In 2016, mad genius Anno Hideaki took time off from his twenty-year-long project of remixing, remaking, revising, and reinterpreting his classic anime TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion to reboot the world’s most popular kaiju franchise with Shin Godzilla. A hit at home and an instant cult favorite in the US, Shin Godzilla was the first in a projected trilogy of reboots of beloved properties of post-war Japanese science fiction (specifically the tokusatsu genre, in which the emphasis is on practical special effects), with this year’s Shin Ultraman to be followed by Shin Kamen Rider supposedly in 2023 (though given Anno’s history with deadlines, who knows when we’ll get to see it). Unlike American attempts at Godzilla films, Anno and his co-writer and director Higuchi Shinji, are more interested in using special effects creatively than obsessively chasing after verisimilitude. Thus their films have a charm lacking in Hollywood effects movies: they effectively balance the retro appeal of the original ‘50s and ‘60s products with modern techniques and approaches to storytelling without devolving into intentional campiness or condescending quaintness.
In Shin Godzilla, Anno and Higuchi mixed their increasingly dire monster movie disasters with a healthy and often hilarious satire of bureaucracy and humanity’s near inability to cope with the unimaginable. As the follow-up, Shin Ultraman slims down its cast from the first film, to the relief of subtitlers everywhere no longer required to transcribe massive amounts of on-screen text listing job titles and locations with every cut. Instead, after a quick prologue that runs us through the recent history of various monster attacks (“for some reason they only seem to attack Japan,” one functionary muses) it focuses primarily on Japan’s new anti-kaiju task force, led by Drive My Car star Nishijima Hidetoshi. The new woman on the team is played by Nagasawa Masami, who has Godzilla experience dating back to the early 2000s (and also has starred in films by Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Hirokazu Kore-eda, as well as last year’s Detective Chinatown 3). She tries to strike up a friendship with her new partner (Saitoh Takumi), but he seems a bit weird. It turns out that’s because he’s the human form of Ultraman, a giant space being who mysteriously appears at key moments to defend humanity from the various attacking kaiju.
The film is episodic in structure, with first kaiju and then various extraterrestrials who are attempting to either enslave or destroy the Earth setting up challenges for the human team to figure out and/or Ultraman to solve with his various wondrous abilities. There’s a lot of breathless talk about magic elements like Spacium 133 and unexpected numbers of dimensions. But it all basically boils down to the fact that Ultraman thinks people are worth saving, while the rest of the universe sees us as raw material, basic resources for advanced weapons (in this respect, it reminds of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Silver Surfer). In place of Shin Godzilla’s critique of bureaucracy, there’s a throughline about individualism versus teamwork, as every member of the task force turns out to be key to saving both humanity and Ultraman himself (even the guy who repeatedly wonders what the point of learning anything is in a universe where humanity is so hopelessly ignorant). And Higuchi (taking sole directorial credit this time, with Anno credited as writer and co-editor) gives us a profusion of hilariously weird shots of people sitting around offices talking to each other. The compositions come from overhead at odd angles, or from the side through a crook in an elbow or the arm of a chair, or from far below, at the point of view of a keyboard or computer screen or the inside of a bag of chips. There’s not exactly any particular reason for these perspectives, or for the fact that Higuchi and Anno hyperactively cut from one to another within a scene seemingly at random, other than to liven up what could otherwise be lengthy scenes of incomprehensible exposition. But it’s tremendously slick and entertaining, and that, above all, is indicative of what’s so vital about Shin Ultraman: it’s simply the most fun movie I’ve seen in quite a long time.
Published as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 1.