Ultraman – Anime Review
Synopsis: Decades ago, a hero from the stars left this world in peace. Now, the son of Ultraman must rise to protect the Earth from a new alien threat. (Official Netflix Synopsis)
Review (Warning: Minor Spoilers to Follow):
Ultraman attempts to take the hugely popular Japanese Tokusatsu property of the same name and craft a sequel that’s both approachable to newcomers and sends the story into a different genre entirely. This Ultraman anime production offers stellar designs for the Ultraman combat suits and the enemy aliens, with explosive battle sequences that really pop thanks to highly-detailed CGI work. But this reimagining/continuation of the Ultraman story is not without its flaws, and those flaws threaten to collapse the entire series under their combined weight.
On the surface even Ultraman’s visuals aren’t quite all they could be. While the manga this anime adaptation is based off of offers highly detailed and stellar artwork its translation to CGI isn’t perfect. Not only does the series suffer from hard frame rate dips (A common occurrence with Japanese CGI anime) that are wholly distracting to the action on screen, but also suffers stunted facial animation. Many of the character models are simply not expressive enough, often making emotional scenes lack punch, or for comedy to fall flat. It makes it difficult to relate to the characters as their features just aren’t expressing the same level of emotion found in the original manga’s artwork.
More concerning however are the issues underneath the visuals. Ultraman is a story that feels half-baked, with interesting ideas and elements, but few that truly pay off in a satisfactory way. Perhaps the biggest problem however is its main character. Shinjiro is the son of the original Ultraman, although he initially doesn’t know it. His father merged with an alien in the original series, and even after they separated retained the incredible strength he’d been bestowed with. This is passed onto Shinjiro, forcing a typical young man to grow up a little faster as he’s asked to become a hero for the people of Japan, and combat rogue aliens threatening the safety of Earth’s citizens. Shinjiro’s meek, everyman, average boy shtick is his undoing however. The fact of the matter is Shinjiro just isn’t interesting.
While his story is compelling, and vague enough to allow him to become a self-insert for the right audience, his gradual character growth is slim, and dragged out. Shinjiro responds to near every situation with the same meek, wishy-washy, befuddled replies. He rarely stands up for his point of view, and his naivety gradually grows unbearable the deeper we get. In fact, Shinjiro’s most irritating qualities, his wishy-washy indecisiveness in becoming a hero, doesn’t get resolved until the series is basically over, making him a chore of a protagonist. There’s ways to do this type of character without making them feel lacking in personality, but in the effort to keep Shinjiro as a potential self-insert, he comes across as near personality-less, with few quirks or traits to make his persona feel relatable or interesting.
Gradually the series shifts away from Shinjiro as our only through-line character, introducing additional young men to take hold of the narrative. But one character, Seiji Hokuto, doesn’t appear until towards the end of the 13 Episode run, meaning you’ve had to wade through 8 episodes of Shinjiro before we get to a potentially more interesting protagonist.
So many of these flaws are compounding, making it difficult to become truly invested in the few areas that Ultraman gets right. Focus on Rena, the pop idol and Ultraman ‘loving’ girl, feels like a minor distraction and her propensity for pure idiocy, and slow uptake makes her a chore to cheer for. The few interesting elements teased throughout the run, like a potential conspiracy that brings a few, much needed, revelations to the table, doesn’t come into play until near the end.
Despite being tagged as a Seinen title, a tag normally donating titles crafted with an older audiences (20+) in mind, Ultraman toys very little with its potential nuance. There’s an in and out subplot that touches on the idea of Aliens being blamed for all of society’s ills, used as scapegoats or seen as the only people capable of committing crime. There’s potential to dive deeper into this, maybe even craft a narrative that deconstructs an anti-immigrant stance. But Ultraman is only a Seinen title so far as the blood and gore peppered throughout each battle. When it comes to more weighty issues, as Seinen can sometimes deal with, providing additional nuance so as to steep a story in a morally grey tone, Ultraman drops the ball.
What’s left after all these missteps is a thoroughly hum-drum experience. It’s tough to care about the overarching narrative when Shinjiro is so frustratingly meek to watch. It’s a little uneasy on the eyes whenever the frame rate dips, and tough to become invested when the character’s features fail to convey actual, expressive emotion. There’s a few interesting plots and developments along the way that keep Ultraman from feeling like a total chore to watch, but that isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. Ultraman is a series best left to Ultraman aficionados, or if you’re looking for a mediocre action series with a few mystery elements to spice it up. It’s never outright awful, but Ultraman ultimately fails to take off.
Ultraman is available for streaming via Netflix.