In 2016, director Anno Hideaki, anime auteur of Evangelion fame, broke into blockbuster live-action filmmaking in a big way. “Big” is the operative word here, given the film in question was the first new Japanese picture starring the oversized lizard king himself, Godzilla, following a massive twelve-year gap. Anno’s take on the King of Monsters, Shin Godzilla, was the perfect mesh of the original 1954 Godzilla‘s ruminations on national disaster and the dangers of the atomic age, combined with Anno’s own idiosyncratic takes on politics and the human condition. The result was a real hit, popular in Japan and abroad. It’s also one of the best big-budget Japanese films of the century thus far. Now, Anno’s production company, Khara, is back with another big-screen modernization of one of his favorite campy Showa-era pop culture staples. But with Shin Ultraman (シン・ウルトラマン), the emphasis seems to be on just that: camp.
Communing with the Ultra
Anno’s love of Tokusatsu monster suit beat-em-ups has been clear ever since his Evangelion days. Eva, despite its deep metaphysical aspects, begins as very much a robot vs. monster-of-the-week show. Anno’s connections to the 1960’s megahit TV show Ultraman go back even farther, however. In the early ’80s, when Anno’s now-famed production company Gainax was just a university fan club called Daicon, he produced an impressive fan film called Return of Ultraman. (Anno even starred as the bespectacled version of the giant hero). Shin Ultraman is the continuation of that fannish spirit writ large.
Along for the ride at Daicon was Higuchi Shinji, who would go on to storyboard much of Evangelion. Anno and Higuchi teamed up for Shin Godzilla, directing that movie together; with Shin Ultraman, the sole directorial torch has been passed to Higuchi. Anno wrote the screenplay and produced the film, and even provided motion capture for the titular hero alongside original 1966 Ultraman, Furuya Bin. (In other words, Anno has now portrayed Ultraman twice on film.)
Shin Ultraman: Summer Camp Blockbuster
The story of Shin Ultraman is, well, the story of Ultraman. Giant aliens, called “S-class species,” are attacking Earth, and, specifically, Japan. The Japanese government responds by forming a team of young go-getters called the S-class Species Suppression Protocol enforcement unit (SSSP) to deal with the growing crisis. Unbeknownst to the team, however, one of their own has gained the power of the giant silvery defender Ultraman. When danger lurks, he strikes a pose, presses the button on a handheld cylindrical device, and transforms into the giant protector of Earth. As the Japanese government and public grapple with the reality of the alien monsters and Ultraman, more extraterrestrials arrive to complicate things on a more political level.
An abrupt shift to a much more stylized version in this outing in the “Shin” series (soon to feature Shin Kamen Rider) is clear in the first minutes of Shin Ultraman. The movie wastes no time setting up the interstellar threat humankind is under; a series of quick cuts (featuring Anno’s trademark too-fast-to-read walls of text) show a series of five attacks by giant lifeforms on Japan. The scenes begin with exactly zero preamble, and it’s a bit refreshing to have a film simply cannonball directly into the plot this way.
These first moments seem almost like a hastily cut newsreel. They demonstrate what is both different and what remains the same about this Shin outing. Like Shin Godzilla before it, these scenes seem taken almost directly from Anno’s directorial style from his seminal anime series Neon Genisis Evangelion. The presence of weirdo giant monsters attacking earth is both taken seriously while also being allowed to look wondrously hokey; this is also much the same as the consistently weird, even silly, giant “angels” that attacked Earth in Evangelion, and the strange-looking juvenile form of Godzilla in Anno’s 2016 film.
Despite not being directed by Anno himself, Shin Ultraman feels cut from the exact same directorial cloth. Numerous camera angles hew extremely closely to the memorably strange cinematography in Evangelion, with characters framed by shots from below desk chairs or room corners.
Nary a Serious Scene in Sight
Aesthetic and storytelling similarities abound, with the continuative through-line being the focus on the minutia of political and military responses to superhuman catastrophes. But despite so many aspects that clearly cement this film in the same spiritual continuum as Evangelion and Shin Godzilla, Shin Ultraman ends up a pretty different beast. Anno’s Godzilla film is both tribute to a 1950’s classic and a meditation on ruinous government inaction and gridlock, specifically serving as a harrowing metaphor for the devastating 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Shin Ultraman could be seen as having similar themes – but they’re more like window dressing. The meat of this film is, in fact, cheese.
Shin Ultraman is shockingly ridiculous. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Ridiculous is fun. Cheese is fun. But unlike the fairly serious take of Shin Godzilla, this is the sort of presentation where your mileage may vary. Whether or not you find an alien, shaped like a concave, flattened triangle, sneaking into the Prime Minister’s residence in a trenchcoat and fedora hilarious or stupid will be up to your personal tastes. And personally, I love it. It’s made all the better by the movie itself never winking; the film is presented as serious, despite the action on screen being very much the opposite.
(Then again, I have been known to enjoy my schlock.)
The entire film comes off as an endearing love letter to low-budget 1960s sci-fi. As if to emphasize that fact, numerous shots focus on the sci-fi otaku tchotchkes accumulated around the SSSP office; in addition to Space Battleship Yamato, we see numerous close-ups of a model of the NCC-1701 Enterprise. (Especially fitting, given both Ultraman and Star Trek began airing in 1966.) Shin Godzilla emulated the 1954 Godzilla by making liberal use of its soundtrack; Shin Ultraman recreates entire shots, slavishly replicating the cheap-but-endearing look of the 1960s TV show multiple times throughout the movie’s runtime. The result is some impressively silly shots, where Ultraman and his monstrous adversaries, impressive CGI/practical suite mashups, jerk around like they’re being pulled by nonexistent wires. Multiple scenes in this style are so jarring that I actually had to laugh out loud.
Expertly Crafted Schlock
The thing, though, is that it all feels intentional. The cheesiness comes off as knowing, rather than accidental. And, at least to my mind, that intentional schlock covers up what might otherwise come off as failings for the film. Overall, the movie feels like a condensed TV show, shifting focus to what are essentially four separate plots over the course of the film. The characters are about as deep as you’d expect from the source material, too. They’re serviceable – likable, even. But they’re not exactly fully fleshed out.
So what we’re left with is a gloriously fun modern take on Ultraman. The giant monster battles are impactful, but unlike Shin Godzilla, we don’t feel any of the existential threat they pose. That’s true of the whole movie; some commentary on weak government bureaucracy aside, Shin Ultraman is basically about having a nostalgically goofy, enjoyable time.
Shin Godzilla is a great film, but Shin Ultraman is a great time.