Look at any of Japan’s most prominent genres and you might notice how self-referential the country’s media is. The tropes and visual iconography seen in classic Mecha like 1988’s Gun Buster can be seen mimicked in everything from Gundam to other classics like Gurren Lagann. I think of this as a cultural signature of Japan that they love to pay homage to the art that inspires new works. It’s about embracing new while not forgetting the old.
This past fall, SSSS Gridman hit the scene, especially committed to capturing the magic of classic Tokusatsu beyond visual cues. In the same vein, a new series on Netflix appears to have the same intentions, though arguably more accessible than Gridman. With sci-fi directors Kenji Kamiyama (Stand Alone Complex) and Shinji Aramaki (Appleseed) helming the series, I was dead set from the first trailer. Here is my review of the Netflix Original Series, Ultraman.
The series begins after the 1966 Ultraman series. Humanity believes that the alien threat is gone from Earth while Ultraman and the SSSP’s achievements are celebrated in a museum. Shin Hayata, the original man to combine with Ultraman, lost all his memories of him after parting with him. However, he regains them once he realizes that he and his son Shinjiro have inherited his powers biologically. He goes to his friend Mitsuhiro Ide, who reveals that the SSSP is still active and that Earth may need help from Ultraman again in the future.
Cutting ahead, Shinjiro is now 15 and doesn’t know how to control his supernatural abilities. His father tries to connect with him, but Shinjiro pushes him away, thinking he couldn’t possibly understand him. While contemplating life on a rooftop like young superheroes are one to do, he is accosted by a mysterious man in a mechanized suit, named Bemular.
Shinjiro’s father appears to fight him so he can escape, but things don’t look good for the old man. With the help of Mr. Ide, Shinjiro dons a new Ultraman suit to fight him. After an impressive display of power, the foe known as Bemular leaves. In the wake of this battle, he takes on the responsibility of being Ultraman to combat alien threats hidden from the public eye. Not that those secrets will stay hidden for long.
Remember what I said about paying homage to the classics? Even without having seen the original series, I could feel how monumental certain scenes were. It helps that the main character is legit a fan of Ultraman and is depicted as such in the opening of episode one when he is excitedly running around the museum as a child.
So when he dons his own suit, there is one particular ability that fans of the franchise will be waiting for: the Specium Ray. Even before Ide can finish walking Shinjiro through what the weapon is, he already knows. It’s this small moment that feels like a total gift to the fans and it is one of many embodied by our cast of heroes.
I say heroes because there are more than one Ultraman. This was one of the interesting catches to this series I had no idea about until one of the later trailers. Joining Shinjiro are Dan Moroboshi from Ultra Seven (1967) and the lead of Ultraman Ace (1972), Seiji Hokuto.
Each Ultraman has their own unique weapon and fighting style. Shinjiro has laser beams on his forearms and can create laser disks that cut through metal like butter. Dan fights more like a samurai, wielding a katana that looks like something straight out of Metal Gear Rising. Seiji can create a laser whip with his hands capable of being used as a whip or blasted outward in a slash of energy.
On one hand, I am glad that there was more than just one trailer hyping this show up (even if Netflix America only posted the one). On the other, I kinda wish I didn’t know there was more than one Ultraman because it set my expectations that the new heroes would emerge sooner.
On the bright side, this splits the story neatly into three arcs, each one putting a character in a new suit. Even so, Moroboshi doesn’t even don his suit until halfway through the series, with Seiji’s reveal not happening until the third and final arc. The reveals happen late and don’t feel as monumental as they should, especially when the first half props up Shinjiro to be THE Ultraman.
A mysterious alien named Edo working for the SSSP asks Shinjiro to become Ultraman full-time. The first four episodes follow his slightly rocky path to fully embracing the role of Ultraman, which really is just a smaller version of his larger arc throughout this first season. Early on, Shinjiro’s struggle to control his power led him to fear becoming an outcast. He breaks a dude’s leg and it almost scares his friends into cutting him off completely.
