In 2016, Hideaki Anno, the creator behind the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise, turned his creativity into a live-action film that would change the landscape of Kaiju movies in Japan and the rest of the world. At that point, Anno was in the middle of his Rebuild of Evangelion project, and yet, he deemed that this other movie was a priority. That movie was Shin Godzilla, a revival made in Anno’s vision of what a Godzilla movie should be. Anno wrote and directed the film, and it was very much him. His style pours out of each frame. Let’s review the next movie in the series, Shin Ultraman.
The Shin series has an objective to revive old franchises with the highest production values that the Japanese Film Industry can offer. Their goal is to create something new out of the old. So, while these movies are done with a style that is very much in line with what Anno has done in animation and in his other live-action films, they still borrow a lot of elements from their original installments. These movies are not sequels or prequels; they are complete reboots in the whole meaning of the world. Shin Godzilla dealt with Godzilla’s first apparition, and so does Shin Ultraman.
The film is directed by Shinji Higuchi who co-directed Shin Godzilla alongside Anno. The movie is written once again solely by Anno and stars Takumi Saito, Nasami Nagasawa, Daiki Arioka, Araki Hayami and Hidetoshi Nishijima. The film tells the story of the SSSP, a special task force that deals with the recent apparition of Kaiju in Japan. The task analyses and uses every tool at their disposal to kill the Kaiju, until one day, a metallic silver giant appears and kills the Kaiju. Is he a protector or a new enemy? His motives are unknown, but they call, Ultraman.
If you have seen Evangelion or Shin Godzilla before Shin Ultraman, you will see that they are made very much in the same style. The script is very wordy; the characters explain every single detail of their plan, as the camera moves through a series of montages to serve as a visual aid to what we are being told. The characters are very logical and not emotional, at least at the beginning, and the score is loud and full of bombastic instruments. It is a fascinating combination, one that Anno has been perfecting since the first episodes of Evangelion, and one that Higuchi executes with great success.
Unlike Shin Godzilla, which dealt with a big event throughout the entire film, Shin Godzilla is written to work in a more episodic structure. The film’s runtime is around two hours and after seeing the movie, you can really see that the film is a combination of what could be four episodes of the original Ultraman series. Every 30 minutes, an arc finishes and a new one begins. It definitely gives your mind a throwback to the original series and the feeling that came with watching each new episode. Shin Ultraman is one season of television at twice the speed.
This might be the biggest flaw in the film. It is not because this episodic structure is not interesting; it is, but it is a structure that better fits television itself. Applying it to a movie makes each of the plot points and storylines feel ephemeral, and rushed. The movie has a lot to say about the individual and their responsibility when it comes to adhering to the conventions of society or politics. Can an individual really exist when there are so many forces outside of it telling it to behave and act in a certain way? It is an interesting subject, but the movie doesn’t have the time to properly develop it.
A better choice would have been to adapt this into a miniseries to at least keep the same production values, but that wasn’t the plan in the first place. This is a shame because these characters and the themes really needed more time to be explored. What it is right now is excellent and quite entertaining, but you know it could have been so much better if the story was allowed the freedom that a big TV production allows. The format really hurts the movie towards the end when things need to get emotional, but the characters were never explored enough to make you care deeply for them.
Nevertheless, Shin Ultraman is fantastic when it becomes a classic Ultraman story. The visual effects are great. They have this strange quality to them that makes them look like a mix between practical and CGI. Maybe there is some mo cap thrown in there, but the Kaiju and Ultraman themselves seem to be traditionally animated, which makes them look weird and alien to the eye, just like they are supposed to be. There are more fights than I expected, and all of them are quite cool. Having new visual effects that are supposed to look old was a remarkable choice.
The score by Shiro Sagisu and Kunio Miyauchi is also fantastic. The battle sequences are brought to an entirely new level thanks to a score that mixes both bombastic classical pieces with more modern instruments. Just like the rest of the movie, the score is a mix of both old and new and works flawlessly.
Shin Godzilla is still the better film, but Shin Ultraman is just as entertaining. The characters and the themes are left a bit behind by the rest of the film thanks to its episodic structure, but the breakneck pacing is excellent and always keeps you on your toes to see the next plot development. It is really one of the best offerings in this year’s Fantastic Fest.