Before we get into this review, I think I need to make one thing absolutely clear: I’m in no way a hardcore Ultraman fan (nor am I a hater). While I know the basics through cultural osmosis—ie, the basic plot and some of the monsters—the only Ultraman I’ve ever watched is the recent Netflix anime—which is a major reimagining of the franchise. So, if you’re looking for a review for Ultraman fans by Ultraman fans, I’m afraid this review isn’t going to be much help. Rather, this review is for people who are coming into Ultraman fresh—or who are big fans of Hideaki Anno and his seminal works Neon Genesis Evangelion and Shin Godzilla.
Shin Ultraman is, to be frank, an odd film. In fact, it often feels more like a four-episode TV series than a cohesive movie. Each fourth of the film has its own distinct story and themes. The first is the arrival of Ultraman and focuses on introducing the characters and the kaiju-filled world they inhabit. The second deals with Zarab and is a commentary on the human fear of the unknown and how quick we are to turn on our heroes. The third arc centers on Mefilas and how we tend to foolishly believe what we want to believe rather than accept inconvenient truths. The fourth final of the film features the confrontation with Zetton and explores our ability to hide within apathy and ignorance rather than face head-on problems.
All in all, each distinct section of the film is handled well and gives a meaningful exploration of its themes. Unfortunately, the episodic structure of the film means that it has few overarching themes—and those that it does have largely fail because of that structure. One such theme is the ineptitude of the government—how it never seems to learn its lesson and is doomed to repeat its mistakes endlessly. Sadly, this theme is treated as little more than a repeated comedic beat rather than a greater analysis of the problem.
The main theme of the film, the power of friendship, fares little better. Centered around Ultraman and his SSSP partner Asami, their relationship is supposed to form the basis for the film’s climax—and explain why Ultraman feels the need to protect humanity, no matter the consequences. The problem is that Ultraman and Asami actually share very little screen time. In fact, for more than half the film, he is no-contact with the SSSP in general—Asami included. They simply have no real opportunity to form such a plot-vital friendship—no matter how much Asami brings up the subject in passing. The number of conversations they have in the film can be counted on a single hand.
On the visual side of things, from the kaiju design to the giant model of the starship Enterprise sitting in the SSSP’s headquarters, it’s clear that the people behind Shin Ultraman (namely screenwriter Hideaki Anno and director Shinji Higuchi) have an unbridled love for the 60s and 70s TV shows of their youths. Stemming from this comes a visual style that mixes the technology of modern filmmaking with the tokusatsu techniques of the five decades past. Honestly, it makes the film a fascinatingly enjoyable watch in each and every action scene (even if the CG can look quite budget-level compared to major Hollywood productions).
Outside of the action scenes, much of the film is prolonged discussions between the SSSP members. The writing itself is solid enough—putting in enough comedy and personality to keep your attention. However, what makes these dialogue scenes stand out is the attempt to keep them visually interesting. Far from simple shot-reverse shot, with nearly ever spoken sentence the camera switches to a strange new angle—one moment, the camera will be a laptop’s webcam, the next it will be beneath the table looking up between someone’s legs. Similarly, Asami’s introduction scene—which has a handheld camera follow her from behind as she enters the SSSP—is so shaky I actually got a bit motion sick watching it. So, while the camerawork is no doubt creative and can be fun it’s also distracting to the point of pulling you out of the film.
As for the music, its basically a mixture of what you’d expect to hear when watching Evangelion and the soundtracks of 60s and 70s tokusatsu shows. It’s perfectly fits what you see on screen and expertly matches the likewise classically inspired visuals.
In the end, Shin Ultraman is a perfectly watchable film—though far from a great one. It’s clear that the exceptional amount of creative freedom was given to the creators which brings the film to its highest highs and lowest lows. When it comes down to it, I can’t help but feel that Shin Ultraman should have been a TV series rather than a film—just like the production it is based on. What we’re left with is a movie that tries to do too much and leaves us with a bit too little. However, as a love letter to Ultraman and shows like it from half a century ago, it works well enough. It’s a nostalgic spectacle and it’s easy to see why the franchise continues to be popular even today.