I got to review Shin Ultraman-probably the greatest proof that Shin Godzilla wasn’t a fluke- Hideaki Anno’s Shin Hero brand really is just a great mix of breathing new life into iconic Japanese characters as well as some refreshingly biting commentary about real world issues.
Admittedly I’m not a die-hard Ultraman fan- by the time Ultraman had hit Malaysia there were so many giant silver men doing elbow drops on kaiju that it was almost overwhelming. But a general pop-culture awareness combined with the excellent 2011 Ultraman manga did get me interested in Shin Ultraman- and as luck would have it, access to the movie on my flight back from TGS 2022.
Still, being a huge mark for anything with Hideaki Anno producing and a general love for tokusatsu made me immediately interested in what Shin Ultraman brings to the table.
Surprise, It’s Politics!
Just like Shin Godzilla before it, Shin Ultraman kind of eschews the hero’s journey formula- it starts with a pretty quick montage of the state of things: Kaiju have appeared in Japan, enough that the government now has its own special body for combating them (and even a guy who names them). One day, however, an giant silver man appears alongside the kaiju, seemingly to fight it.
I should point out, the first act of this movie is practically breakneck in pace. Somehow, everyone in the movie immediately understands the difference between kaiju and aliens, and the movie continues to ramp up with the implications of a) aliens existing and b) them seemingly always coming to Japan.
Naturally, you might think that this would be some build up to a giant CGI swarm fight, but that’s the most important thing to learn about Shin Ultraman- it’s rarely so simple. Instead, each new alien is presented as a political problem, or more accurately, a political opportunity. After all, unlike the kaiju who just kind of roar and stomp, they talk!
This is really where Shin Ultraman most feels like it has something to say. Government officials are constantly talking about just how pressured Japan is on the international stage. When aliens show up, they absolutely have to kowtow to them, since the aliens are constantly dangling the idea of sharing their technology with other countries instead.
This kind of tension is the meat of Shin Ultraman- how do you do diplomacy with parties you just cannot be on an equal playing field with? The movie asks this question but has no answers. I mean, unless you have access to your own silver giant with elbow drops, that is.
Of Course The Giant Silver Man Has No Teeth
Admittedly, this is kind of where the movie does falter compared to Shin Godzilla- that movie was almost scathing in what it had to say: it was so much about the need for a new generation to take over that its own scene where every senior politician is violently blown up almost felt like revenge porn. In comparison, Shin Ultraman feels a lot more complainey in its commentary. It knows the problems, but doesn’t really know the solutions (and that’s probably for the better, considering just how complicated any of Japan’s foreign policy issues are).
One thing that does seem to hold up, though, is the movie’s opinion on nuclear weapons. While not always namedropped, there is a through line in the movie about weapons that would be catastrophic for anyone to have, and the counterargument of “that’s why we should have it”. It even manages to squeeze in a few side-criticisms of arms dealers while we’re at it, too, to the point I had to double check the credits to make sure Hideo Kojima hadn’t snuck into the writing room under a pseudonym.
That being said, the movie’s final dilemma is definitely on brand for the rest of the movie. Without getting into spoilers, it’s exactly the kind of weird and pondering final act the movie would get to. If you’ve been okay with the pace of the movie up to this point, it’s exactly what you’d want out of a final act.
And that’s very much my review of Shin Ultraman in macrocosm- if you’re okay with the fact it’s not all wrestling moves and flashy supers, you’ll probably really like it as another in a series of movies that seem to use beloved characters to talk about current issues.
It’s not a total lecture- the action scenes we do get are amazing, as are the costume designs for the various aliens. But the point is if you wanted a movie that was at least subtle about what it has to say about global politics, you’re going to find yourself disappointed with Shin Ultraman. Personally? I very much love that about the movie. But if you’re the type who got into the new wave of Tokusatsu only looking for sick clips of beatdowns, you’d probably want to look elsewhere.
The ability for movies to leave you with questions in a good way is so rarely used nowadays, it’s refreshing to see the Shin Hero series pull it off twice in a row. Mix that with the tokusatsu homage aesthetic that Studio Khara has down to a tee, and you have all the makings for a movie quite unlike anything else on the market right now.
Shin Ultraman will be showing in Malaysia on October 6th via GSC