Length: 13 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: Action, Slice of Life
Year of release: 2019
You’ve no doubt seen this same amassing of tropes hundreds of times before. A plucky kid with powers he can’t control is dragged into a situation he can’t comprehend and has to fight bad guys with super powers that they can control a lot better than him. Throw in a mentor and some vague politics and oodles of scenery destruction, and you’ve got another blockbuster superhero venture. If anything, the thing that differentiates Ultraman is how simple it is – there’s no meta-context here; the only way Ultraman reaches out beyond the screen to talk to our world is with a bit of classic, teenage superhero fantasy.
It’s worth mentioning that, not only is Ultraman very friendly to newcomers of the franchise, but achieves this through smart world-building. Put simply, Ultraman makes itself feel legendary, whether that’s through classic fans appearing briefly, beginning the series in a museum dedicated to Ultraman or by simply revisiting what feels like iconic hooks. Yes, Ultraman has a sense of iconography, and it makes itself apparent with it.
As a blockbuster, Ultraman could be a lot easier on the eyes. Many of its scenes are visually impressive demonstrations of the CG tech, and often pairs with slick character animation modern triple A video game cutscenes – but not always, with some scenes seemingly jittering at less than the standard 12fps. Sometimes, the quality and ‘quality’ bleed into one another, and it really shows where the strength of this series lies: that is to say, the shiny faced fleshy people and their jagged hair sometimes share screen-space with the impressive and smooth looking spandex-clad superheroes, and can be jarring when they take off their masks.
It’s almost become an anime trope to break up fight-scenes with exposition and shouting of motives, and, even if not always, that’s because of animator fatigue. Enter Ultraman, which uses the CG tech to break that limitation and show no restraints to lengthy, exciting fight scenes and endless explosions. The team seem to be well versed, rather than over-excited, with the tech as they use a lot of moving camera in slick ways. The character animation’s strength in fights in-particular is a product of motion-capture tech, which gives a sense of awe when aliens are suplexed into an earth-shattering finisher to the triumphant orchestral arrangements.
But, at the end of the day, the connectors between these moments of awe are as jagged as they look. Shinjiro is bland. He’s your classic everyman, with mussed hair, a crush on the most popular girl (who is, obviously, an idol in secret) and a confused sense of justice. Perhaps that’s where the series is going to take him, as his motives thus far have seemed quite shallow – he wants to save the girl to get credit, he wants to fight crime because he likes the feeling of the spotlight, and even when he gets into the most humble fight of the series, he ends up going overboard and wanting to violently pummel, rather than simply defeat, the enemy after they made things personal. But, even with these glimmers of intrigue, I still feel myself rolling my eyes as Shinjirou’s story is oddly mirroring Spiderman’s, but without the personality. It doesn’t help that, even after things get seriously personal, Shinjirou doesn’t even dwell on the injuries of the person they were fighting for just a few hours earlier (in fact, neither does the series, and I had to rewind to check what their condition even was but couldn’t find out!), and that level of connection is what makes your Spidermans stand out.
Beyond Shinjirou, his dad and Ide are a couple of old guys with history relating to Ultraman and the SSSP, and while their priorities seem in-conflict, there’s not much else said. Shinjirou’s school friends only seem to be connected with libido. The idol that Shinjirou has a crush, Rena, on is a secret Ultraman fangirl… because her dad was too. Near the end of the 3rd episode, a certain Moroboshi was introduced (who also looks a lot like Rena’s manager) is a stern member of the SSSP who leads taskforces to deal with aliens, and his innate problem with Shinjirou looks like it could be an interesting theme of the next few episodes. But ultimately, Ultraman hasn’t dwelled too deeply on anybody except Shinjirou, and whether due to lack of substance of or lack of worthwhile substance, even he remains relatively undeveloped too.
If nothing else, Ultraman doesn’t mess about. It’s fast paced because it doesn’t get into the nitty gritty; the character development is kept at a distance and the themes are at the bare minimum. But because it’s so fast paced, it feels refreshingly vanilla with a sense of style, but its staying power feels hindered due to lack of meaning. In any case, I think Ultraman is worth keeping up with, just with a bag of popcorn to stew you through the fluff.