Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
A couple of decades have passed since Ultraman last was seen in Tokyo, and his kaiju nemeses seem to have gone back into outer space. Former Ultraman Shin Hayata has forgotten that he ever wore the metal suit, though as Minister of Defense he still takes a keen interest in protecting Japan. His young son Shinjiro knows that his dad once worked with the SSSP (Science Special Search Party), but not that that explains how he came to have amazing strength and other seemingly supernatural abilities; as a moody teen he just thinks they make him weird. But then one day a dangerous alien comes back to Earth, and everything starts to become clear. Will Shinjiro don the suit and become the new Ultraman?
There's a good chance that readers outside of Asia aren't as familiar with Ultraman as those within it. While the 1966 show is available on DVD in English, it doesn't have the widespread recognition of, say, The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, and while the ridged helmet may look vaguely familiar, it probably isn't going to send most readers into a nostalgic haze. That, however, doesn't mean that this manga's first volume isn't a good time, despite its status as a sequel to the television show.
While no specific date is set, it feels relatively safe to place this story about twenty years after the 1966 vision of the future from the original show. The story opens at an Ultraman museum, where former Ultraman (although he's forgotten) Shin Hayata is showing his young son Shinjirō around. Hayata meets up with an old colleague from his days with the SSSP, Mitsuhiro Ide, and while the two are reminiscing, Shinjirō falls over a railing. Despite the fact that the fall should have killed him, the child is fine, something Hayata would clearly prefer to keep to himself. Flash forward at least ten years. Shinjirō has gone from personable child to sullen teen, well aware of his own weird powers. When he's with his friends, he plays the affable, average teen boy; when he's alone, he tests out what he can do, including jumping crazy distances and using his super strength before going home and being unpleasant to his parents. He's more of a typical surly teen than we usually see, but his behavior makes perfect sense – not only is he, well, a teenager with all the attendant hormonal and emotional conflict, but he's also very aware that he's not like his friends, and that bothers him. Things come to a head when he attempts to save a cute girl from a group of thugs only to find that he can't control his powers. Frightened, he runs off, only to be confronted by an alien being who is definitely not on Ultraman's side.
There's definitely an element of camp to this book, but it doesn't overwhelm it, which is pretty impressive when you think about it. Shinjirō has reasons to be the way he is, and his father has really been doing his best, something which comes to the fore at the end of the book when the awesomely named Bemular attacks. Bemular is really the greatest catalyst for both Hayata men: his entrance makes Shinjirō really think about those Ultraman stories he's always heard about (remember, Ultraman has been gone since before he was born, so there has to be an element of urban legend to them by this point) while restoring Hayata to his more powerful self. Overall there's a seriousness to this volume that is somewhat unexpected; Shinjirō could easily have fallen into the character trap of being the kid with powers who just wants to use them for good and to help everyone, and his dad could have been the washed-up former hero with a chip on his shoulder. Instead they have a relationship based on the fact that Hayata loves his son and that Shinjirō doesn't understand why he isn't like everyone else, lending the story a dignity that it could easily have lacked.
There's a sense of building to the volume as well; by opening with Shinjirō too young to play an active role in the tale, we are allowed to think about what Hayata and Ide are saying and the implications it has on the story's world, and then seeing the kind of teen Shinjirō grows into helps to give us an idea of how he will play the role his father once did. We go from pretty much no action to a big fight at the end, and the pacing feels mostly natural rather than rushed. (The initial time skip could have been handled better, however.) The art is very easy to read, with large, easily followed panels and a clear style that allows for details without becoming overwhelming. There's a fidelity to the original show's designs while still maintaining a modern sensibility that works well, although some readers may notice a distinct resemblance to Iron Man in Ultraman's new suit. (Iron Man predates Ultraman by three years, so there very well have been some cross-cultural influence going on; it certainly feels like there is now.) Viz has gone all out in this edition, giving us sixteen full color pages, most of which are covers and other splash or pinup images unrelated to the story's events. The translation reads very well, lacking in technobabble for the most part and feeling like an updated version of 1960s science fiction.
While you may get more out of Ultraman if you're familiar with the original show, it's by no means a requirement to enjoy it. Reading this is like reading a manga version of an American superhero comic; it's nice to know the backstory/other incarnations of the character, but it's also a lot of fun to just read this latest version. (The story also feels more like a superhero comic than many other manga.) This volume mostly sets up what will be the main story, but it doesn't feel like it exists solely to be a prologue. It's good action hero fun with a sci fi bent, so don't let the fact that you may be uninitiated into the world of Ultraman put you off – consider this your official introduction.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : B+
+ Good pacing for the most part, original series knowledge not required. Shinjiro is a believable character, reads very smoothly.
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