After a year of delays thanks to COVID, Shin Ultraman has finally made its North American Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival mere months after opening in Japanese theaters May.
Since then the film not only has been designated as part of Hideaki Anno’s a shared universe of Shin efforts — Shin Evangelion, Shin Godzilla and now Shin Ultraman, with Shin Kamen Rider on the horizon, but Anno who was originally set to direct had to relinquish duties to fellow Gianax alum and co-director of Shin Godzilla Shinji Higuchi. Anno was busy finishing up the almost decade in gestation Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time and relinquished direction duties while still playing a prominent creative role in planning the film.
“Shin”, which in Japanese means “new”, has the pair reinventing Japanese icons, putting a fresh spin on them. Shin Godzilla for example was the 31st Godzilla film and easily one of the best in the canon that used Japan’s reaction to the Kaiju’s destruction as a bleak metaphor for how their bureaucracy had the government failing their population in their response to the 2011 Tōhoku Tsunami. It was hopeless and unforgiving and was clearly a call back to how that original film which was about a giant monster terrorizing Tokyo and also a statement on Hiroshima.
Shin Ultraman is the 37th film in the franchise and the second reboot of the Tokusatsu (live-action) TV series which hails from 1966 and no doubt sparked Anno’s love for giant battling monsters. This film itself is a self contained origin story of this new spin on the character, which is surprisingly faithful to the original series. Like Shin Godzilla, the film is a very human story focusing on the Species Suppression Protocol or SSP, a government organization who specializes on taking out the Kaiju or “S-Class Species” threats who are suddenly plaguing Japan. They do so while also navigating the bureaucratic nightmare these attacks cause on a world stage.
When trying to save a young boy during a Kaiju attack, Shinji Kaminaga is fused with Ultraman and is granted the power of the Beta Capsule allowing him to grow to a giant size, and battle these creatures as Ultraman. The film’s three acts almost feel like separate episodes as Ultraman’s presence brings familiar alien threats to earth who all seem to have their own angle on taking over and he forced to take the on one-by-one.
Unlike US produced Kaiju films which are a bit more PC about world politics, worrying about foreign grosses, Ultraman thankfully is not and has that political power struggle baked into the narrative, since this is a government agency after all. It’s something that primarily proves to be Japan’s constant undoing as the SSP is helpless as they watch their government basically cede power and get in bed with any alien invader that offers their government a tactical advantage, coupled with a display of power. The helplessness that this inspires fuels the government’s folly thanks to a losing war against the Kaiju, and with the appearance of Ultraman. Like the Snyderverse, Anno uses the appearance of Ultraman to dig into what happens when man is now living amongst gods unable to control his own fate. It’s not quite as dark as you’d expect, instead choosing hope as Utraman wishes to empower humanity rather than subjugate them.
One of my favorite things about Higuchi and Anno is they know how to shoot these kaiju battles. There’s something about the angles they use and where they place the camera, that perfectly captures the scope and otherworldlyness of these creatures. Its something I think only Pacific Rim got even close to, because it’s not easy to not loose sight of the scope and scale. But it appears effortless here as the camera goes from wide to close up, with you never losing the fact that these are giant creatures battling it out with humanity’s fate in the balance. The old school sound effects are even employed, but with a visually modern twist. Instead of practical monsters we have CGI that obviously are modeled after men in rubber monster suits. Its adds something familiar to these characters who are now much more nimble on screen thanks to not being weighed down by a 50 pounds of rubber or dealing with obstructed vision. This paired with the human cast led by Drive My Car’s Hidetoshi Nishijima who treat the script with a respect that allows for some rather impressive performances and gives almost every member of the SSP their moment to shine.
Shin Ultraman is equal parts love letter and reboot, making it a great entry point for those looking to get to know this iconic character. The film also chooses to echo the hopeful spirit of the original 1966 series that came right after a prosperous period of Japanese history where the country was looking outward and onward to the future. It does so with a fun dash of camp and a story that moves rather quickly for two hours making you laugh, while investing you in this team and their Kaiju fighting colleague. It’s a much different film than the previous Shin entry, but it shows an understanding and awareness of what made Ultraman special and why he’s resonated with so many fans in the decades since. I think its the kind of approach that would be akin to a Marvel over here, reinvigorating these properties that are so steeped in lore and resetting them thus lowering the bar for entry.
Shin Ultraman simply put is a blast from start to finish and welcome addition to the Ultraman canon.