Shin Ultraman


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Shin Ultraman
"if you have ever enjoyed a kaiju film, you will love this." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

On July 17, 1966, Japanese television changed forever. Kaiju series Ultra Q, which began screening in January of the same year, had set the stage, but it was the appearance of the silver-suited Ultraman which really wowed fans, with its implication that a humanoid, relatable figure could do battle with what seemed like unstoppable gigantic creatures. It might be seen as a pivotal moment in Japanese culture, a point when the country began to shed some of the sense of helplessness it had felt since the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a new generation was growing up and it was ready for a new way of engaging with the world. Ultraman thrilled young fans and quickly acquired international followers, wherever people could get access to the episodes. He has appeared in no fewer than 44 films before now, but none of them with the budget or ambition of this one. Finally, his day has come. Prepare to be amazed.

Actually, scrap that. There is nothing you can do to prepare for this. Even longstanding fans of kaiju action will find themselves thrown in at the deep end, bombarded with so much information during the first few minutes of this film that it’s practically impossible to take it all in. At the same time as updates are flashing onto the screen, assorted giant monsters are crawling across it – a potted history of recent events – and before long it becomes clear that the Earth is under attack yet again, this time by the electricity-munching invisible monster Neronga (who becomes visible when he’s full, a trait which earns him the scorn of some members of the SSSP anti-kaiju unit). Who can save the day? You guessed it. And by now you will be so overwhelmed by the pace of it all that you won’t have time to worry about silly things like the Toho canon or the laws of physics. You will just sit back and immerse yourself in the experience.

It goes like this. After the arrival, triumph and prompt departure of the silver-suited extra-terrestrial, everybody in authority within Japan is in a flap, realising that this represents something more than just an extension of the now familiar kaiju phenomenon. Analyst Hiroko Asami (Masami Nagasawa) is quickly drafted into the SSSP and charged with coordinating information on the new arrival. Most members of the team welcome her but she quickly finds herself at odds with Shinji Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh), whom the others see as a hero after he rescued a small child from Neronga’s path, but who seems cold and awkward to her. It’s the sort of personality clash which, on the silver screen, points to incipient romance, but in this case it also hints at something else. Kaminaga has a secret.

He’s not the only one, in a film which is full of schemes and double crosses – most of them, admittedly, coming from characters who are suspicious to begin with. Giant monsters are one thing, but with the arrival of an extra-terrestrial politician, Zarab (Kenjirô Tsuda), the world could really be in trouble. He’s followed by extra-terrestrial ambassador Mefilas (Kôji Yamamoto), and in due course, by Zōffy (Kôichi Yamadera), who has the power to decide the fate of everyone on Earth. Everybody wants something, with complex international political issues extending to become interplanetary, especially in light of a discovery made about humans. it is to director Shinji Higuchi’s great credit that he manages to make these aspects of the film as dramatic and exciting as the kaiju rampages.

As for the kaiju themselves, they are beautifully rendered, animal in their texture and movements even when possessed of some distinctly mechanical-looking features. Though they may seem random at first, there’s a point to the form and behaviour of each one of them, contributing to an important factor in the Ultraman stories: humans’ gradual awakening to the fact that they are only a footnote in a much bigger story. Ultraman himself, of course, changes the game by becoming humanity’s saviour, but there is still a requirement for humans themselves to step up their game in order to survive.

Older viewers may understandably find the giant silver-suited figure a bit silly, though they are invited to think of him in a different way by Asami, whose fascination is more than just professional. The film is quite aware of its ridiculous aspects, though, and deflects them nicely with humour, the banter between the SSSP members becoming a distinct part of its appeal. There’s much more energy in the human-centred scenes than is usual in such films, so you won’t just be sitting there waiting for the kaiju to reappear. The lack of a proper monster fight at the end is a bit of a disappointment, but probably unavoidable given the film’s message and what it is setting up.

if you have ever enjoyed a kaiju film, you will love this. It puts Western blockbusters to shame with its unabashed enthusiasm, its spectacular scenes of destruction and its larger than life characters. One of the most eagerly anticipated films at 2022’s Fantasia International Film Festival, it’s a thrilling ride from start to finish.

Reviewed on: 22 Jul 2022
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An extra-terrestrial ally steps in to save humanity from kaiju attacks, but the consequences of his decision could be even more dangerous.

Director: Shinji Higuchi

Writer: Hideaki Anno

Starring: Takumi Saitoh, Masami Nagasawa, Daiki Arioka, Akari Hayami, Tetsushi Tanaka

Year: 2022

Runtime: 112 minutes

Country: Japan

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