Ultraman: Season One Review
Netflix continues its programme of original anime content with the new 13 part series Ultraman, a direct sequel to the live action ‘tokusatsu’ series created by the legendary Eiji Tsuburaya. Airing in the 1960s the original series followed Shin Hayata and his colleagues in the Science Special Search-Party (SSSP). This team defended Earth from the threat of alien invasion depicted mainly by men in rubber monster suits. In an inauspicious start to his origin story Hayata is accidentally fatally injured by the alien Ultraman in the line of action. Feeling understandably guilty for this major indiscretion Ultraman decides to merge his life force with Hayata. Now with the help of the Beta Capsule, Hayata can transform into the heroic Ultraman when needed to fight any alien threat.
Fast forward to the present day and the new Netflix series picks up with Hayata as an old man. The SSSP is all but forgotten, just a museum stands as testament to their work. There has been no sign of Ultraman for years and it seems that all alien life has decided to leave Earth alone. All is peaceful until the menacing figure of the mysterious alien Bemular appears and Hayata is forced out of retirement once more. Along for the ride is his son Shinjiro who it seems has inherited the ‘Ultraman Factor’ from his father. Thus the basic story is set up for a series of showdowns, explosions and more than just a few nods to The Matrix and more recent fare such as Iron Man.
Netflix have done a fantastic job in reinventing Ultraman for a modern audience. Prior knowledge of the preceding series (and its many offshoots) is not necessary as you are given all the basic details in the first few episodes. The first four episodes in particular continue on from each other as though they were designed to be edited together as a feature length pilot. The season as a whole is split into distinct thirds. The opening episodes set the scene and quickly establish Shinjiro as his father's successor to the Ultraman mantle. The middle part of the season introduces Shinjiro’s love interest, pop star Rena Sayama. This part of the storyline is very topical featuring online stalking and ‘trolling’ to great effect. The final third of the season brings some of the additional Ultramen into the story and gives us a very satisfying all-action conclusion. The ever watchful Bemular lurks in the background throughout the whole series as a connecting thread.
Not everything works as well as it should. The dialogue can be quite cliched and is sometimes pitched at what seems like quite a young audience. This contradicts the often violent fight sequences which generally result in great geysers of blood and limbs flying in all directions. Netflix has given Ultraman a 15 rating and there are a few instances of bad language, otherwise this is absolutely something you could sit down and watch with the family. There is a recurring motif of arms being severed throughout the show; it happens in just about every episode. I’m not entirely sure of the significance of this but it’s something to bear in mind if your kids are wanting to watch.
It is also a shame that Rena is literally the only female character in the entire show. I honestly can’t remember another female character with a single line of dialogue. She’s also strangely written. Apparently she’s a popstar who sells out concert venues, yet she also appears to live in a dingy flat with her dad. She also happens to hang around a lot in dark alleyways just waiting for her driver which seems a convenient way to keep putting her in danger so Ultraman has someone to rescue. The oddest thing is her relationship to Ultraman; one minute she seems to be a complete fanatic and then suddenly she hates him and blames him for the death of her mother. Then inexplicably she loves him again. I may have missed something but it seems muddied and not at all clear.
There are similar issues regarding the online stalker part of Rena’s story. I never felt quite sure of the motivations of the characters involved and the resolution seems somewhat confusing. Hopefully the writers can rectify these issues in any future seasons. They could easily introduce additional female members of the SSSP and give them more active roles. I appreciate the whole thing is geared towards a generally young male audience but at times the writing does seem somewhat dated.
Things definitely pick up when Rena’s story arc concludes and we then get pretty much non-stop fight sequences until the final episode. Let’s face it, Ultraman battling weird looking aliens is mostly what we’re looking for and the creators don’t let us down in this regard. There are beautifully rendered explosions galore and the Zack Snyder school of slow-motion fighting techniques is in full effect. I previously mentioned The Matrix and it’s easy to see its influence here. One fight has Ultraman copying Neo’s trademark moves to a tee. I also mentioned Iron Man and it is probably this Marvel character that is the major influence on the whole show. In the original ’60’s show Ultraman was basically a guy in a skin tight rubber suit and a helmet. A very sleek minimal look and totally in vogue with the time period. However in this post Tony Stark world that just isn’t going to cut it. The new Ultraman is like everyones favourite Avenger on steroids. Hi-tech armour is the name of the game with plenty of close up shots of Shinjiro’s face overlaid with a fancy heads-up display, all very reminiscent of Iron Man. Shinjiro does have some sort of inherited alien power but we are led to believe it is mostly the suit doing the heavy lifting. This is also evidenced by the other Ultramen who join in for the second half of the season. It seems the suit certainly does maketh the man.
The animation style is excellent for the most part. It really comes into its own for the action sequences. Motion-capture used for the combatants coupled with a realistic rendering on the Ultraman suits really lends a depth to these sequences. One very nice touch, that I’m assuming was intentional, is that the way the alien monsters are animated almost makes them look like old school ‘men in suits’. Standouts are the designs of the Ultraman suits and the absolute bonkers display of aliens. They definitely invoke the spirit of the original series.
It’s a shame that it’s in the quieter scenes where cel-shaded characters interact on quite plainly rendered backgrounds that it sometimes lacks visual oomph. There are times when the CGI work jars against the more traditional 2D images, something I felt didn’t quite work in the Godzilla Planet trilogy also from Netflix. I appreciate a fully CGI rendered approach would be far more prohibitive in cost but maybe finding a way to blend the styles together better would be good.
The music and sounds effects are excellent. The many fight scenes will give your audio system a thorough workout with some particularly punchy bass. The theme song is exciting and catchy and well worth watching the credits for. For the anime purists there is the option of the original Japanese audio with English subtitles. I have to point out though that if you choose this option you will miss out on the dubbing of Edo, an alien character who wears a business suit and has a head shaped like a gherkin. He doesn’t appear to do much but he talks exactly like Dory in Finding Nemo when she is doing her “whale speak”. I hope Edo’s role is expanded in any future seasons as he is a genuinely interesting character.
With 13 episodes clocking in at only 23 minutes each I absolutely recommend binging Ultraman. In complete contrast to the aforementioned Godzilla Planet anime, which was a dour overly melodramatic affair; the new Ultraman is light and fun. It’s exactly the sort of cartoon we’d have loved watching on a Saturday morning (minus the bloodletting). Exciting and sure to appeal to teens brought up on a diet of Iron Man movies I hope Netflix get Ultraman flying back onto our screens soon.