Trigger Warning: Shin Ultraman features multiple sequences featuring flashing lights that might impact those with photosensitivity.
In 2016, Shin Godzilla hit theaters and rocked audiences with a version of the kaiju story that hadn’t been presented in such a way. This film would be the first of four unconnected films that would be part of the Shin universe with Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (2021), Shin Ultraman (2022), and Shin Kamen Rider (2023). With the exception of Evangelion, the other three Shin films are not continuations of prior stories, but reimagings within familiar worlds. Up until now, the only U.S.-confirmed home release was that of Godzilla, but, now, thanks to Cleopatra Entertainment, U.S. audiences can enjoy Shin Ultraman on either Blu-ray or DVD in July 2023. Happy Independence Day, America, Ultraman is here to save the day!
Attacks by various kaiju are so commonplace in Japan that there is now a set protocol and team, S-Class Species Suppression Protocol (SSSP), designed to handle each new threat. However, as the SSSP faces off against a new electricity-based foe, a spaceship appears in the sky and crash lands, its inhabitant revealing itself as a giant silver being dubbed “Ultraman,” roughly translated to “SecretMan,” by new SSSP member Hiroko Asami (Masami Nagasawa), and dispatching the electric kaiju with relative ease before disappearing. The SSSP is bound to determine if this Ultraman is friend or foe, a question with rising tension as not only do other world powers want to know more about this seemingly omnipowerful individual, but other extraterrestrial beings are arriving with agendas all their own.
For the unfamiliar, Ultraman is an adaptation of a Japanese science fiction superhero tokusatsu program that ran from 1966 – 1967 as Ultra Q and has been rebooted and continued several times since then. The show was created as a means of riding the wave of popular science fiction of the era (The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) and The Outer Limits (1963 – 1965)) while also tapping into the specific Atomic Era entertainment of Japan, which featured an emphasis on special effects and giant suits, which is where the term “tokusatsu” comes from. Unlike its predecessors like Godzilla and Gamera, which were created more as a way to explore post-World War II Japan and the fallout of nuclear war, Ultraman was designed to capitalize on the excitement for these characters and the various kaiju possibilities, creating an episodic storyline of superhero adventures. Directed by Shinji Higuchi (Attack on Titan I & II) and written by Hideaki Anno (Shin Godzilla; Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time; Shin Kamen Rider), the whole of Shin Ultraman plays less like a total overarching story and more as a series of episodes put together making one grow disinterested in time due to the disjointedness of the story.
So what does this look like?
The film opens with a montage of kaiju activity, introducing the audience to a world in which these attacks are, as expressed by an unnamed bystander, as commonplace as earthquakes. If you’ve seen Shin Godzilla, there’s no direct reference to the kaiju’s attack or any suggestion that the things on the frozen beasts tail are these new kaiju. If you haven’t seen Shin Godzilla, it’s incredible and you should track it down on physical or digital format. With the montage complete, we’re shifted to an introduction to the SSSP as they handle the aforementioned electro-kaiju before Ultraman appears and the movie shifts from monster attack film into a mishmash superhero/exploration of human ethics storyline that’s common in most Doctor Who episodes from its near 60-year run. What this means is that there are a number of appearing extraterrestrials that don’t necessarily result in Ultraman fighting so much as creating opportunities for the truth of Ultraman to be revealed and humanity to be tested. There’s very little in the way of kaiju fighting and, in fact, once the other aliens arrive, the kaiju all-but disappear (you know, the things that were becoming so regular as to be seen as commonplace) and the reasoning for their existence explained with a line of dialogue that holds as much weight as a handwave.
Perhaps it’s that Shin Godzilla is a tightly structured and executed exploration of the weakness of bureaucracy in the face of unprecedented times that balances the hilarious with the terrifying so that even conversations possess dramatic weight that leaves Ultraman coming off as wandering, unsure of the kind of story it wants to tell and whose story it really is. Is it about the humans who had just come to terms with kaiju and now have to grapple with advanced intelligence? Is it about the alien from another planet who fuses with a human thereby breaking the code of their people as they learn to be human? Is it about the promise of humanity to rise above their political posturing and resistance to see anything on Earth as connected, focused only on borders and perpetuating us-vs-them ideology? It’s a little bit of each of these yet not enough to feel like fully-formed ideas when put together as a whole. The effects are solid, capturing the classic tokusatsu style and texture via CG, creating moments that feel genuinely fun and exciting to behold. But that’s not enough to keep the audience engaged for the near two-hour runtime.
Unfortunately for Region 1/A audiences, the home release from Cleopatra contains virtually nothing to enhance the viewing experience. It contains a trailer and image gallery slideshow related to Shin Ultraman and then seven trailers for other Cleopatra home releases. At least Shin Godzilla included a roundtable discussion of the film from members of the FUNimation Team, including a comic writer of the then-new Godzilla comic. Ultraman is afforded no such in-depth materials. Doing a cursory search for a comparison against the Japanese edition, the Blu-ray seems to include a booklet and disc with additional materials. It happens from time-to-time where foreign markets aren’t given the same special features as the native country, and it’s frustrating for fans when they end up on the short end of that particular stick.
If you’ve made it this far in this home release review, it’s basically a foregone conclusion that you want to snag Shin Ultraman. Maybe you dig Shin Godzilla, maybe you’re gearing up for the sporadic North American screenings of Shin Kamen Rider, maybe tokusatsu is your thing and you can’t get enough of it. Just keep your expectations at a reasonable level because the actual tokusatsu is low, as is the narrative structure. Sure, there’s a clear path from start to finish, but it’s essentially several episodes possessing overlapping concepts stitched together resulting in the larger action feeling repetitive. It’s a bummer for what is, overall, a well-acted feature.
Shin Ultraman Special Features:
- Seven (7) Cleopatra Entertainment preview trailers
Available on VOD July 4th, 2023.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cleopatra Entertainment July 11th, 2023.
To purchase, head to MVD Entertainment Group’s Shin Ultraman webpage.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.