Just plain delightful

The second annual 20th anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place from July 15 to July 31. For more informations on lineup and screenings, click here

Well, that was just plain delightful.

I was predisposed to be a mark for this film; much like my history with kung fu flicks made me feel warmer towards the flawed homage Legendary In Action! than I might have otherwise, I’ve been a fan of tokusatsu shows since before I even knew the word, and none moreso than the legend himself, Ultraman.

Welllll…. maybe Spectreman.

But it’s neck and neck.

At any rate, when the lineup was announced, this was one film on my list that was an absolute must-see. And I’m pleased to say it more than just lived up to expectations… it surpassed them in ways I couldn’t have begun to imagine.

The movie hits the ground running with a photo montage detailing the cliffs notes of six giant monster battles in the space of less than two minutes, before we are thrust into the middle of a seventh attack.

Here, filmmakers Shinji Huguchi (director) and Hideaki Anno (writer, producer, editor, general mad genius) immediately prove their savvy by finding a way to make the bane of all kaiju movies, the interminable “Control Room” scenes where military experts and scientists analyze the situation and try to formulate a strategy, not just tolerable, but downright welcome: political satire.

There’s a lot of deadpan jabs at bureaucracy and international relations, including a perfectly tossed off line about how the kaiju get their names, and while it’s at its most prominent in that opening twenty or so minutes, the thread continues on throughout the entire movie, providing a refreshing source of laughs. (Apparently Anno played a similar game with 2016’s Shin Godzilla, a movie that places significantly higher in the ol’ queue now that I’ve seen this).

At any rate, all this does a very effective job at helping us bide our time until Ultraman arrives, and happily, we don’t have to wait long for that at all… within ten minutes, he’s already trading blows with a giant lightning beast for our entertainment, backed by an amazing score by Shiro Sagisu that’s so uncannily accurate in its retro invocation I half thought it was just Tsuburaya library music.

It feels… slightly tacky, somehow… to compare this particular movie, which is very much its own thing and a significant enough cultural icon in its home country that exposition isn’t necessary, to the super hero movies of western cinema. But still, it’s striking how little the film does to orient the viewer in the world, and how little that actually matters.There’s a stripped down nature to the film and it’s exposition, and it gives the movie a propulsive feel; it always feels like things are moving forward.

After Ultraman saves the day, the SSSP is organized, a task force dedicated to both defending against monster attacks and uncovering the secrets of Ultraman. We are introduced to the five person team in short order from the vantage point of newly recruited investigator Asami (Masami Nagasawa), whose assigned partner Shinji (Takumi Saitoh) seems curiously unfamiliar with human behavior and has the strangest tendency to disappear during giant monster attacks…

The movie is episodic in nature; ultimately it feels more like bingeing four or five episodes of an Ultraman TV show than it does a full-on movie. And that, frankly, is to its advantage; the movie approaches two hours, but since it seems like every five to ten minutes there’s a swerve or a resolution, which unerringly plays out with just enough time to attain maximum impact before being shoved offstage in time for the next big idea.

Sick of giant, mindless monsters? Here comes a polite alien in disguise Kenjiro (Tsuda as the extremely cool looking Zarab) seeking to turn the world against Ultraman! Not feeling that plot? Here comes an alien arms dealer with a fetish for human idioms (Koji Yamamoto, very funny)! What to do with Asami once her arc of accepting Shinji’s dual identity has been fulfilled? Turn her into a giant!

And we’re probably not even halfway into the movie at this point.

Suffice to say, it’s a movie with no shortage of fun ideas.

And no shortage of fun action, either; the kaiju battles here are like the action I always imagined I was watching when I was young and naive. The effects team (working, it probably goes without saying, with a budget that wouldn’t cover the cost of Chris Hemsworth’s wigs) makes the only correct choice possible, which is to make sure their CGI creations resemble a man in a rubber suit as much as ones and zeroes will allow. Combined with some truly inspired/deranged camera angles, the film just looks and feels like little else out there.

I cannot stress enough how much fun I had with Shin Ultraman, and how rejuvenating it feels as an entry in the increasingly moribund feeling super hero genre. It’s very much its own thing, while still being something that anyone who even remotely enjoys this sort of thing should get a kick out of.

And if you don’t get a kick out of this sort of thing… I weep for you.

Previous post NYAFF 2022: PREMAN: SILENT FURY