I say almost because the conflict resolves so abruptly with no meaningful resolution between him and his friends. For a show that continually talks about the cost of being a hero, it felt like a waste. At least it ends on a high note, with a big battle that pushes forward the narrative quite a bit.
Next, a string of murders seem to have been perpetrated by aliens, all motivated by the killers’ obsession with Shinjiro’s crush, an idol named Rena Sayama. She holds a grudge against Ultraman, the reasons behind which further make Shinjiro feel the weight of his responsibility. It is a cool way to challenge the main character, but she sometimes comes off as annoying and unreasonable during the crescendo of this arc. Overall, she and her romantic arc with Shinjiro feel forgettable.
At the same time, Shinjiro hesitates to kill some of the aliens he battles, feeling more like an exterminator than a hero. To his superior, Moroboshi, this makes him unfit to be Ultraman, as he views killing as a necessary part of the job. As such, he emerges as Ultraman himself, a symbol of the strength which Shinjiro lacks.
Moroboshi lacks Shinjiro’s compassion, but also the naivete, making him a valuable teacher and a great counterbalance in their team dynamic. On the downside, it never felt like Moroboshi started to change and evolve. Arguably, he didn’t need to since Shinjiro is the main character. It didn’t bother me much because despite kinda being a dick, Moroboshi is way cooler than Shinjiro.
I feel I would like Shinjiro more if he had a better more well-defined arc to his character. There is a lot of time dedicated to him confronting his hesitance to kill but he consistently does kill aliens when the plot demands it and the epic theme music plays. What we see versus what the dialog suggests offers a dissonance that makes it hard to see how he really grew by the end.
Given that Kenji Kamiyama helmed one of my favorite series of all time and one of the best sci-fi series of all time, perhaps I set my expectations too high. For one thing, he certainly did not write this show, which may indicate that my love for him comes from his skill as a writer rather than director. This is adapted from a manga from 2011 so it isn’t as though he would have rewritten the story completely. Regardless, when I started to see more world building introduced, my brain went wild with all the possibilities for where the story could go.
The world as depicted in this new series introduces some interesting ideas about the enmity of these aliens living on Earth. In episode five, Shinjiro is shown a town populated entirely by aliens who are living secretly under the supervision of the government. The logic being, humans would want them exterminated were their presence known.
They actually begin to delve into these concepts a bit more at the beginning of the third arc, when our third Ultraman enters the fray. Seiji Hokuto is a young man well-acquainted with the secrets of Ultraman and the presence of Aliens on Earth, who fights so they may be accepted. His methodology is actually really interesting the more I think about it.
He proposes that while Ultraman does kill aliens, he specifically kills evil aliens. If aliens are going to stay on Earth, they must abide our laws, and if those who break the laws can be dealt with efficiently, society can begin to accept aliens. By standing as a symbol of law, he can deal with those who give aliens a bad name, helping to normalize aliens because they can be controlled through the law just like we can.
It is a refreshing motive, as many other characters with his backstory may have a long road towards battling the race they defend ideologically. He isn’t perfect mind you, and his brand of justice is more of a thug than a hero, a point which Shinjiro and him do not see eye to eye. I thought he was a welcome addition to the crew, with another great visual throwback to the old series in the form of his uniform.
A lot of this interesting subtext either comes later or is buried beneath uninteresting plot development. Episodes five through seven kinda started to lose me, even with Moroboshi’s reveal as Ultraman. The time spent on characters didn’t make me care about them any more and not even the action in the series midsection could lift up these episodes.
The opening action scene of episode seven felt sudden having continued from an equally abrupt cliffhanger the last episode. It introduces new abilities for Shinjiro, but it really the only meaningful reason for the battle. My theory is that the writers couldn’t think of when to introduce this ability, so they created this battle. As a result, there isn’t a ton of heart put into this fight and it shows.
It was the first time the animation came off as genuinely bad, courtesy of some awkward slow-motion. Fret not, however, as the end of the second arc won me back with great action, an awesome framing device, and a really cool antagonist. Adad, voiced by Steve Blum, at first appears to be an avant-garde alien terrorist, but the twist at the end of the episode makes him even cooler. The story toyed with the idea of humans being just as evil than the aliens, which had been built up through an entire arc of idol fans being total assholes.
