July 9, 2023
Street Date 7/11/23;
Box Office $0.6 million.
$19.95 DVD, $24.95 Blu-ray;
Stars Akari Hayami, Ryo Iwamatsu, Takumi Saitoh, Tetsushi Tanaka, Masami Nagasawa.
A typo on Amazon listed the running time at 1 minute. Could it be the longest 60 seconds we’ll spend watching a movie this year? The anti-fanboy in me kicked into overdrive at the hint of an effects-driven comic book, manipulating CGI with such opiatic force that viewers are suckered into confusing digitized pyrotechnics with storytelling. Fluent in Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Anthony Mann, and even Infra-Man, Ultraman was, as of yet, virgin territory. Like a visually impaired deaf man taking refuge at a multiplex on a scorching summer day we proceeded with caution, hoping if nothing else that the air conditioning was working. For you fellow duffers out there, let us begin with the title. Why kick in the Shin rather than simply calling it Ultraman? Shin has almost as many different interpretations as shalom. The filmmakers figured they couldn’t miss with a qualifier that conveyed either “new,” “true” or “God.”
It wasn’t until a couple of episodes of the homonymous 1966 “Special Effects Fantasy Series” upon which this was based were under my belt that the accursed purist that lurks within sanctioned the screening. The first TV incarnation was primitively produced campy fluff that one assumes had the same effect on generations to follow that Flash Gordon’s sparkler-propelled tin spaceships had on mine. By the time the series first hit my youthful radar, I was too absorbed by the cult of 007 and U.N.C.L.E. to spare time for Japan’s souped-up sardine can answer to the Jolly Green Giant. Not unlike fellow countryman and kaiju, Godzilla, the cult of Ultraman refused to die as evidenced by the numerous revivals, 37 to be exact, the character has endured throughout the decades.
The Japanese government learns the hard way that it’s going to take more than a tent and a few gallons of orange oil to hamstring the swift rise in effortless destructiveness brought forth by the rampaging colossi currently terrorizing the countryside. A species suppression enforcement unit led by Kimio Tamura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is established to exterminate the pixelated and armor-plated oppressors. Tamura heads up what at first glance appears to be four members of a high school science club whose levels of nerdiness range from Liza Dolittle on the low end to full-blown Screech. Rather than sitting in a war room and staring at a giant map, they gather at a remote location and sit apart transfixed by their laptops. The oddly effective low angle coverage of their workspace appears to be the result of cinematographers Osamu Ichikawa and Keizô Suzuki’s decision to strap a camera on a pooch in celebration of “Take Your Dog to Work Day.”
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Is what we have here a superhero flick or a monster movie? At first blush, Ultraman’s outer-casing is silver, then silver and red, and finally silver and green. (He changes color more often than a mood ring.) Other than size, the most noticeable shared trait between Ultraman and Godzilla is a limit of one facial expression per kaiju. Ultraman is half human, half extraterrestrial. The military’s determined inability to put a dent in the sudden surge of dam-busting, building-crumbling kaiju makes one thing clear: Only a monster can kill a monster. As sure as Glenda’s a good witch, Ultraman is a misunderstood mammoth. Alas, the monsters our hero wages battle against resemble digitized dinosaurs found in video games. Awkward though they might be, the feelings of warmth articulated by a human in a costume over a cold, stiff slab of CGI make for a more immersive experience.
The confrontations keep it moving. If director Shinji Higuchi’s (Shin Godzilla) aim was an adult update of a childhood favorite, why bleep profanity? The period re-creation and twangin’ ’60s score are welcome additions, as is the stream of insightful chuckles contained in Hideaki Anno’s script. It’s brought to our attention that the holes created by monsters’ powerful rays leveling mountains will make it easier for contractors to build highways. In addition to his screenwriting chores, superfan Anno received credit as producer, editor, concept designer, co-cinematographer, music editor, and the man in the Ultraman suit.
Zarab is extraterrestrial number two, a clothes rack from another planet topped by a fedora, looking to pit countries against each other so that humankind will wipe itself out in the resulting chaos. (Is Ultraman so naive as to think he can take him out with a bullet?) E.T. No. 3 is Mefilas, the only non-CG baddie in the bunch. He’s a good idea gone bad thanks to repetitious comic banter. Growing up, the Toho monster movies never played in their original language. While searching for special features, I scored something much more rewarding than a trailer. If nostalgia is what you’re after, it doesn’t get more authentic than a dubbed English audio track.