Tongue-in-cheek but never campy, “Shin Ultraman” is an object lesson in how to reboot a superhero franchise for modern times. With its CGI resembling the aesthetic of Japanese monster movies of yesteryear, this new Ultraman adventure has been lovingly put together to captivate audiences without prior knowledge and satisfy fans who cheer for the giant red-and-silver humanoid. The 1966-67 children’s television series first saved Japan and the world. The sixth-highest-grossing Japanese feature of 2022, “Shin Ultraman” will fly to U.S. theaters for an initial two-day only run on Jan. 11 and 12.
After their 2016 hit reboot “Shin Godzilla” (shin translates as “new”), director Shinji Higuchi (“Attack on Titan” parts 1 & 2) and writer-producer-editor Hideki Anno (“Evangelion” anime series) Woven together again are smart political commentary and meaningful musings on human existence in a screenplay otherwise devoted to delivering brilliantly entertaining silliness with an immaculate straight face. The mix is almost perfect: Ultraman remains firmly a children’s entertainment character that he has appeared in countless animations, comics, video games, and 40-plus films. Without going anywhere near the deep and dark introspection of superheroes in many other famous franchises, this Ultraman has the clever wit and thematic elements to keep audiences of all ages engaged, if not excited all the way through.
Higuchi and Ano stake out their stall with a bemused introduction to the S-Class Species Suppression Protocol (SSSP) unit, a small group of scientific geniuses tasked with developing strategies to deal with the pesky kaiju invading Japan (and only Japan, in a joke). have been running gags) with monotonous regularity. As text information flashes across the screen — a giant unknown lifeform appears! — SSSP is an invisible, electricity-sucking beast, unstoppable. That is until Ultraman suddenly appears and saves the day with brute strength and signature aerial tricks that perform the Roman ring routine like an Olympic gymnast. It’s delightful stuff: you can almost hear the orchestra fanfare and the audience clapping as he flies off into the distance, SSSP and everyone else wondering where this shiny giant do-gooder came from.
Helping to unravel Ultraman’s mystery is Hiroko Asami (Masami Nagasawa), a former public security analyst drafted into the SSSP ranks. The delightfully eccentric new recruit is welcomed by agency boss Kimio Tamura (“Drive My Car” star Hidetoshi Nishijima), mop-top physicist Akihisa Taki (pop singer Daiki Arioka) and over-enthusiastic biologist Yumi Funaberi (Akari Hayami). It’s a different story with Shinji Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh), a handsome strategist who saves a young boy’s life during a recent emergency. Ignoring Asami’s bubbly invitation to be a work friend, Kaminaga gives him the cold shoulder and always seems absent whenever Ultraman appears.
These features aren’t very deep, but they work. The banter within the group is lively and often funny – a counterpoint to the discussions between the political and military types. While not as ironically satirical as “Shin Godzilla,” Anno’s script still hits plenty of targets as stone-faced leaders discuss a potentially dangerous shift toward Japanese nuclear arsenals and its reliance on U.S. bombers and weapons to combat the marauding beasts. by mourning “It must be fun to be a dominant country,” said a government minister. But nothing too serious here for too long. When Tokyo is on the brink of flattening again, the same officials say things like “Ruff” and “What a pain” with a hint of irony, which makes them all the more amusing.
In keeping with the tradition of the original 16mm color TV series of limiting Ultraman’s appearance to expensive 35mm optical effects work, the Big U also spends a long time off-screen, although this handsomely produced item is not due to the budget. When he appears, it’s always an event to look forward to. This gives plenty of time for the other extra-terrestrials to visit Japan and cause highly entertaining chaos. This includes Zarab (voiced by Kenjiro Suda), with kidnapping and internecine extortion in mind. Mephilus (Koji Yamamoto) is a smooth-talking alien diplomat who arrives with the words, “I have come to bring the gospel to this planet.” The biggest potential threat is Ultraman’s superior, Zoffi (voiced by Koichi Yamadera), whose ultimate celestial suppression weapon may have to be deployed to wipe out the human race.
While it can be a bit confusing to keep track of all these newcomers and their various plans and ideologies, it’s abundantly clear that, like Klaatu, in “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” each one has warned people to war, to see the Awakening. Monsters through environmental destruction. Thus humanity may need to be destroyed before it evolves into a species capable of wreaking such havoc on life in galaxies far, far away. Engaging viewers and even providing optimism about the future is Ultraman, an alien who has “made music” with humanity and is here to help us make a case for survival in the cosmic plan.
The animal designs and fight scenes hit a gloriously retro-modern sweet spot. They are not willfully cheesy like slavish imitations of the roars of the glory days of the Japanese tokusatsu (Practical effects-driven drama). Instead, these carefully constructed digital images perfectly capture the look and feel of how Japanese movie monsters moved when actors in rubber suits fought and stomped. The designs of power plants destroyed by monsters, city buildings and vast stretches of open land are similarly perfect. They’re not made of cardboard, but you’ll have to look closely to make sure.
Higuchi’s visual direction is inventive and arresting, and the film often has the feel of an undercover detective video. Wide-angle images from the characters above are interspersed with footage shots of the inside of desk drawers and other stills, as if cameras were secretly placed there. At some points, it feels like we’re watching a slick spy thriller with art flourishes, at others a hard-boiled war movie, and at others still, a kooky human fantasy-comedy. Like the eclectic music score by Shiro Sagisu (“Evangelion” series, “Shin Godzilla”) that pivots on a dime from groovy jazz to thunderous orchestral blasts and shimmering folk guitar riffs, the mix of styles and moods works brilliantly, “Shin Ultraman” ” superhero. At the top of the movie. Any number of sequels, prequels and spinoffs wouldn’t be surprising.