Dropping complete animes on us through accessible platforms is quickly becoming the new normal. This gives the viewer the option to either space out their viewing or binge the series or one go. Now on the one hand, this has the benefit of uninterrupted flow. You’re never leaving the action for commercials or spending a week at work or school, but on the other hand, waiting for the next episode to come out because you just had to know if you’re favorite character was going to make it used to be a huge part of the experience. It was an entire week of torture leading up to what was usually a wash of relief when the hero, against the odds, pulled through and that’s not something you’re going to get with a streaming service.
It’s certainly not an experience I ever received from Ultraman.
Part of that, I think, comes from a change in perspective. I’ve been watching shows like these my entire life so I’m well aware that the mentor archetype isn’t going to make it, that no one dies on a cliffhanger, and the shy guy with an innocent crush on a cute girl is safe. Ordinarily, those unspoken rules would hold true for Ultraman except this show demonstrated an awareness of both its platform and of the audience’s expectations that it consistently used to its advantage.
This 3DCG series was based off the Ultraman manga by Shimizu Eiichi and drawn by Shimoguchi Tomohiro. It’s a sequel to the 1966 Ultraman television series, as evident by the many homages to the original sprinkled throughout the episodes. It follows Hayata Shinjiro (Kimura Ryohei), the son of the original Ultraman, Hayata Shin (Tanaka Hideyuki), as he learns how to use the powers he’s had with him since birth, and decides what kind of Ultraman he wants to become.
Despite having the powers of Ultraman, which should give Shinjiro a leg-up as far as traditional origin stories go, he doesn’t take to the role like a duck to water. He’s unsure if he wants to jeopardize his normal high school life, and inexperienced when it comes to fighting villains. Meanwhile, there are others who are also vying for the title of Ultraman, and none of them are as green or as naïve as Shinjiro, rendering him the underdog in a series where he not only is the titular character – Ultraman is a legacy but Shinjiro is the Ultraman the series refers to – but the only one with the advantage of being inherently super strong and fast. It’s an interesting character arc, though whether or not it’s interesting enough to make him compelling is another story.
Shinjiro is not, by himself, a strong lead. His personality is bland; his friends are basically cardboard cut-outs of people with no personalities of their own. They exist solely to give the viewer the impression that Shinjiro has a social life, and do a very unconvincing job of it. It’s clear that the series wanted to present a conflict between his dual identities, but when the connection to his normal life feels so tenuous to begin with, the conflict never comes across as genuine. It’s when the series moves past that, diving into alien culture and the villains, that it really begins to hit its stride.
For one, the aliens are extremely smart, particularly the antagonists. They poke holes in Shinjiro’s posturing, questioning his motives, and forcing him to grow, and all while looking great when doing it. The 3DCG shines during the action sequences. The updates to the Ultraman suit make it look suitably modern, and the aliens move fluidly, often shifting their bodies in unnatural ways as they fly and flip across the screen, as opposed to the generally more linear movement of the mechanized Ultraman suits, creating nice visual contrast as their ideals collide.
Great villains are never completely wrong, and one of best points the first man-eater brought up was that the SSSP (Science Special Search Party) wasn’t going after him for killing people, since he’d been doing that under the radar for years without ever warranting their attention, so much as making a spectacle of his death to reveal the existence of aliens to the public, and in doing so, boost the image of Ultraman and the SSSP. There was no dignity in dying as a tool for someone else’s cause, though, which brings me to the best and most confusing message of Ultraman:
Should aliens be treated like people or not?
Each potential Ultraman provides a different answer to that question:
Moroboshi Dan (Eguchi Takuya), for example, has been dealing with aliens for long enough that he treats them with respect. He sees them as ‘other’ but not as ‘lesser.’ In order to show Shinjiro that aliens aren’t more expendable than humans or automatically villainous, and are in fact individuals with families and desires of their own, he took him to an alien town. It was a great scene, since it signaled the start of a wider world for Ultraman, and a greying between the lines of villain and victim. For example, a young alien was forced to murder at the behest of humans, only to eventually be killed by another alien when he tried to make amends, so who’s the real villain in that story? The reality isn’t as black-and-white as it might have been during the Zetton Invasion.
Hokuto Seiji (Han Megumi) was raised by an alien family after he became the sole survivor of a terrible plane crash that may have happened thanks to this intimidating figure, so he prioritizes aliens over humans, to the point where he will blackmail men who have committed crimes in order to fund his cybernetic enhancements, and all for the sake of a young alien girl he’s cared for since he was a child. What he wants more than anything is a world where she can be herself without fear of persecution or rejection. It’s a pure goal, even if his methods can be questionable at times.
Together, these points of views and motivations influence Shinjiro to become a hero who protects everyone, not just his own kind, and that’s what should have been the major arc of the series, except it’s never explicitly shown that he does consider aliens and humans to be equals. He never spares an alien criminal so that they could face legal justice, or fights on their behalf against other aliens or even humans. The intended message of the series wasn’t conveyed in a convincing way. Even in the finale, Shinjiro was still defending humans from aliens, which seemed to undermine what the series was going for by including characters like Mr. Edo (Ushiyama Shigeru), a Zetton alien that’s ostensibly on humanity’s side.
Message besides, this was an entertaining hero’s origin story that paid proper respect to the 1966 television series while also introducing a cast of intriguing characters that helped it stand on its own. Shinjiro still has a long way to go before he can hold a candle to the legacy his father started, but it’s always good for a lead to have room to grow. Given experience and guidance, there’s hope for him yet, though for now, it’s fine that by the end of this season he, Moroboshi, and Seiji stand on equal footing.
It’d be interesting to see how he develops, but if waiting a year or so for the next season sounds like a daunting prospect, there’s already 10 volumes of the sequel manga published and just waiting to be devoured.