Fantastic Fest 2022: Talking Kaiju and Ultraman with Director Shinji Higuchi

Round Two with the Director of SHIN ULTRAMAN!

With one of my favorite films of the year Shin Ultraman also screening at Fantastic Fest (I previously reviewed it here), I jumped at the chance pick director Shinji Higuchi’s brain yet again about the film. (You can read my previous interview here) Since these interviews usually transpire with a dedicated translator (Thanks Sami!) they usually fall under the same time allotment as an English interview, so this time I finally got through all my questions from the first go round at Fantasia, while also getting to find out the response to Ultraman’s stateside festival debut so far.

For those not familiar with Shinji’s work, it has had a profound affect on my life. He not only did storyboarding 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. He was also the namesake for Eva’s protagonist. Eventually Shinji broke out as a director in his own right co-directing the nihilistic kaiju masterpiece Shin Godzilla and then flying solo on the live-action take on Attack on Titan.

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.

I first interviewed you at Fantasia and you’ve now seen the film play for a few US audiences. What do you think about the US reception to Shin Ultraman so far?

Shinji: So typically in Japanese screenings, the audience is very muted, nobody is going to stand up and cheer. When it comes to the American audience reactions I felt very happy that the reception was very positive and people were excited as opposed to Japanese screenings where the audience isn’t quite as vocal.

You’ve directed Anime and Live Action, which do you prefer as a canvas?

Shinji: Live action? Anime? They’re both kind of a job.

I will direct anime, I will direct Tokusatsu.

I’m a big fan of Ultra Q and I love the shout-out in the beginning of Shin Ultraman, why did you decide to begin the film including the prequel series and those monsters?

There’s such a long history, like 40 years of history leading up to Shin Ultraman, starting with Ultra Q. Even in the title Ultra Q was changed to Ultraman when Ultraman came along. So there was a real necessity to have that as the film’s foundation as it was in the 1960s.

When you make an Ultraman film, licensors will only allow you to use Ultraman and Ultra Q is considered a different IP. But they were really kind to let us use the Ultra Q characters alongside Ultraman without charging anything.

There’s the Kaiju monsters that everyone is familiar with, like Godzilla, but there are so many Kaiju that Americans aren’t familiar with and introducing them to an American audience.

I’m curious, what goes into choreographing a Kaiju fight?

It’s a fairly long process. The actors have to have sensors that would read what the movements are, but the main question for me is how do you figure out how Ultraman is going to defeat the other Kaiju, in what way is he going to win? So we would have to do the storyboards and from there they would figure out the choreography from there.

But it starts from figuring out how is he going to win, how does he defeat them and then they work from there in a backwards process.

Anno doing Mocap for Shin Ultraman

Speaking of motion capture, we’ve seen seen Hideaki Anno doing motion capture for Ultraman, did you do any motion capture for the film’s Kaiju?

Shinji: I did not. (laughs)

So the character animation supervisor Shuhei Kumamoto, he is the one that did most of the choreography and everything was coming out of his head of what it is he wants to see on screen. He was the one that did most of the ideas for the battle sequences. He had his image of how the Kaiju should battle so he did it himself.

The cast here is great, especially Hidetoshi Nishijima who was just in Drive My Car and Masami Nagasawa who had done some Godzilla films; What goes into casting an iconic property like this, and is there any sort of stigma with these kinds of films in Japan, like their superhero films counterparts here in the us?

Shinji: We were trying to find actors who weren’t scary and not angry all the time. We were really trying to find someone who would mesh with Ultraman. Actors without loud voices, more calmer actors is what I would prefer for the casting.

A long time ago yes, there was a stigma with appearing in the tokusatsu films, but that stigma is no longer in existence. So you can have actors like Nishijima and Nagasawa in a tokusatsu without them facing that stigma. I mean the stigma the tokusatsu does face now is the reliance on green screen and CGI and things like that. But now not so much.

Finally, there are so many incarnations of Ultraman, do you think we could get a sequel to this film given its success and have either you or Anno given any thought to it?

Shinji: If EVERYONE comes to the movie theater and watches it, YES!

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