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

The Floating Castle (のぼうの城, Isshin Inudo & Shinji Higuchi, 2012)

What happens if you call the bluff of those who thought they could take your complicity for granted? As it turns out, at least in the case of a small provincial outpost in Isshin Inudo & Shinji Higuchi’s lighthearted historical drama The Floating Castle (のぼうの城, Nobo no Shiro), something and nothing. Inspired by a real life incident which took place in 1590, 10 years prior to the era defining battle of Sekigahara, the film asks how far standing up to corrupt authority will get you but as history tells us this this is the twilight of the Sengoku warring states period and in the end any victory can at best be only partial and temporary. 

With Hideyoshi Toyotomi (Masachika Ichimura) poised to unify all of Japan under his rule he turns his gaze towards Hojo, the last remaining hold out in the East of Japan. The small castle of Oshi is asked to commit its forces to protecting the main castle at Odawara where lord Ujinaga (Masahiko Nishimura) is to meet with the head of the clan which has decided to resist the Toyotomi invasion. Ujinaga meanwhile is privately doubtful. He knows they do not have the manpower to protect themselves and the only viable course of action is immediate surrender though he cannot of course say this openly even if buffoonish lord in waiting Nagachika (Mansai Nomura) is brave enough to raise the idea of neutrality in front of the messengers. Preparing to head to Odawara, Ujinaga tells his closest retainers to strengthen defences but to open the castle should the enemy approach while revealing that he plans to write to Hideyoshi, whom he apparently knows personally, and privately pledge allegiance in order to avoid destruction. 

Nagachika, however, eventually makes the decision to resist following the arrogant entreaty from Natsuka (Takehiro Hira), the right-hand man of the Toyotomi retainer leading the assault, Mitsunari Ishida (Yusuke Kamiji). He does this largely because Natsuka makes the unreasonable demand that they surrender their princess, Kai (Nana Eikura), herself a fearsome warrior though somewhat sidelined here relegated to the role of contested love interest, to be sent to Hideyoshi as a concubine but also correctly reads that Natsuka and Ishida are overreaching and actually have little more than their bluster to leverage other than the 20,000 men standing behind them which they may not know how to use. Nagachika may play the clown, but he’s not stupid and knows that the 20,000 men are there for the purposes of intimidation and are not expecting a force of a mere 500 to tell them where to go so it stands to reason to think they are not entirely prepared for battle. 

In this he’s mostly correct. Hideyoshi has essentially given Ishida, previously in finance, an easy ride to improve his reputation among the other lords instructing the more experienced Yoshitsugu Otani (Takayuki Yamada) to ensure he comes back painted in glory. Otani had said that others admired Ishida for his “childlike sense of fair play”, but his sense of fair play is often childish as in his gradual realisation that everyone is surrendering to him because of the 20,000 men rather than his prowess as a general annoyed with his enemies for backing down from a challenge which is why he sends Natsuka to alienate Nagachika hoping to provoke a battle which no rational person could ever describe as “fair”. Having assumed that Nagachika would back down or that the castle would be easy to take with only 500 country bumpkin soldiers defending it, the Toyotomi are in for a rude awakening discovering the extent of the counterstrategies in place to protect the small provincial outpost, forced into a humiliating defeat licking their wounds from a nearby hill. 

But then, as Ishida manically proclaims power comes from one thing, gold, using his vast resources to dam two nearby rivers and then burst them to drown the town as Hideyoshi had done once before. Designed by effects specialist Higuchi the flooding of the town is indeed terrifying, a spectacle which delayed the film’s release as the eerie similarities with the catastrophic tsunami of the year before may have been too traumatic for audiences, and speaks to nothing if not Ishida’s intense cruelty in which he is willing to go to any lengths in order to win even destroying the lives of innocent farmers far removed from these petty samurai games. As the film would have it, his arrogance and entitlement eventually come for him, his trap turned back on himself after an ill-advised potshot at Nagachika, a natural leader beloved by all because rather than in spite of his deceptive clownishness, causes disillusionment with his leadership. 

