If you ever talk to fans of episodic, monster-of-the-week shows, a common refrain is that inevitably not all episodes are winners, but that there is also a flipside: Often, some stories are so good and memorable that they elevate the work as a whole. Whether it’s a particularly poignant moment, an interesting monster, a surprising level of maturity, or even a contribution to the greater overarching plot, there are times when that otherwise simple kids show rises to the occasion. Following this thought, a question often arises. What if all the “excess” was cut out, and you were left with all killer, no filler?
Shin Ultraman is a film that embodies such an idea. A kind of homage/return-to-roots/reboot all in one, it tells the tale of the original Ultraman TV series in a modern setting. The premise sees Japan invaded by powerful monsters that necessitates the creation of a specialized task force to fend them off. Just as the monsters start to be too much, however, a mysterious giant warrior (later named Ultraman) arrives to help. What ensues is a look at how humanity interacts with Ultraman and vice versa as greater threats emerge, leading to questions about the essential elements of the people of Earth. The film highlights the essence of this classic tokusatsu hero by compressing an entire TV series into an almost two-hour experience—or at least it comes across that way.
My exposure to the Ultraman franchise is sparse at best. While a young me did wake up early every weekend to watch the English-original Ultraman: Towards the Future, much of what I know is though (sub) cultural osmosis and Ultraman’s proximity to anime and manga. Of particular significance to me is the fact that it’s a huge influence on Evangelion—not only does Eva feature similarly giant light-based heroes with time limits, but the director Anno Hideaki is also responsible for Shin Ultraman as part of a pattern of uniting various Japanese pop culture staples (see Shin Godzilla, Shin Kamen Rider, and indeed Shin Evangelion). In the hands of other creators, I might have greater skepticism, but having Anno at the helm at least piqued my curiosity from the start in a way that has since been rewarded.
The fact that there is no established antagonist might make the film seem strange to those who are used to more conventional feature-length storytelling, but I found myself enjoying the range of foes in Shin Ultraman. The basic progression is that every adversary presents an escalating challenge, starting with tougher and tougher monsters that pose increasingly dire threats before making way for dangers that seek to exploit the flaws of humankind: fear, greed, mistrust, and so on. Ultraman is also similarly alien to humanity, but contrasts with the invaders as he gravitates towards and cherishes humanity’s positive qualities, e.g. trust, cooperation, and curiosity.
Because I’m not an Ultraman fan, there are many references I simply could not catch on the first viewing. Sure, I know about things like Zetton, the monster that ranks as arguably the most iconic final boss in all of tokusatsu, but not much more than that. But when I did read up, I further realized what a love letter Shin Ultraman is. For example, at the very beginning, a brief history of various monsters are shown, all of which are successfully dealt with by humans. I found this curious because normally the monsters in a work like this are simply too much—that’s why you need Ultraman. It turns out that all of these initial monsters are originally from the predecessor to Ultraman, a TV series named Ultra Q. There, it’s about the people of Earth dealing with phenomena, with no alien giants to help. The fact that Shin Ultraman makes this reference to Ultra Q while also using it to establish both the world of the film and the general competence of the human task force is very clever in hindsight.
Without knowing its source material well, I can tell that Shin Ultraman seeks to both bring out and then distill the very core of Ultraman. In that sense, there are many things that could have been done to make it a “better” or “more cohesive” film, but I also think doing so could very well have blunted the effect of Shin Ultraman as a work that tries to capture the essence of a childhood icon and remind everyone of its inherent relevance. Shin Ultraman is both rooted in nostalgia and timeless in its message: There is light in humanity.