Shin Ultraman (2023)
Directed by Shinji Higuchi
In 2016, “Shin Godzilla” (or “Godzilla Resurgence”) became the first Japanese-language Godzilla movie I had ever seen. I had loved Roland Emmerich’s cheesy 1998 American movie, where Godzilla looked like a T-rex—I was young and adored “Jurassic Park,” so why wouldn’t I want more T-rex movies?—but I had never seen any of the original Godzilla movies from Japan’s production studio Toho. I really enjoyed “Shin Godzilla” when I saw it at my local arthouse theater, and eventually that led me to buy Criterion’s “Godzilla” collection and watch every Godzilla movie in less than a month. This January, at the same local arthouse theater, “Shin Ultraman”—which, for legal reasons, the filmmakers can’t call a “Shin Godzilla” sequel—became the first movie I ever saw that featured the titular superhero that had been a staple of Japanese television and movies since 1966. But I don’t think “Shin Ultraman”—like “Shin Godzilla”—will inspire me to play catch-up.
I can’t find a preferred translated title for “Shin Ultraman.” It might be “Ultraman Resurgence,” but “shin” generally means “new” in Japanese. “New Ultraman” would make sense, considering the characters in this movie had never before seen the giant silver humanoid when it suddenly appears on Earth to stop a dangerous electricity-consuming kaiju (a kaiju is a monster, which the characters are all too familiar with). Ultraman disappears as soon as the monster is handled, leaving the scientists of the SSSP (S-Class Species Suppression Protocol) team scratching their heads. But Ultraman will return soon enough, and he won’t be the only extraterrestrial being that will land in Japan in a short span of time.
Like “Shin Godzilla,” “Shin Ultraman” focuses mainly on the government’s response—or lack thereof—to a major incident. Both movies are sometimes satirical in their attempts to show bureaucracy at work, but mainly they treat the plots realistically—as if these outlandish occurrences are happening in our everyday world. At least, for the first thirty minutes or so. In time, these outlandish occurrences stack up so high they threaten to weigh down the movie. Director Shinji Higuchi explicitly said he didn’t want his movie to be too similar to “Shin Godzilla” in its adherence to the government angle. But the story he does tell eventually gets so tangled, I lost the thread about halfway in. That’s no rare occurrence for a Toho sci-fi movie, mind you…but even the most overcomplicated Godzilla movies could be fun if the fights were worth the cost of admission. In “Shin Ultraman,” however, these monster mashes were no saving grace. The few battles all felt too short, too rehearsed, and too reserved. They weren’t as scrappy as the Godzilla movies of old. Only the second battle, between Ultraman and a subterranean monster, even came close.
The practical effects sure have gotten better in the past 70 years, though, and while you can still tell that Ultraman is a person in a skintight suit, it actually kind of works. By using actors walking through miniature sets, Toho’s monster movies have always felt more genuine than if they had used bad postproduction effects. Sure, they still use plenty of CGI, but it’s the mix of practical effects that make the movie stand out from its American superhero peers. Still, I wish the action had been more compelling. I don’t know why most moviegoers go to a movie like this, but I go to see the triumph of good over evil (preferably in a kickass fight). The next time Toho makes a Godzilla movie, I’m in. But I might skip the next Ultraman outing.