One of my most anticipated films of Fantasia 2022 was the North American premiere of Shin Ultraman, the next entry in the Shin series from Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi. This series has tasked the pair who have touched some of the most beloved properties in anime and Tokusatsu over the years with faithfully updating these properties for modern Japanese audiences. Much like our MCU, they’re modernizing these characters while also lowering the bar for entry for some of these series that have been going on for decades.
Their latest collaboration was recently released in Japan in May, where it’s on track to beat their previous effort Shin Godzilla at the box office, which is no easy feat. With Anno knee deep in wrapping up the final chapter in Shin Evangelion that was almost a decade in development, proper director duties went to his partner on Shin Godzilla Shinji Higuchi.
I got to speak with Shinji via interpreter (Thank you Fantasia), whose work has had a profound affect on my life. He not only did storyboard work for Gainax, working on such classics as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gunbuster and Kill la Kill, but he also did live action special effects on the 90s Gamera series. Eventually he broke out as a director in his own right co-directing Shin Godzilla and flying solo on the live-action take on Attack on Titan. It was indeed an honor to pick this his brain about his take on Ultraman, a character that is so ingrained in Japanese and world culture and how both he and Anno approached this new take on the Kaiju fighting giant who is a symbol of hope.
So I know you’re a long time fan of Ultraman, what is it about the character that resonated with you growing up?
So basically, the original series obviously was aired in 1966, so a very long time ago. So at that time I didn’t have any memory of the (original) airing, but of course there were re-broadcasts of the movies. So I saw those and really enjoyed them.
Of course, because they were re-broadcasted on television afterwards, I have seen all of them, but the original was really the more popular version to the generation that would be my older brother and the people a bit older than me. They were the very hardcore fans of the original one. But for me, when Ultraman came back, that was more the series that had an impact on me growing up.
I love the fixation on the bureaucracy and the politics of Kaiju attacks and how that would play out on a world stage both in Shin Godzilla and Shin Ultraman, what sort of led you and Anno to that approach?
The reason for that would be: because that’s the reality.
So if an alien or Kaiju shows up, the first thing that will happen is there will be a lot of bureaucracy. There will be a lot of politics that will take center stage, but then humanity will need to adapt and find a solution to that problem.
In the olden days, those Kaiju movies, one of the things they were lacking was that. It wasn’t showing that aspect. So as a grown adult, that’s one of the things that we saw as something that was not explored at all in those movies. So that’s one thing that we could demonstrate.
With such a rich story and cast characters out there in this franchise, how did you and Anno decide what beats you were going to tackle from the show?
So to put it simply, we both grew up watching Ultraman, so the first thing we did was discuss, okay, what did you like? What are the things that you really enjoyed? And so from there, we kind of pieced together the things that they wanted to put in the movie. And of course, we looked into popularity contests, of what Kaiju,or what characters are more popular. And then they kind of made adjustments with that.
Was there any, any characters you wanted in this film in particular, like there was, were there any characters you were like, I want this character or Kaiju in there?
(Laughs) So, well, those would be the ones that are in the movie for sure.
Now the visuals, for the Kaijus and Ultraman, they still very much feel like men in suits, but they are CGI pushed through the design filter of Evangelion. How much thought went into updating the designs for this new film?
A lot of the designs of the original Kaiju were performed by the artist Narita Toru and he did a lot of the drawings and sketches, ideas and concepts for the different kinds of Kaijus. But of course, in any kind of production, the original design is not what happens with the end product. There’s always gonna be limitations in terms of budgets, schedule and there were a lot of limitations that kind of prevented the original ideas and concepts from coming alive.
So the question was okay, well, with our modern technology and everything, what happens if there are no limitations? So we were able to take a lot of the original sketches and drawings from Narita Toru and basically we tried to redo the design because sadly Mr. Toru passed away, we couldn’t ask the opinion of the original designer, but they really wanted to see how close they could be to the original concepts and ideas. So they took all the drawings and sketches, tried to analyze it, and then tried to make it as close to what it originally was to honor the original artist.
I loved how you also incorporated the old school sound effects in the film that hard core fans will definitely recognize. Was it hard to balance that nostalgia for fans while updating it just enough for new viewers?
So one of the aspects which was really important was to keep the sound effects of the olden days, because if you put too much or replace everything with new ones, people watching won’t feel that this is what Ultraman is, it will be a completely different thing. So to keep that nostalgia, but also to honor the original work, it was important to keep those old sound effects. But, of course that was only possible because there were archives. The original artists kept all the sound effects in an archive, so they were able to keep them and put them in the movie.
One thing I appreciated is the sense of hope in the film, unlike Shin Godzilla, but was that, like Shin Godzilla, a response to current events?
Sadly this was filmed before COVID, so we didn’t know what was about to come. We couldn’t say we wanted to make a better world because of that, obviously we did, but we couldn’t predict what was about to come or comment on it.
However, one of the things that I would like to explain is that Ultraman actually came before the moon landing. So people knew that humanity was working towards going to the moon. So there was a lot of hope and energy in the world at that time. Obviously, at the same time, there were a lot of other things like the Vietnam war, they discovered that there’s a lot of pollution that’s coming from the factories and that is poisoning humanity. So there were a lot of problems that were coming out, but still Ultraman came out when there was a lot of hope in a lot of people.
We’re sure the people who watch Ultraman right now are mostly adults, so they, we are kind of aware of the problems, but we still made an effort to say that we wanna give hope and we really want the children who watch it to have that hope of the future. So that’s what’s in this effort.
Finally, what’s the end game of the Shin series? Will there be an Avengers-like team up or are we going to get a battle royale, with Kamen Rider, Godzilla, Evangelion and Ultraman?
(Laughs Hysterically) BATTLE ROYALE? I feel that’s too much trouble, someone else should do that.