When iron is more than enough
The gold standard for live-action rubber-suited Japanese heroes is Ultraman, who in various incarnations has fought off giant aliens for over half a century. But it never quite caught on here the way that the Power Rangers did, between questionable localization decisions (the 4Kids theme song to Ultraman Tiga is STILL stuck in my head!) and sporadic availability. Netflix’s new motion captured 3D CG Ultraman anime intends to introduce the character to a global viewership, but I’m not convinced this endeavor measures up, especially now that SSSS.Gridman has shown how to do an anime soft reboot/sequel to a live-action tokusatsu series right.
Shinjiro Hayata is no ordinary teenager, having concealed his super-durability and strength from the world since a young age. That’s because his old man, former Scientific Special Search Party (SSSP) member Shin Hayata, was none other than Ultraman, who decades ago repelled the giant alien invaders. But Dad’s gotten old, and so it’s time for a new hero to rise up to combat Bemular, albeit reluctantly—oh, by the way, this 2019 Ultraman anime is actually a direct sequel to that original 1966 Ultraman live-action series from 53 years ago, and it’s assumed you totally know that series and those characters well enough that just a name-drop or quick flashback is enough to set your heart aflutter with nostalgia since the source manga was written in celebration of Ultraman’s 50th anniversary.
Callbacks abound to the original series as well as Ultraseven, Ultraman Ace, and Return of Ultraman (most of which were never released in the US). You’re expected to emotionally react when characters confidently declare their names to be “Seiji Hokuto” or “Dan Moroboshi.” This WAS made with the expectation being to attract first-time viewers, right? Certainly, this series makes logical sense taken on its own, but it assumes you have the context to actually care.
The defining trait of Ultraman is that he’s a human being who grows into a masked, spandex-clad giant to fight the alien invaders using his signature martial arts/pro wrestling hybrid fighting style. But Shinjiro’s not capable of this, and so his transformation is that he puts on a human-sized armored robot suit that is directly copied from how Iron Man looked in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The action sequences, though quite well choreographed and edited, are an intentional departure from the traditional Ultraman fights. As is typical for 3D CG anime, everyone lacks weight, and despite characters slamming into objects with massive shockwaves and explosions, no damage is inflicted upon the surrounding environment unless the manga drew in that detail originally.
Some people like this aesthetic, but all I can think of is how over the course of this entire series, the iconic Specium Ray is used like, twice. Non-fight moments are rougher. Everyone moves as though they’re on strings, especially background pedestrians carrying out supposedly mundane everyday activities. What’s more, in an attempt to emulate 2D anime’s “limited animation” aesthetic, they elect to drop out frames from the CG. Done properly, like in Land of the Lustrous, this can work great to highlight character poses. But in Ultraman, frames get dropped out even during camera pans, making it come across as haphazard and cheap.
If you’re an Ultraman otaku who wishes to experience what is clearly a love letter to the classic series … then read the manga courtesy of Viz, because even if you do watch this anime, you’ll have no choice but to do so since only about 7 of 12 manga volumes were adapted. Nothing is resolved after these 13 episodes, aside from an otaku-themed subplot involving a serial killer who targets people who leave disparaging comments on his favorite idol singer’s blog. No second season is currently planned, as co-directors Shinji Aramaki and Kenji Kamiyama have their schedules full with upcoming new 3D CG installments of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Blade Runner in the works. Note: The preceding sentence fills me with dread.
rating: Not Rated