Few films just have as much fun being themselves as Shin Ultraman does. This revival of the beloved franchise exudes such love for the property, and such an enthusiasm to exist in this cartoonish world. It is an oddly structured narrative piece, one defined by swapping out threats in an escalating fashion and by heavy drops of exposition, but all of this is handled with style and energy. So much is going on here – in another film, it would be too much – but the sheer pace and momentum of the film makes is an absolute blast. Of course, the giant kaiju and alien battles don’t hurt.
A lot of Shin Ultraman’s success is due to aesthetic. On a design level, the film does a brilliant job of feeling modern while looking traditional. This is an effects heavy film, and it evidently does not have the budget of an American blockbuster of the same scale. Thankfully, it is designed with this in mind and the undeniable quality of the art design more than makes up for it. It may look technically less proficient than even something like Transformers (2007-2018) (which feels like a fair comparison point, in terms of properties being adapted) but the artistry is far beyond this. We open with a blisteringly paced montage of kaiju invasions – setting the scene that kaijus keep attacking Japan and that they keep being dealt with. Dealing with what could be entire filmic arcs within seconds really prepares the viewer for the subsequent pace of this film – smartly so – but this sequence also exhibits the aesthetic. These are CG monsters but the designs are purposefully artificial, with textures that evoke rubber suits.
This brings a tactility, even if it is illusory, and gives the film an earned nostalgia. It is such an authentic choice, grounding this modern film in a classic genre by using the tools of today to approximate the necessities of them. It also neatly masks the shortcomings: if you can’t make something that looks completely real, make it entertainingly fake. This almost toy box style permeates the film and is in keeping with its tone and wider sensibility. This is a film that puts fun first, and that feels like playing in the toy box. The enduring feeling is that it is a bunch of Ultraman fans just having fun with Ultraman, exploring the possibilities at length and persistently finding creative things to do.
The wider visual language is fascinating, and is part of the package. It can be jarring to start, as the film is defined by quick cuts and obtuse angles. Cameras hide out in weird places and, during exposition, exist almost always in closeup. Conversation scenes usually involve quick successions of static framings that swap between speakers. The camera moves in the action set pieces, and often exists at a distance to emphasise scale, but the style in the many ‘people have important discussions in important rooms’ scenes is pretty persistent. On a base level, the distinct style of the human narrative helps to emphasise the scale of the alien and kaiju fights. We are so used to a constrained view that the blown-out spectacle is even more impactful. Separate from this, though, once you are used to it, you realise it is just an inherently smart choice. First of all, it gives the film the feel of an onscreen manga. Shots function like panels, presenting storytelling in a comic book style. This allows each setup to be interesting and striking. There may not be an intentional or thematic purpose for having the camera be looking up from under the desk; be situated on a TV remote held aloft or be popping out from a shelf in the corner. There is an aesthetic purpose though: continual creativity and interest. The filmmakers keep finding fun places to position their camera and the unique setups spice-up the necessary scenes of extended dialogue.
As mentioned, the film is so quick paced. This could so easily juxtapose with the amount of exposition. This does not feel like an introductory Ultraman story, this feels like several escalating episode arcs in one. We introduce Ultraman, have him take down an instantly iconic kaiju and then we quickly have another brilliantly established alien threat: Zarab. His presence, like later characters, is a throwback to Ultraman’s past. You don’t need to know this, though. His design is so evocative, his voicework so strong and his immediate function in the plot is defined by his actions. The story bends towards him and his plans, until it doesn’t. Then we have new threats, and new enemies, and it keeps going. It could be accused of being fanservice, as we sift through references and highlights from the series’ past. But, I have to say, as somebody unfamiliar with Ultraman but familiar with the wider genre, the film is not limited by this. The energy and the focus on propulsive action makes the film not reliant on reference.
Quite simply, it just keeps going. There is a lot of human dialogue, but a limited amount of real human drama. The human story can often be the Achilles heel of the kaiju film; here, the drama is all in service of the stakes of the A-plot, intrinsically related to Ultraman’s story. It is not quite the fascinating focus on procedure and bureaucracy that Shin Godzilla (2016) (Shin Ultraman is another collaboration between Shinji Higuchi and Hideaki Anno); it is much more cartoonish. In fact, the whole film has the feel of animation but is presented as live action. The content of the many conversations can get a bit overwhelming and is, narratively speaking, not well paced. It is a lot, it develops sporadically and there is a shoddiness to the overall narrative. But, it is conveyed with such exuberance, and through persistent visual interest. These scenes more exist as tone moments or as genre anchors. The specific jargon and lore is there for the fans but the key tropes the scenes convey are obvious. It is all energetic facilitating and in keeping with the genre. It feels pulpy, and it is all such well executed pulp. This is driven along by a jazzy soundtrack, which cements the retro feel, and the occasional (and very effective) bursts of screaming guitars. It is such a cohesive aesthetic commitment. Even the exposition is in line with this aesthetic and the film is so dedicated that it completely soars.
Shin Ultraman is a silly movie about escalating extra-terrestrial threats and somebody who can transform into a giant alien robot. It has hyperbolic action scenes and is full of almost nonsensical exposition, peppered with sudden plot reveals. All of this is part of the charm. It is so knowingly all of this, and deploys all of this with style and enthusiasm. The result is constantly entertaining and infectiously overwhelming. It is a clear labour of love and this affection passes straight onto the viewer.