I sincerely hope that a second season makes use of these concepts of prejudice and xenophobia to breed more complex problems for the heroes to solve. The finale didn’t quite capitalize on them and it felt anticlimactic. Especially the villain, Bemular. We learn practically nothing about him, and what we do learn makes his motivations appear stupidly convoluted.
Knowing Netflix, we will likely get a sequel. Hell, B: The Beginning is getting a sequel and I’m one of like ten people who actually watched it. Either way, my excitement for a sequel to Ultraman entirely depends on whether or not they can capitalize on the world they have presented.
Speaking of which, lovers of military or high-tech sci-fi aesthetics won’t be disappointed with the entire way that the SSSP is portrayed. It’s the one thing from Stand Alone Complex that I can 100% guarantee Kamiyama and Aramaki lent to this project.
Alright, let’s get down to brass tax. The animation is awesome. After years of cynicism and choppy framerates, CGI in anime is finally good. Batman Ninja was when I realized we had finally reached that point, but Ultraman’s fights are the kinds of shit I haven’t seen since Monty Oum was still working on RWBY (god bless him).
There are occasional shots where the frame-rate will tank momentarily, but when it counts, the animation is fluid and choreographed with exceptional skill. The incorporation of every characters full arsenal in tandem with these fast-paced close quarters fight show an understanding of the characters in regards to action.
Every character has at least one action scene that could only reach the heights it does because of their fighting style and personality. For Shinjiro, it’s most of the story’s biggest hero moments. For Seiji, it is a toss-up between his introduction or his tense battle in the finale. Moroboshi gets the single greatest fight in the series: a swordfight against a bunch of sword-wielding alien mercenaries.
The sound design combines both some satisfying sword and gore effects with noises that could only come from classic tokusatsu. Whether it is callbacks only die hard fans will notice or sounds that are themselves tropes of a by-gone era, the audio helps pay homage to the series’ past.
I wish I could say the music achieves the same magical effect, but that is only part true. The hero theme is great and even gives me chills at times. It’s too bad that most of the soundtrack beyond that is forgettable. Not terrible, but not enough to have left an impression. There also was no opening, nor any stylish visuals for the ending theme, which is a disappointment.
I had no idea about this until I finished the series, but Josh Hutcherson, the star of movies like Hunger Games, voiced Shinjiro in the dub. Rewatching some of the episodes dubbed for this review may have actually made me like him a bit more. It’s like a reverse Bryce Papenbrook effect: Whereas listening to Bryce as Eren Jaeger from Attack on Titan made me hate Eren, Josh makes me like Shinjiro.
Whether you pick sub or dub, you are in for a good time from what I’ve listened to. Either way, the script isn’t perfect and if the dub does one line better, the sub does a different one better to balance it out. Either way, there is great talent, from Steve Blum to DC Douglas, and more.
While writing this review, I may have actually warmed up to the show a bit more. Perhaps it was just due to rewatching the finale’s swordfight and riding the high, but I think there is a lot to be thankful about with a show like this. It is another marker in a long road towards better and better CG anime, which I never thought I’d be excited about.
For that alone, it was worth the ride, but the characters were a mixed bag apart from some bright spots, and the story has a lot of missed potential. If Production I.G. and Sola Digital Arts put more effort into its storytelling for the new Ghost in the Shell next year, Directors Kamiyama and Aramaki may just grace us with a new hit. As for Ultraman, it ain’t that.
But it looked damn good along the way.
Ultraman is available for legal streaming through Netflix.
Leave a comment below letting me know what you think of the new Ultraman, and let me know which Netflix Original Anime you are excited about this year. They sure are making a bunch nowadays.
It is crazy that I have less access to legal subbed anime here in Japan than I had in America. Thankfully, I got myself a VPN and I celebrated its acquisition by binging The Promised Neverland, which I will be reviewing very soon.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time.