A giant monster (Kaiju) attacks Japan inexplicably! Surviving only by the skin of our teeth and quick-thinking, humanity prevails! But then another Kaiju attacks! And another! Nobody knows where these S-Class beasts come from, how many there will be, or what the extent of their powers are. As a result of these frequent attacks, a special operations team is formed.
The S-Class Species Suppression Protocol (SSSP) is a 5-person team which studies and advises the Japanese government. Their members are their leader Fumio Tamura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), Executive Strategist Shinji Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh), Unparticle Physicist Taki Akihisa (Daiki Arioka), and Universal Biologist Yume Funaberi (Akari Hayami). When a new Kaiju arrives which seems indestructible, the team are out of ideas and it appears all is lost. That is until the skies open to reveal a silver giant humanoid figure which easily defeats the Kaiju before disappearing.
Analyst Hiroko Asami (Masami Nagasawa) is newly assigned to the SSSP to investigate this tentatively named “Ultraman”. Is he a friend or foe? Why is he fighting the Kaiju? Also, where does Kaminaga keep disappearing to when Ultraman arrives? Maybe his arrival only signals mankind’s darkest hour as things are going to start getting really weird.
Directed by Shinji Higuchi, Shin Ultraman is the second reboot in the Shin Japan Heroes Universe developed by anime legend Hideaki Anno. Anno and Higuchi had previously collaborated on the massively successful Shin Godzilla. The meaning of “Shin” here being up for interpretation as it is the phonetic katakana for (シン) can mean ‘new’, ‘true’, ‘evolved’, or even ‘God’.
I was a massive fan of the pair’s Godzilla reimagining which saw a fresh take on everyone’s favourite giant lizard. It was a mixture of modern CGI with old school miniature effects, tied into a clever story parodying governmental bureaucracy. While I’m not at all as clued in on Ultraman’s 55-year history as Godzilla’s, I was excited to see what Anno and Higuchi came up with next.
Shin Ultraman starts out strong with exactly what we’re looking for in explosive action scenes of giant Kaiju vs civilisation. Once again, a perfect blend of modern special effects and classic ‘guy in a suit’ cheesiness is what the filmmakers are going for, both taking advantage of advances in technology while paying tribute to the charm of the 60s classics.
When Ultraman first appears, it is in all his awkward glory. Motion capture for Ultraman is portrayed by Bin Furuya, the suit actor from the 1966 original TV show. So, he both looks like a guy in a suit, but also like something otherworldly, as is the filmmakers aim.
This attention to detail and focus on homages is both a blessing and a curse for Shin Ultraman. This is 100% a film for fans as can be told through numerous namedrops and callbacks to Ultraman’s lore. The team used still frames from the original series to storyboard out the entire film, leading to an incredibly faithful while eccentrically shot movie from start to finish.
Its story and characters is where Shin Ultraman fails. The plot is pieced together with references to old episodes of the series, giving it a distinctly episodic feel. It leapfrogs from story arc to story arc so quickly, it can be hard to understand or appreciate what exactly is happening. We’re no sooner introduced to one supervillain before they are defeated and replaced with another.
As the story gets more convoluted and bizarre, the fight scenes become less and less of a focus. A result of the films with a smaller budget (compared to Shin Godzilla), the dialogue heavy scenes become as much of a crutch as they are a homage. But by then, talented actors such as Drive My Car‘s Hidetoshi Nishijima are wasted and it becomes difficult to care about the characters when nothing has been done to establish them or their relationships.
I’m afraid newcomers will be left scratching their heads trying to make sense of things, or worse, bored to tears. Shin Ultraman is a film for fans of the Ultraman franchise, particularly the 60s era, with many homages throughout and having the guts to play it straight. However, the film’s breakneck pacing and episodic plot leave zero room for the characters or story to breathe.