman. Unlike the original series, where the lines between Hayata's personality and Ultraman's heroism is blurred, we know for a fact that the alien is in the driver's seat here. He is decidedly alien in this film: it takes him a few moments to understand how human socialization works, and his detached manner almost makes him off-putting to the people around him. (In many ways, his behavior mirrors someone with neurodivergent traits, which did not escape this neurodivergent writer). Adding to his alien nature is how silent he is: this iteration of Ultraman forgoes his famous “Shuwatch!” cries during his battles, resorting to smoothly darting around his enemies as he moves as efficiently as possible. His massive footsteps don't even make sounds. But even then, there's a warmth to him: what he lacks in niceties, he makes up for in heart. He contemplates Kaminaga's dead body, puzzling over the potential for self-sacrifice humans have. He urges the other SSSP members to remember that he isn't a god, even when his presence forces humanity to rethink their religions. Even when the galaxy decides humanity is a threat, he insists that humanity has value—even when humans themselves can't see it. But Ultraman isn't God—he can't tell humans what their value is. He can't tell them the path to progress. All he can do is insist that it's there.

And all the while, Taki's USS Enterprise model sits on the desk behind him.

The other members of the SSSP aren't just there to commentate on Ultraman's battles; they're the best humanity has to offer. They're not perfect: they're a hopeless geek, a woman who stress-eats, and an intelligence analyst who sometimes forgets to shower. But they're human. And more importantly, they're Ultraman's friends. Even if Ultraman can't take them to a bar or doesn't quite know the right snappy sayings, the SSSP knows they can count on him for help. Ultraman isn't God, but surely it means something when someone that powerful believes in you. Right? And most importantly—it's the SSSP that stands by Ultraman first. Even the image of an Ultraman copy rampaging in the city can't convince them that the entity that would let itself get blasted by radiation would ever raise a finger against humanity. It's that compassion that Zoffy tragically can't see, and that compassion that Ultraman banks on when he bets his life against Zetton. Humanity can do more than squabble amongst themselves over who foots the bill for the US's burrowing missiles.

In the tradition of the late Akio Jissōji (whose contributions to Ultraman are regularly tributed to this day), Shin Ultraman never settles for flat shots for its conversations. Back-and-forths between the SSSP members are constantly taken from daring, almost experimental angles. Even the blink-and-you-miss-it shot of Asami grabbing Kaminaga's butt to pump him up feel like daring decisions for otherwise mundane moments. And the effects used illustrate the utterly alien nature of the forces surrounding them. While some details (like Alien Mefilas' teleportation dissolving him into cubes) feel modern, utmost care has been taken to make sure the classic effects look like all those painted-on-film details from the old show. You can hear the fuzz of the decades behind the stock audio for Ultraman's Spacium beam. If you listen closely, you might even hear Anno's childish glee at being able to play Zetton's uncanny beeps and chilling, guttural utterance. When you finally see Ultraman with his fist raised up, growing straight at you against a red background, all you can do is cheer along with him.

True to its title, this is still an Ultraman movie. The dialogue between SSSP agents can come off as stiff and overly formal, even with the experimental camera angles. There are giant aliens flying across the sky, shooting beams at each other. Even with the advent of CGI, Ultraman looks like a tiny plastic toy on a string as he soars around, arms stretched forward and chest puffed out. I don't know why someone who wouldn't want to see giant aliens would want to watch a movie where they factor heavily into the plot, but I would hope they could get past that part.

It all comes back to that model of the USS Enterprise on Taki's desk: the potential for good in humanity, the riches of hope that technology originally promised us, the idea that there's light in our future, that someone believes in us even when we don't, and that humanity needs to make its own choices for itself. Because even if we make the wrong choices, we have the power to fix them.

At least, Ultraman thinks so.

Grade:
Overall : A+
Overall (dub) : A
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : A

+ An uplifting story about humanity's potential; tons of reverence towards Ultraman and its lore; lots of cute call-backs
Very dry; three-act structure feels very episodic and sudden; can be rather talky.

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Production Info:
Director: Shinji Higuchi
Screenplay: Hideaki Anno
Storyboard:
Masayuki
Hideaki Anno
Shinji Higuchi
Kazuyoshi Katayama
Ikki Todoroki
Linto Ueda
Akitoshi Yokoyama
Music:
Kunio Miyauchi
Shirō Sagisu
Character Design: Tōru Narita
Art Director:
Yūji Hayashida
Eri Sakushima
Co-Director: Kazuki Todoroki
Director of Photography:
Osamu Ichikawa
Keizō Suzuki
Executive producer:
Kei Kurosawa
Hisashi Usui
Producer:
Hideaki Anno
Takehiko Aoki
Masaki Kawashima
Tomoya Nishino
Kazutoshi Wadakura

Full encyclopedia details about
Shin Ultraman (live-action movie)

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