In any case, we already know how this story ends, Ishida is defeated at Sekigahara and beheaded in Kyoto. Nagachika’s victory can be only partial and in fact does not even win him the thing he went into battle for even if he strikes a blow at corrupt government in refusing to simply give in to intimidation, calling their bluff and showing them they cannot continue to push smaller clans around solely with the threat of extinction. In the end they are all at the mercy of their superiors, a truce imposed and imperfect to each side in an act of compromise which spells the end of an era many of those surviving the battles voluntarily renouncing samurai status as if realising their age is drawing to a close, Nagachika proved on the right of history in cultivating links with the Tokugawa soon to take the Toyotomi’s place as rulers of a unified Japan. His resistance was then not foolhardy but justified, necessary, and principled in standing up to injustice even if it could not in the end be fully stopped. 


The Floating Castle streamed as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8 (8日で死んだ怪獣の12日の物語, Shunji Iwai, 2020) [Fantasia 2021]

“We, all of us, can be heroes! Let’s support each other to beat this monster.” the hero of Shunji Iwai’s pandemic dramedy, The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8 (8日で死んだ怪獣の12日の物語, Yoka de Shinda Kaiju no Juninichi no Monogatari) affirms. Inspired by Shinji Higuchi’s Kaiju Defeat Covid project and originally streamed as a web series, Iwai’s surreal screen drama is replete with the atmosphere of the pandemic’s early days, a mix of boredom and intense anxiety coupled with a determination to protect and support each other through this difficult time. Yet it’s also a tale of uncanny irony taking place in world in which Ultraseven is a documentary while the Earth has apparently been subject to waves of monster aggression, alien visitors, and even apparently an epidemic of ghosts. 

All of this the hero, Takumi Sato (Takumi Saitoh playing a version of himself) finds out from director Shinji Higuchi after contacting him on Zoom for advice about how to raise the “Capsule Kaiju” he bought on the internet in order to do something to help battle corona virus. Sato’s single “egg” soon becomes three, later back down to one again causing him to worry if the other two managed to escape or perhaps were eaten by the sole remaining monster. In any case, while they are three he names each of them after various Covid-fighting drugs and is informed by Higuchi that they currently resemble three kaiju from classic tokusatsu series Ultraseven. 

Nevertheless, Takumi is continually confused and disappointed by the slow progress of his project, confessing to one of his friends online that they were rated only one star on the store he bought them from but he’s sure that’s just because they’re a new product. His friend Non, (also playing a version of herself), meanwhile, has invested in an alien though the alien is, conveniently enough, entirely invisible and inaudible via camera. Non’s alien seems to be making much better progress to the extent that it eventually becomes disillusioned with selfish, apathetic human society and decides to return to outer space. Challenged, Takumi has to admit he hasn’t really done anything to make the world a better place except for raising his capsule kaiju and even that hasn’t gone particularly well. 

Then again, perhaps just getting through is enough to be going along with in the middle of a global pandemic. Takumi’s friend So (So Takei) is separated from his family in Bangkok and is struggling to find work as a chef while all the restaurants are closed only to later confess that he actually has a second family he, understandably, had not mentioned before in Japan that he also needs to support financially. Even so, Takumi is bemused watching the YouTube channel of a young woman (Moeka Hoshi) who broadcasts from her bathtub dressed in a nightgown and has managed to raise a recognisably dragon-like kaiju while his keep shapeshifting without progressing into a final form. He starts to worry, what if his kaiju are actually evil and intend to destroy the world rather than save it? The fact that it eventually takes on the form of a giant coronavirus might suggest he has a point, but kaiju work in mysterious ways and perhaps they are trying to help in their own small ways even if it might not seem like it in the beginning. 

In many ways that might be the primary lesson of the pandemic, everyone is doing their best even if they’re only doing something small like staying at home and wearing their mask. Shot entirely in black and white and mostly as direct to camera YouTube-style monologues or split-screen Zoom calls complete with occasional lag and echoing, Iwai adds in eerie pillow shots from a camera positioned high above the streets of a strangely quiet but not entirely empty Tokyo along with fragmentary dance sequences of young women dressed in black with CGI kaiju heads. A whimsical slice of pandemic life, 12 Day Tale ends as it began, with Takumi once again reminding us that we are all heroes and should support each other to beat the “virus monster” but adds a much needed note of hope as he assures his audience that the the day we beat the virus will certainly come, “let’s do our best together”. 


