Science fiction television series Ultra Q was, upon its original release in Japan in 1966, a substantial commercial hit. It was its sequel series Ultraman, however, that properly hit the pop culture stratosphere. Between then and now there have been 34 separate series in the franchise; a 35th, Ultraman Blazar, premieres on Japanese television this July. Like many Japanese tokusatsu (special effects) franchises, Ultraman has become a merchandising juggernaut without ever breaking into the English-language mainstream. Last year this lucrative media empire expanded once again with the release of Shinji Higuchi’s big-budget theatrical remake Shin Ultraman. It is a loving tribute to the 1966 original; that is a polite way of calling it a blunt exercise in runaway nostalgia.
The film opens with Japan already under attack from a series of dangerous kaiju (giant monsters). Caught in the destruction during one incident, government agent Shinji Kaminaga (Taikumi Saitoh) is seemingly killed but then abruptly returns with an unexplained link to a giant alien humanoid known as Ultraman. When the world’s governments are contacted by another alien, the manipulative Zarab (Kenjiro Tsuda), it is up to Kaminaga and Ultraman to unveil his true plans and save the planet.
It is a simple story at Shin Ultraman‘s heart, albeit one obfuscated a little by characters impersonating each other and a general assumption that viewers will already be aware of the series set-up and key characters. There is an appealing group of supporting characters, who work for the so-called S-Class Species Suppression Protocol (SSSP) and who get caught up in the mystery over what has happened to Kaminaga and how he is related to Ultraman. It is all a bit of nonsense to be honest, but it is at least charming nonsense. The key attraction of the film is, of course, the kaiju fight scenes.
Higuchi is enormously well regarded as visual effects director, having assumed that role in Shusuke Kaneko’s celebrated Gamera trilogy of the 1990s. Since graduating to directing films himself, his works have included The Sinking of Japan (2006), The Floating Castle (2012), and Attack on Titan (2015). It was his collaboration with writer-producer Hideaki Anno on Shin Godzilla (2016) that produced his most successful work, and they have re-partnered here to expand their collection of Shin-branded remakes of tokusatsu classics. Shin Kamen Rider followed in early 2023.
The explosive city-stomping action of Shin Ultraman is in exceptional hands, and it is interesting to see how Huguchi’s work differs here from what he did in his Godzilla film. That was a much more experimental treatment of a legacy character, with a new aesthetic, different powers, and a story focus more about government incompetence and inaction than giant monster. Here the focus is much more on spectacle, and with a far greater reverence for the original Ultraman look than what he afforded Godzilla. The various kaiju are impressively rendered in CGI, but their design deliberately embraces a rubbery man-in-suit look. The creatures’ bodies wobble with a joyful early 1970s look. Younger viewers will adore the creativity, while nostalgic grown-ups will find it all wonderfully amusing. There is a strong sense of fun running right through the whole movie. For Anno, it is a nice contrast to the overwrought apocalypse of his famous Neon Genesis Evangelion anime. As for Higuchi, it is further proof that he is one of the best kaiju directors in the business.