Tongue-in-cheek but never campy, “Shin Ultraman” is an object lesson in how to reboot a superhero franchise for modern times. Cannily making its CGI resemble the aesthetic of Japanese monster movies from yesteryear, this all-new Ultraman adventure has been lovingly assembled to enthrall viewers with no prior knowledge and satisfy fans who’ve been cheering for the giant red-and-silver humanoid since he first saved Japan and the world in a 1966-67 children’s television series. The sixth-highest grossing Japanese feature of 2022, “Shin Ultraman” will fly into U.S. cinemas for an initial two-days-only release on January 11 and 12.
Reuniting after their hit 2016 reboot “Shin Godzilla” (shin translates as “new”), director Shinji Higuchi (“Attack on Titan” Parts 1 and 2) and writer-producer-editor Hideaki Anno (the “Evangelion” anime series) have again woven smart political commentary and meaningful ruminations on human existence into a screenplay otherwise dedicated to delivering marvelously entertaining silliness with an immaculately straight face. The mix is just about perfect: Ultraman remains firmly the children’s entertainment character he’s been in countless animations, comics, video games and 40-plus film appearances. Without going anywhere near the deep and dark introspection of superheroes in many other famous franchises, this Ultraman also has the clever wit and thematic substance to keep audiences of all ages engaged, if not excited all the way.
Higuchi and Anno set out their stall with a delirious introduction to the S-Class Species Suppression Protocol (SSSP) unit, a small group of scientific geniuses tasked with developing strategies to counter those pesky kaiju that attack Japan (and only Japan, in a fun running gag) with monotonous regularity. As text information flashes across the screen — A Giant Unidentified Lifeform Appears! — SSSP does battle with a series of fabulously outlandish monsters including Nerong, an invisible, electricity-eating beast who appears unstoppable. That’s until Ultraman suddenly appears and saves the day with brute strength and signature aerial maneuvers that resemble an Olympic gymnast executing a roman rings routine. It’s exhilarating stuff: You can almost hear the orchestra fanfare and audience applause as he flies off into the distance, leaving SSSP and everyone else wondering where this shiny giant do-gooder came from.
Helping to unravel the mystery of Ultraman is Hiroko Asami (Masami Nagasawa), an ex-Public Security analyst drafted into 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 super-enthusiastic biologist Yumi Funaberi (Akari Hayami). It’s a different story with Shinji Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh), a handsome strategist who saved the life of a young boy during a recent emergency. Ignoring Asami’s bubbly invitations to become work buddies, Kaminaga gives her the cold shoulder and always seems to be absent whenever Ultraman appears.
These characterizations aren’t terribly deep, but they do the job. Banter among the group is lively and frequently funny — a punchy counterpoint to discussions among political and military types. Though not as bitingly satirical as “Shin Godzilla,” Anno’s screenplay still hits plenty of targets as stony-faced leaders discuss a potentially dangerous shift toward Japanese nuclear rearmament and bemoan its reliance on U.S. bombers and weapons to fight the marauding creatures. “Being a dominant country must be fun,” says one government minister. But nothing’s too serious for too long here. When Tokyo is on the brink yet again of being flattened, the very same officials say things like “darn” and “what a pain” with nary a hint of irony, which makes them all the more amusing.
In keeping with the original 16mm color TV series’ tradition of limiting Ultraman’s appearances to economise on expensive 35mm optical effects work, the big U also spends longish intervals off-screen, though not for budgetary reasons in this handsomely produced item. When he does show up, it’s always an event worth waiting for. This also allows plenty of time for other extra-terrestrials to visit Japan and create highly entertaining chaos. Among these are Zarab (voice of Kenjiro Tsuda), a schemer with kidnapping and intergalactic extortion in mind. Mefilas (Koji Yamamoto) is a smooth-talking alien diplomat who arrives with the words, “I have come to bring this planet gospel.” The greatest potential threat is Ultraman’s superior, Zoffy (voice of Koichi Yamadera), whose Ultimate Celestial Suppression Weapon may have to be deployed in order to eradicate the human race.
Though it can be a little confusing to keep track of all these newcomers and their various schemes and ideologies, it is abundantly clear that, like Klaatu in “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” each has been alarmed by watching humans at war, awakening monsters through environmental destruction. It may thus be necessary to destroy humanity before it evolves into a species capable of visiting such carnage upon life in galaxies far, far away. Engaging viewers and even providing optimism about the future is Ultraman, an alien who has “fused” with humanity and is here to help us make a case for survival in the cosmic scheme of things.
The creature design and fight scenes hit a glorious retro-modern sweet spot. They’re not so deliberately cheesy as to be slavish imitations of rumbles from the glory days of Japanese tokusatsu (practical effects-driven drama). Instead, these carefully constructed digital images flawlessly capture the look and feel of how Japanese movie monsters moved when actors in rubber suits did the fighting and stomping. The design of power plants, city buildings and vast tracts of open land destroyed by the monsters is similarly perfect. They’re not made of cardboard, but you need to look closely just to make sure.
Higuchi’s visual direction is inventive and arresting, and the film frequently has the feel of covert intelligence video. Wide-angle images from high above characters mixes with footage shot from inside desk drawers and other stationary objects, as if cameras were secretly placed there. At some points, it seems we’re watching a slick spy thriller with artsy flourishes, at others a hard-boiled war movie, and 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 bursts and lilting folk guitar riffs, the mix of styles and moods works wonderfully, raising “Shin Ultraman” into the top rank of superhero movies. Any number of sequels, prequels and spinoffs would not surprise.