The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8 streams in Canada until Aug. 25 as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Attack on Titan: The Movie – Part 2: End of the World (進撃の巨人 ATTACK ON TITAN エンド オブ ザ ワールド, Shinji Higuchi, 2015)

166831_02Review of the second Attack on Titan live action movie first published by UK Anime Network.


Attack on Titan: The Movie – Part 1 ended on a humdinger of a cliff hanger, so this concluding half of the two part movie is one  which carries a fair amount of expectation regardless of reactions to the first instalment. Picking up more or less straight after the end of Part 1, the situation continues to be desperate as the mission to acquire explosives to blow the wall closed is an abject failure. Thanks to Eren’s (Haruma Miura) efforts, the Titan onslaught has eased off but he now finds himself in the direct firing line of sinister dictator Kubal (Jun Kunimura). Coming up with an alternative plan to recover the dud bomb we saw in the beginning of the first film, our intrepid band of comrades decide to return to their former home paving the way for the massive Titan on Titan frenzy finale.

Whereas Attack on Titan: The Movie – Part 1 attempted to reframe itself as a monster movie, The End of the World places itself firmly within the comic book genre. Rather than a frightened populace desperately trying to protect itself from the sudden arrival of man eating giants, The End of the World introduces a series of human lead super Titans who will eventually be duking it out during the film’s finale.

Largely, The End of the World eschews the thematic concerns of the first film in favour of large scale action scenes but it does come up with a few new ideas of its own. Towards the beginning, it seems as if The End of the World is about to undercut all the unpleasant fascistic connotations of the previous film by bringing Eren into contact with the Survey Corps who are now the rebel resistance but this turns out to be a hollow offering as the squad is then painted as a renegade militia commanded by a madman.

After his original imprisonment, Eren wakes up in a minimalist, low ceilinged white room which contains a ‘50s style jukebox with a cover version of the old time hit The End of the World already playing. Despite the ban on machines “the government” has apparently stockpiled some of these “artifacts” for their own use which also includes a rather prominent remote control for an Apple TV. At this point we’re shown some archive footage which explains the birth of the Titans and the creation of the “modern” society, the implication being that the Titans are part of an elaborate governmental propaganda scheme designed to keep the unruly populace firmly in line. The Titans reappeared at a political crisis point as the government felt the loyalty of its people waning and also feared that the plan to explore outside of the walls would weaken their authority. Having already instituted authoritarian policies such as limiting access to childbirth, the government used the Titan threat to galvanise support through fear.

This sequence begins to offer an entirely different reading of the film – one which is more fully hinted at in the final post-credit sequence, but is then largely forgotten. Aside from a nasty slice of possible domestic violence and some PTSD End of the World stays away from further character driven drama, leaving Shikishima to ham things up with an increasingly camp performance whilst behaving in a very ambiguous way towards Eren which proves awkward when considering further information provided regarding Eren’s childhood. As a whole, the Attack on Titan movies have a major problem with internal consistency, piling plot holes upon plot holes yet still failing to make any of its central conceits remotely compelling.

However, The End of the World does improve on some aspects of the previous film – notably in its tighter running time and action set piece finale (lengthy exposition sequence and extremely long recap aside). Production values appear a little better, there is far less of the bad CGI which marred the first film, and there’s even some more interesting production design to be found too. The Hollywood style heroic ending with the sun shining and the score soaring might appear less clichéd when considered alongside the alternate reading offered by the post-credits sequence, but then again this may be another red herring just like the resistance group which originally appeared to offer hope but was then summarily discredited.

