Shin Ultraman (シン・ウルトラマン, Shinji Higuchi, 2022)

The classic tokusatsu hero rises again to rescue kaiju-plagued Japan from geopolitical tensions and internal bureaucracy in Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Ultraman (シン・ウルトラマン). Scripted by Hideaki Anno, Shin Ultraman shares much in common with Shin Godzilla which the pair co-directed but is also a much more obvious homage to the world of classic tokusatsu or “special effects” franchises which became cult TV hits from the 1960s onwards and have remained popular with children and adults alike throughout Asia. 

This new iteration takes place in a world in which kaiju attacks have become commonplace, so much so that there is a specialised government department, the SSSP, dedicated to dealing with them. Led by determined veteran Tamura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the team do not engage with the giant monsters directly but are responsible for research and strategy quickly trying to work out what kind of kaiju they’re dealing with, what the dangers associated with it may be, and where it’s weaknesses lie so they can figure out a way to stop it. Just when it looks like an electricity-guzzling lizard monster is about to do some serious damage, a robot-like giant humanoid arrives and saves the day. The team are very grateful to the heroic defender they name Ultraman, but are puzzled that he seems to be aware of all their research while otherwise missing the connection that their near silent colleague Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh) always seems to be mysteriously absent every time Ultraman arrives.  

At heart, Shin Godzilla had been a satire on government bureaucracy and a mediation on the response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Shin Ultraman might not be so pointed but still has a few bones to pick with the political machine as the team’s boss at HQ moans about the need to keep buying fancy weapons from the Americans (and making sure it’s the Defence Ministry that foots the bill) while cynically suggesting that the government is keen to use the kaiju crisis as leverage to further its policy goal of nuclear re-armament. Meanwhile, it’s also clear that for some reason kaiju attacks only happen in Japan and the International community largely sees them as a Japanese issue which they have to deal with alone, but as soon as Ultraman turns up and is thought to be extraterrestrial everyone is suddenly interested. 

As it transpires these geopolitical divisions are incredibly useful to another extraterrestrial visitor, Zarab (Kenjiro Tsuda), who plans to sow discord among nations so that humanity will destroy itself thereby, ironically, preventing an intergalactic war between planets who may be tempted to fight amongst themselves over the potential enslavement of humanity as valuable bioweapons. Aware of Zarab’s power, the government is manipulated into signing an uneven treaty with him in order to be first out of the gate and gain an advantage over other nations who, for reasons of self preservation, are also keen to ensure no one has sole access to new alien technologies and emissaries. Asked why he picked Japan, all Zarab can come up with it that he happened to land there which is quite a coincidence though he also has a vested interest in taking out Ultraman, the only force capable of resisting him. 

Even so, according to Zarab, the kaiju plague is humanity’s doing in having awakened sleeping monsters through environmental destruction. Hailing from the Planet of Light which has strict rules about what he’s supposed to be doing, Ultraman longs to understand humanity having merged with a human he accidentally killed who had dedicated his life to saving others. What he gains is a sense of communal responsibility along with a desire to care for what he sees as, essentially, babies someway behind his own planet in terms of evolution and in need of guidance. What he doesn’t want to do is endanger their “autonomous progression” by solving all their problems for them, so in grand tokusatsu fashion its up to the team to engineer their own solution in addition to deciding what they will do with this new technology using it for good or ill. Being buddies is all about trust, after all. Higuchi’s composition borders on the avant-garde recalling both that of the legendary Akio Jissoji and those more often associated with anime and manga rather than live action while the effects, even those utilising CGI, are pleasantly nostalgic with retro mono explosions and the iconic ringing of laser beams. Heading in a melancholy philosophical direction in its final moments, Shin Ultraman does at least suggest that the best weapons against a kaiju attack are teamwork and mutual trust especially if one of your friends is an all powerful being from another galaxy. 


Shin Ultraman screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2022 TSUBURAYA PRODUCTIONS CO., LTD. / TOHO CO., LTD. / khara, Inc. © TSUBURAYA PRODUCTIONS

Inu-Oh (犬王, Masaaki Yuasa, 2021)

“Unity demands order” according to an ambitious politician near the end of Masaaki Yuasa’s stunning anime prog rock opera, Inu-Oh (犬王). Inspired by Hideo Furukawa’s novel Heike Monogatari Inu-Oh no Maki, Yuasa’s spirited drama is as much about the liberating power of artistic expression as it is about the danger it presents to those in power, while reclaiming the stories wilfully hidden in history or as the narrator puts it “stolen and forgotten” in order to exorcise a degree of historical trauma lingering in the cultural aura.

Set in the Muromachi period in which two imperial courts contested hegemony, the tale opens with the retrieval of a set of cursed remnants buried at the bottom of the sea after the battle of Dan-no-ura in which the Heike clan were famously defeated. Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (Tasuku Emoto) is convinced that possessing imperial treasures would lend credence to his claim, but their resurfacing creates nothing but misery leaving the boy who discovered them, Tomona (Mirai Moriyama), blind and his father dead. Setting off for Kyoto in search of revenge, Tomona is taken in by an elderly Biwa player and eventually runs into a strange creature wearing a gourd mask and behaving like a dog, striking up a friendship that later leads to the realisation that the boy is also cursed, haunted by the spirits of fallen Heike warriors desperate for their stories to be told. 

