Two properties spring to mind in the long and storied history of kaiju creations out of Japan, Godzilla, and Ultraman. Godzilla recently added to its silver screen pantheon with Shin Godzilla and not wanting to be left out, there is now a Shin Ultraman movie to carry on the big screen kaiju calamities.
As a long-time fan of all things Ultraman, I was extremely excited to get my beady eyes locked on the newest offering. The movie actually exists in the same universe as Shin Godzilla, referencing the film and the events after. A montage showing the origins of kaiju and various kaiju attacks across Japan plays out in the style of a 1940s new reel and introduces my favorite kaiju – Larugeus. Larugeus is a huge carnivorous chicken. He is never seen again in the rest of the film.
This sequence also shows the formation of the defense department SSSP which is tasked with combatting the kaiju and also naming them. The leader of the department comes up with names on the spot and he dubs the first one truly tackled as Neronga. Neronga is one of my favorite Ultraman creatures and having him crop up right off the bat brought me immense joy. Neronga’s unique and dangerous ability is being able to eat electricity and become invisible.
With none of their formulated strategies working to destroy Neronga, it seems that its rampage will lead to carnage across the land. Until a silver giant speeds down from space and puts an end to the electric beast in a matter of seconds before shooting off again. This scene was all I needed to know about the rest of the film. Is the budget bigger than the average Ultraman episode? Of course. Does it still look like Ultraman is just a guy in silver spandex? Yes, yes it does and I am delighted.
Ultraman is considerably more camp than its counterpart Godzilla. Don’t get me wrong, both can be pretty high camp, especially some of the older Godzilla movies, but Ultraman has it pipped at the post. This is proven when a new transfer Asami joins the SSSP from the intelligence agency. Asami is a bizarre woman who literally grabs her own ass when she is excited/frustrated/angry. She also smacks everyone else on the ass and tells them to get “spirit” on multiple occasions. I do not understand why she does this, and if she was my co-worker she would have been punched immediately.
Asami is partnered with Kaminaga, a quiet man who is extremely confused by her attempts at being his “buddy”. It was around this time that I noticed the very deliberate SSSP mascot. Japan loves mascots and the SSSP is no different – the captain has a plushie anthropomorphized version of their logo on his desk. This little guy just pops up in the background every now and then. There’s no point to it, it’s just a fun cultural note that I wanted to draw attention to. The proliferation of people wearing costumes and acting as mascots in Japan is something I find fascinating. There are mascots for everything and it’s wonderful.
Back to the movie and the plot is loosely this: Ultraman shows up to help battle the kaiju, and other aliens keep showing up to try and take over/destroy the planet and Ultraman. The truth of the matter is, the film seems more like three episodes of Ultraman smashed together. It becomes clear very early on that a member of the SSSP is Ultraman and that that person is Kaminaga. It’s not subtle, nor is it meant to be. Nothing about Ultraman is subtle.
My favorite enemy was actually the first to appear. After Ultraman has started showing up, a weird little alien guy in a trench coat and trilby hat appears. This is Zarab. Underneath the trench coat, Zarab is an impossibly cool looking alien. He is only half there, like half of a resin mold. His front half is visible leaving him with the appearance of a shell husk. Zarab appears with the promise of technology and protection for Earth. Of course, that’s not the case.
In fact, that basically happens several times over in the space of the film. An alien makes itself known and claims to have the technology to help the planet but is actually trying to destroy it. My main issue with Shin Ultraman lies in this structure. It really feels like it was meant to be the first three episodes of a new Ultraman series but they decided at the last minute to stitch them together to create a film. There are multiple points in the film where it feels like it’s reached its end…then it just keeps going. The underlying narrative of Kaminaga, Asami, and the SSSP is the thorough thread holding it all together but I can’t help thinking this would work better as a new Ultraman tv show.
Shin Ultraman is very fun. It looks great and has some really wonderful effects and takes on the pantheon of kaiju while also retaining the delightful rubber suit jankyness of the original series. The problem is the pacing, but if all you want is kaiju punching and building smashing then you can’t go wrong.
Shin Ultraman is available now on VOD and on Blu-ray & DVD later this week.