The two live action Attack on Titan movies come at the original franchise from vastly different angles and are often at odds with each other. Some of these inconsistencies may be explained by the post-credits sequence which is, perhaps, a hook for a putative third film but only adds an additional layer of confusion to what is already an overloaded premise. All of that aside, The End of the World does offer slightly more straightforward, comic book style trial by combat action heading into its finale even if it does lay on the exposition a little thickly. Whilst offering some mild improvements over the first film, End of the World fails to rescue the project as a whole but is likely to provide satisfaction to those left hanging after the curtain fell on part one.


English subtitled trailer:

Attack on Titan: The Movie – Part 1 (進撃の巨人 ATTACK ON TITAN, Shinji Higuchi, 2015)

Attack on Titan p1Review of the first of the two part live action Attack on Titan (進撃の巨人 ATTACK ON TITAN, Shingeki no Kyojin) extravaganza first published by UK Anime Network.


It is a law universally acknowledged that a successful manga must be in want of an anime adaptation. Once this simple aim has been achieved, that same franchise sets its sights on the even loftier goals of the live action movie. This phenomenon is not a new one and has frequently had extremely varied results but fans of the current cross over phenomenon that is Attack on Titan may find themselves wondering if perhaps more time should have been allowed before this much loved series tried its luck in the non animated world.

Throwing in a few changes from the source material, the film begins with the peaceful and prosperous walled city where childhood friends Eren, Armin, and Mikasa are young adults just about to start out on the next phase of their lives. Eren, however, is something of a rebellious lost soul who finds himself gazing at the land beyond the walls rather than on a successful future in the mini city state. However, little does he know that the Titans – a race of man eating giants responsible for the destruction which saw humanity retreat behind the walls in the first place, are about to resurface and wreak havoc again. His dreams of a more exciting life may have been granted but humanity pays a heavy price.

Fans of the manga and anime may well be alarmed by certain elements of the above paragraph. Yes, the film makes slight but significant changes to its source material which may leave fans feeling confused and annoyed as the film continues to grow away from the franchise they know and love so well. For a newcomer, things aren’t much better as characterisation often relies of stereotypes and blunt exposition to get its point across. Attack on Titan actually has a comparatively starry cast with actors who’ve each impressed in other high profile projects including Haruma Miura (Eternal Zero), and Kiko Mizuhara (Norwegian Wood, Helter Skelter) as well as Kanata Hongo (Gantz) but even they can’t bring life to the stilted, melodramatic script. Things take a turn for the worse when Satomi Ishihara turns up having presumably been given the instruction to play Hans as comic relief only with a TV style, huge and bumbling performance.

That said, there are some more interesting ideas raised – notably that even a paradise becomes a prison as soon as you put a wall around it. Indeed, everything seems to have been going pretty well inside the walls until Eren suddenly decides he finds them constraining. Once the Titans break through, the very mechanism which was put in place for humanity’s protection, the walls themselves, become the thing which damns them as they’re trapped like rats unable to escape the Titan onslaught.

Machines are now outlawed following past apocalyptic events – humanity apparently can’t be trusted not to destroy itself and this cheerful, feudal way of life is contrasted with the chaos and pollution which accompanied the technologically advanced era. Unfortunately, a reversion to distinctly old fashioned values also seems to have occurred as we’re told you need permission to get married (as sensible as this may be from a practical standpoint in a military society) and the single mother gets munched just as she’s making the moves on a potential new father for her child. The Titans themselves have also been read as a metaphor for xenophobia which isn’t helped by the almost fascist connotations of the post attack society.

Much of this is really overthinking what appears to be an intentionally silly B-movie about man eating giants running amok in a steampunk influenced post-apocalyptic society but then it does leave you with altogether too much time to do your thinking while you’re waiting for things to happen. The original advent of the Titans is a little overplayed with the deliberately gory chomping continuing far too long. Action scenes fare a little better but suffer from the poor CGI which plagues the rest of the film. This isn’t the Attack on Titan movie you were expecting. This is a monster movie which carries some extremely troubling messages, if you stop to think about them. The best advice would be to refuse to think at all and simply settle back for some kaiju style action but fans of either campy monster movies or any other Attack on Titan incarnation are likely to come away equally disappointed. It only remains to see if Part 2 of this bifurcated tale can finally heal some of the many holes in this particularly weak wall.


US release trailer: