Shin Ultraman Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: July 11, 2023
Audio: Japanese and English Dolby Digital 5.1; English Dolby Digital 2.0
Run Time: 112:29
Director: Shinji Higuchi
There's never a dull day on Japan's newly established SSSP Kaiju defense taskforce, led by Kimio Tamura (Hidetoshi Nishijima). After a particularly challenging encounter, a silver giant descends from the sky to rescue the planet. Dubbed Ultraman, this giant's identity and purpose are a mystery. (From Cleopatra Entertainment’s official synopsis)
The third and shortest era of Godzilla movies, dubbed the Millennial (or Millenium) Era, came to an end with Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004. In retrospect, director Ryuhei Kitamura’s junk food, kitchen sink approach was just what the franchise needed for its early millennial finale, but was, at the time, a disappointment with fans, critics, and at the box office. Afterwards, Big-G went into a decade-long hibernation, the longest in the series’ history. Not counting the 2014 Hollywood reboot, it actually took Japanese owners Toho twelve years to release another Japanese Godzilla movie. That film, Shin Godzilla (2016), was a radical modernization of the concept, recognizing the original film’s atomic bomb themes and combining them with references to the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster to depict a dire situation where the Japanese people are under attack from natural forces, generational sins and traumas, and governmental bureaucracy.
Shin Godzilla was a massive hit and won Picture of the Year at the Japanese Academy Awards, leading Toho to plan a sequel, as well as a mini-franchise of Shin reboots of other popular tokusatsu brands under co-directors Shinji Higuchi and Hideaki Anno, beginning with Shin Ultraman (2022), a reimagining of the 1966 television series that grew out of the popularity of Godzilla and other kaiju films. In the time between Shins Godzilla and Ultraman, Higuchi & Anno completed an even more ambitious project – the retelling of Anno’s groundbreaking anime epic Neon Genesis Evangelion. Referred to as the Rebuild of Evangelion, it was the second attempt at breaking down and retelling the original 1995 series, following 1997’s Death & Rebirth/The End of Evangelion, and started in 2007 with Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone. The next two films were released in 2009 and 2012, then the project was put on hold, at which point the duo moved on to Shin Godzilla.
This backstory/context is so vital, because, while Higuchi acted as SFX director, storyboard artist, and occasional director on a number of projects over the years, Anno has largely lived and re-lived Evangelion over and over since 1995 (I highly recommend his 2004 live action adaptation of Go Nagai’s Cutie Honey). The Shin movies are part of that Evangelion canon and explore similar existential ideas, share similar imagery, and even recycle cues from Shirō Sagisu’s original series soundtrack. Despite Higuchi being credited as sole director and a much lighter-hearted approach to the material (it’s actually very funny), Shin Ultraman actually ends up having even more in common with Evangelion than Shin Godzilla did. Part of this is due to the fact that Higuchi & Anno’s Godzilla didn’t have any other giant beasts or robots to battle. The whole purpose of Ultraman is to grow very large and battle kaiju and this matches the purpose of the Eva giant mechs/bioweapons, which are designed for fighting giant monsters, known as Angels, hand-to-hand if necessary. But the similarities extended beyond this into the frenetically edited, starkly framed scenes within the taskforce’s crisis center, which mirror similar scenes of stifling bureaucracy and government agencies in over their heads seen throughout Shin Godzilla and Evangelion (being a series storyboarder, it’s natural to assume Higuchi was just as responsible for this look as Anno had been over the years).
I’m not nearly as familiar with the Ultraman franchise as I am with Godzilla or Evangelion, and definitely missed nostalgic references, but I am aware enough to recognize when Higuchi & Anno are paying homage and when they’re subverting expectations. What I do know about Ultraman is that it was made on the cheap, reusing sets and recycled monster suits from Toho’s movies. These limitations helped create an aesthetic that works well with Anno’s style and the CG-assisted, faux-suitmation effects that Higuchi developed for Shin Godzilla and his two live action Attack on Titan films (2015). But, again, befitting Anno’s unique aesthetic is one thing, Shin Ultraman goes much further, especially during its apocalyptic climax, which directly mimics some of End of Evangelion and Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time’s (2022) most surrealistic and esoteric moments. It doesn’t wallow in existentialism or have the same uncomfortable intimacy, but the visual structure is almost identical and the ‘final boss’ really looks like an unused Angel design.
All in all, Shin Ultraman is a flawed, yet consistently entertaining movie that original series fans will probably enjoy, but Hideaki Anno fans absolutely must see. Between this, Shin Godzilla, the Evangelion Rebuild series, and the Giant God Warrior Appears in Tokyo promotional short (2012), I think it’s fair to hope that Higuchi & Anno can produce a live action film or series adaptation of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (the 1982 comic book, not the 1984 animated film) someday down the line – with Miyazaki’s blessing, of course. With the skills they’ve honed, I can’t imagine a better team at the helm, just as I can’t imagine another comic book more worth adapting.
Shin Ultraman has not been available on stateside disc before this Cleopatra Entertainment Blu-ray, though you can also buy it on digital HD. It was shot using an array of digital cameras, including Arri Alexas, Red Epics, Panasonic Lumix, and even an Apple iPhone, and has eight credited cinematographers: Anno himself, Osamu Ichikawa, Keizō Suzuki, Katsuro Onoue, Masayuki, Ikki Todoroki, Shinji Higuchi, and Linto Ueda. Despite the overlying metallic grey color-timing, this 2.40:1, 1080p transfer does have a somewhat inconsistent look, I assume on purpose. Similar to Shin Godzilla, some sequences are super-sharp, like live sports, while others are smoggy and soft, and each have their own challenges with clarity, graininess, and artifacts (some shots have ghosting effects, for example). Again, I think that this is all intended, so it’s hard to judge this as a good or bad transfer, because it’s all part of the film’s vibe. I am impressed with detail, especially during the darkest sequences, and really like the use of red as a highlight color throughout.
I don’t know a lot about Cleopatra Entertainment, but they definitely seem to be a smaller studio and, unfortunately, their releases seem to rarely include uncompressed audio. This Blu-ray follows suit and both the original Japanese audio and English language dub are presented in lossy 5.1 Dolby Digital. It’s not a deal breaker, thankfully. System volume will need to be turned up higher than a typical Blu-ray (especially one featuring a newer film), but the mixes are clean enough that this doesn’t create much in the way of notable distortion or leveling issues. The English dub uses all the same effects and music tracks as the original mix, so the only difference really is the language choice and the English script and performances are pretty good. I’d recommend watching it in Japanese, but you aren’t going to miss out on much, especially since the subtitles are actually (gasp) dubtitles. The score is credited to consummate Anno collaborator Shirō Sagisu, who includes a number of original Evangeleon cues, as he had for Shin Godzilla (Anno must really love “Decisive Battle”). The whole soundtrack has a charming retro feel and, assuming that the soundtrack CD description is accurate, Sagisu has also included some of original Ultraman series composer Kunio Miyauchi’s themes alongside his own. There’s a tinny, compressed quality to some cues that I think is another intended artifact meant to stoke nostalgia.
Slideshow (stills from the film, no behind-the-scenes or advertising images)
Cleopatra Entertainment trailer reel
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be seen by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.