Just as the original Godzilla series quickly backslid from heartbreaking political allegory to novelty children’s fluff, Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla franchise starter has already made way for quirky kitsch in its immediate follow-up – Shin Ultraman. I could not be happier about it. While Shin Godzilla is the smarter, more thematically purposeful film, Shin Ultraman is the more fun, breezy, rewatchable one. It continues Shin Godzilla’s satirical illustration of the ineffectiveness of bureaucracy in the face of a kaiju-scale threat, but that governmental buffoonery is more of a background hum here than it is the main show. Anno’s Ultraman film—which the Neon Genesis Evangelion mastermind wrote, produced, edited and, most surprisingly, mo-capped—is more of an upbeat celebration of both sides of the human/monster divide. It crams in tons more of the skyscraper CG monsters than Godzilla’s solo outing could manage (although the individual designs of Godzilla’s Pokémon evolutions were a major highlight in the earlier film), and it also celebrates the humans below as adorable dorks who are just trying their best in a world stacked high against them.
If Shin Ultraman echoes any of Shin Godzilla’s high-minded artistic merit (beyond a main-cast performance from Drive My Car’s Hidetoshi Nishijima), it’s in its look & pacing. Director Shinji Higuchi shoots governmental office scenes like he’s competing with Soderbergh in full showoff mode, finding the most improbable camera angles possible to accentuate the absurdism of modern office work’s fluorescent-lit mundanity. Anno matches that overachiever energy in the editing room, cutting between Higuchi’s off-kilter shot compositions with a distinct anime sensibility – always going 10,000% hard no matter the occasion, even when depicting paperwork. That dynamic attention to detail makes this a formidable contender for one of the most visually impressive comedies in decades; it’s just also one of the goofiest. Instead of trying to conjure realistic-looking CG monsters (which was never a concern in the genre’s early rubber-suit days anyway), Shin Ultraman’s kaiju creatures lean into the uncanny end of the medium. That means it will be taken less seriously than aggressively dour competitors like Gareth Edwards’s American Godzilla film from 2014, but also means it’s a lot more fun to watch. If it resembles any big-name kaiju movie from the past couple decades, it’s the goofball free-for-all Big Man Japan, which is at least a comparison that does it a lot of favors.
Story-wise, Shin Ultraman returns its titular space alien superhero to his children’s TV roots, pitting him against a series of skyscraper monsters in a consistent episodic rhythm. Ultraman walks among us in a barely concealed Clark Kent disguise, powering up to kaiju scale whenever another post-Godzilla CG monster emerges to tear up Japanese cities & countryside. His Earth-saving superheroics are even scored by a tin-canny mix of 60s throwback stock music presumably lifted from the original Ultraman series. It’s a familiar formula for anyone old enough to remember a pre-MCU media landscape, but in the 2020s its vintage earnestness feels remarkably refreshing. Ultraman is genuinely fascinated with the go-getter exuberance of the human spirit—especially when threatened by impossible odds—and, by extension, so is the film. The hook of seeing Shin Ultraman big & loud at the theater is in the promise of weird-looking CG monsters doing battle over miniature cities while shooting laser beams out of their eyes, hands, and mouths. Once your butt is in the seat, though, the real show is in its celebration of humanity’s adorable perseverance & naivete. It can’t help but feel a little frivolous in comparison to the political cynicism of Shin Godzilla, then, but that unashamed frivolity is incredibly endearing.
Maybe I’m making Shin Ultraman sound like disposable kids’ fluff here, and in some ways maybe it is. Its plot machinations surrounding intergalactic superweapons that can transform human beings into kaiju-scale war drones and Ultraman’s superheroic sacrifice in merging his alien DNA with a human’s are all old-hat comic book nonsense. I’d much rather watch earnest nonsense like this than its ironic callbacks in post-modern works like Big Man Japan & Psycho Goreman, though, which borrow from the pop art beauty of its vintage kitsch but are too embarrassed to be mistaken for the genuine thing. There’s plenty “adult” material lurking under this film’s Saturday Morning Cartoon surface too – from the governmental bureaucracy satire to the CG psychedelia to the momentary indulgences in sexual fetishism (including some especially shameless pandering to the giantess community). They’re just not the main draw. Shin Ultraman is a delight precisely because of its childlike exuberance, which is just as fitting to its titular alien hero’s television origins as Shin Godzilla’s political cynicism is to the original Gojira.