Sunday, July 24, 2022

Fantasia ’22: Shin Ultraman

Ultraman was the king of “tokusatsu” superhero television universes, years before either Marvel or DC had enough shows to claim such a title. There have literally been dozens of series about Ultraman, his colleagues, and the kaiju they battle. Often, they culminated with a theatrical feature film capstone, so Ultraman on the big screen is nothing new. The filmmakers behind Shin Godzilla got a rare opportunity to reboot the franchise outside the ongoing continuity. Wisely, director Shinji Higuchi and screenwriter Hideaki Anno still respected everything that made fans embrace the series through Shin Ultraman, which screens during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Mysteriously, giant kaiju have been wreaking havoc on Japan (and only Japan), so logically the government formed the S-Class Species Suppression Protocol (SSSP) to hopefully figure out a way to stop them. Shinji Kaminaga was one of their officers, until he was accidentally killed by a friendly alien superhero, who arrived just in time to defeat an invisible, electricity-consuming monster. The giant red and silver humanoid code-named “Ultraman” fuses his consciousness with that of the late Kaminaga, bringing him back to life and continuing his work at SSSP.

Of course, his partner, Hiroki Asami, quickly grows suspicious of the way Kaminaga disappears like Clark Kent during times of crisis. Unfortunately, more dangerous and hostile alien entities are also on to Kaminaga’s secret identity.

Somewhat like what they did in
Shin Godzilla, Higuchi and Anno spend a lot of time skewering the counter-productive infighting of Japan’s governmental bureaucracy. The kaiju always reach perilously close to the outskirts of Tokyo, by the time SSSP files the proper reports in triplicate. However, Shin Ultraman is not quite as incisive and it is much more episodic.

Fortunately, you will not hear accusations of “toxic fandom” with respects to
Shin Godzilla, because Higuchi and Anno stay true to the classic spirit of Ultraman and employ a great deal of the traditional elements and motifs. This Ultraman looks exactly like the Ultraman fans have known since 1966. He is just a little shinier. Ultraman has similar crazy moves and the kaiju are as outlandish as ever.

Masami Nagasawa’s performance as Asami is also several cuts above the standard set in most of the
Ultraman features (at least judging from the Ultraman X, Orb, and Geed movies). In fact, she is terrific playing the agent as a part-Mulder and part-Sculley—she is skeptical and suspicious, but her eyes have seen kaiju, in the flesh. Takumi Saitoh is convincingly squirrely and awkward as Kaminaga, even before he dies and merges with Ultraman. Plus, Kyusaku Shimada is appropriately slimy and cold-blooded as the duplicitous Prime Minister. Frankly, the same is true of half a dozen other supporting players, portraying turf-conscious bureaucrats.

Regardless, the important thing is
Shin Ultraman is built around a giant dude wearing spandex battling all sorts of kaiju and aliens. The premise never gets old and Higuchi and Anno embrace the franchise rather than undermine it with wokeness. Recommended as nostalgic fun, with far greater production values than the typical franchise features, Shin Ultraman screens again this coming Saturday (7/30) during Fantasia ’22.