In true fairytale fashion, curse later begins to dissipate as the pair exorcise the ghosts by telling their stories never singing the same song twice but always in search of new songs to be sung. Tomona changes his name several times, adopting that of “Tomoichi” in keeping with the requirements of his Biwa school and later choosing for himself that of “Tomoari” in his partnership with Inu-Oh in emphasis of the fact that “we are here”. Yet as the ghost of his father reminds him, changing his name makes him difficult to find literally losing touch with his roots in becoming invisible to friendly spirits. He and the cursed boy Inu-Oh are interested in a new kind of Biwa that is opposed by the Biwa priests for its transgressive modernity some feeling that Tomona’s transformation with his long hair and makeup brings the profession into disrepute though the act proves undeniably popular with Inu-Oh the biggest star of the age. 

Having begun in the classical register with images resembling ink painting and a score inspired by traditional noh, Yuasa introduces electric guitar as the film shifts into rock opera, the pair’s stagecraft incredibly modern as they adopt all kinds of elaborate staging to add atmosphere to their tales including at one point a large lantern silhouette mimicking the big screen graphics of the present day. Yet Inu-Oh’s fame comes with a price. His popularity threatens both the pride of a jealous rival and the ambitions of the Ashikaga clan who fear his tales of the Heike are simply too bold and radical, later condemning them as an affront to the glory of the shogun and insisting that their official version must be the only record of the Heika warriors. 

The sense of freedom the pair had felt in their ability to express themselves through music and dance is quickly crushed by cultural authoritarianism, Inu-Oh reduced to a kind of court jester performing only for the lord while as the closing credits tell us becoming the biggest popular star of his age though now too forgotten along with his songs while his more elegant counterpart, Fujiwaka, is remembered for shaping the art of contemporary noh though there is perhaps something in Tomona’s defiant reclaimation of his name along with the essential right to choose it for himself that grants him a greater liberty in simply refusing to allow himself to be subjugated by feudal power. A psychedelic rock opera set in 14th century Japan that remembers even noh was once new and malleable, Inu-Oh insists on art’s danger in its capacity to challenge the status quo not only directly but through a series of internal revolutions born of the masks we choose to wear and those we choose to remove in the radical act of self-expression which is in its own way the truest form of liberty. 


Inu-Oh screened as part of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival 

International trailer (English subtitles)

Gantz:O (ガンツ:オー, Yasushi Kawamura, 2016)

Gantz-oHiroya Oku’s long running manga series Gantz has already been adapted as a TV anime as well as two very successful live action films from Shinsuke Sato. Gantz:O (ガンツ:オー) is the first feature length animated treatment of the series and makes use of 3D CGI and motion capture for a hyperrealistic approach to alien killing action. “O” for Osaka rather than “0” for zero, the movie is inspired by the spin-off Osaka arc of the manga shifting the action south from the regular setting of central Tokyo.

Kicking off in Shibuya, the first scene features the demise of the franchise’s protagonist, Kei Kurono (Yuki Kaji), as he defeats one of the giant monsters terrorising the city and saves his friends but fails to save himself. A quick geographical cut takes us Osaka where there are reports of another disturbance, but the major threat turns out to be a depressingly commonplace one as a lone madman goes on a stabbing spree at a Tokyo train station.

17 year old high school student Masaru Kato (Daisuke Ono) gets himself mixed up in the incident when he ignores the crowds of people running in the opposite direction and comes to the aid of an injured old man. Sadly, Kato is repeatedly stabbed by the attacker and “dies” at the scene only to be resurrected in front of Gantz. Introduced to fellow players Suzuki (Shuuichi Ikeda) – an old man who “died” of a stroke, Reika (Saori Hayami) – an idol who was “killed” in a car crash, and the sardonic teenager Nishi (Tomohiro Kaku), Kato learns that he’s been given a second chance at life as a warrior in Gantz’s survival game in which he must fight off huge monsters within the time limit or die for real.

The entirety of Gantz:O revolves around this one climactic battle in the Osaka streets as Kato, Suzuki, Reika, and Nishi come into contact with the much more successful (but definitely less “nice”) Osaka detachment as backup in the fight against these fearsome monsters. As such, the main draw is furious action filled with bizarre scenes of carnage as the gang take down a collection of strange creatures often inspired by traditional folklore such as the huge winged tengu or shapeshifting priest-like boss. The visuals are extremely impressive displaying extreme fluidity of motion almost akin to live action photography.

Aesthetics are the key as the movie’s other elements are more or less inconsequential. As a bonus episode in the Gantz world, this is only to be expected and O makes no real attempt to do anything other than focus on the monster killing action. Thus character development is often shallow or non-existent, falling into genre clichés of cool heroes and depressed, brokenhearted women.

The question of self preservation vs altruism is central to the Gantz universe which begins from a position of nihilism and narcissistic self determination but gradually opens up to the importance of protecting one’s comrades, friends, family, and fellow human beings. Kato is the selfless hero the gang have been awaiting – his “death” results directly from his reckless attempt to help an injured person and his instinct is always to help those in need no matter the personal cost. His determination to save the lives of strangers is directly contrasted with his responsibility to the younger brother who is entirely dependent on him and would be lost should Kato lose his life. The film is ambivalent towards this dilemma as it constantly harks back to the people waiting for these secret warriors to come home, at once critical of them for risking their lives and acknowledging the fact that someone has to fight these monsters or everyone will die.

Despite the exposition heavy opening, Gantz:O does little to explain its world to the uninitiated and provides no logical explanations for its machinations leaving newcomers to the franchise with a host of unanswered questions but then all Gantz really wants to do is sell the message of altruism whilst destroying odd looking monsters in various bloody ways. Depressingly sexist, if edging away from the franchise’s nihilistic baseline, Gantz:O is an impressive visual spectacle but remains an essentially hollow, inconsequential addition to the Gantz canon.


Original trailer (no subtitles)