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

Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction (騙し絵の牙, Daihachi Yoshida, 2020)

“Landscapes don’t stay the same” laments a young woman in Daihachi Yoshida’s slick corporate drama, Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction (騙し絵の牙, Damashie No Kiba), though the more things change the more they stay the same and the push and pull of traditionalists and modernisers seems set to be an unending battle. If someone were brave enough to think of it, there may be a third way, but one thing is clear – it’s adapt or die for the printed word and the real war is over who makes it onto the page and how they do it. 

When the CEO of a major family-owned publishing house dies of a heart attack while walking his dog, it throws the entire industry into disarray and even makes it onto the national news where pundits discuss who might be most likely to succeed while pointing out that publishing is already in crisis seeing as most novels are serialised in literary journals and magazine readership is on its way out. Earnest editor Megumi (Mayu Matsuoka) is forever told that old and new is a false dichotomy and in some ways it may be, but century-old literary journal Kunpu Review is quite clearly mired in a traditionalist past woefully out of touch with contemporary society. 

This Megumi learns to her cost when pulled straight from the CEO’s funeral to a 40th anniversary event marking the debut of their best-selling author Daisaku Nikaido (Jun Kunimura). Encouraged by rival editor Hayami (Yo Oizumi), she gives her honest opinion on Nikaido’s work pulling him up on the latent sexism in his novels by suggesting his sexual politics are at best old-fashioned. This is of course a huge faux pas and a moment of minor embarrassment for all concerned, though it will also become a repeated motif Megumi again trying to bring up a younger author on his subpar portrayal of women but finding her concerns falling on deaf ears. 

Part of the problem is that authors, and particularly well-established ones, rarely undergo a rigorous editing process such as they might outside of Japan. Kunpu is so desperate to keep Nikaido on side that they treat him as a mini god, wasting vast amounts of their budget expensing him for “research” holidays and a healthy interest in fine wines. They simply wouldn’t have the courage to tell him that his drafts are improvable or that elements of his writing may cause offence. 

Hayami, the tricky editor of rival culture mag Trinity, is by contrast deliberately looking for the modern but in other ways is not so different from Kunpu. Poaching an up and coming author Megumi had pitched but was rejected, Hayami embarks on an elaborate PR campaign casting the young and handsome Yajiro (Hio Miyazawa) as a literary idol star. But Yajiro seems to be uncomfortable with the attention, unprepared to deal with demands of being a prominent writer and resenting Hayami’s attempts to manipulate his image by forcing him into photoshoots dressed in outfits he would never wear. Hayami also engineers a publicity stunt implying Yajiro is in a relationship with his other protege, a young model and unexpected firearms enthusiast (Elaiza Ikeda) who is later arrested after shooting a stalker with a homemade pistol. 

What happens to Saki Jojima is either an unintended consequence or direct result of Hayami’s inability to fully control the situation, but it also creates both crisis and opportunity for Trininty when Hayami breaks protocol and decides to run Saki’s issue rather than pulling it entirely with an apology as is usual in Japan when a celebrity is the subject of scandal. This places him in direct opposition to the traditionalist Kunpu, horrified and insistent that his decision stains the integrity of the publishing house. Like Hayami, however, new CEO Tomatsu (Koichi Sato) is determined to do things differently and prepared to take a gamble, secretly working on his own plan to streamline the business and build their own production/distribution facility in Yokohama. 

Everyone is so absorbed in their own plotting that they fail to notice others plotting around them. Megumi, meanwhile, is preoccupied with the survival of her father’s old-fashioned book shop which itself badly needs another literary hit because half the customers are kids who come in to browse the manga and then download the good ones when they get home. One young woman looking for a particular novel even explains that she only wants to read it because there’s no movie or drama adaptation. With all this finagling, it’s easy to think everyone’s forgotten about the books while Megumi desperately tries to get someone to let her do some actual editing because they’re all too busy mollycoddling their authors. Nevertheless there’s more to the Kunpu vs Trinity battle than it first seems as they vie for the future of Japan’s publishing industry little suspecting that there may be another contender with a less acrimonious solution. “If something could be updated it should be” Megumi insists, a sentiment which apparently goes both for dinosaur writers unwilling to reckon with their latent misogyny and the book business itself. 

Once again adapting a literary source, Yoshida’s gentle farce quietly builds the tension with courtly intrigue as the wider society remains rapt over the succession crisis at a publishing firm while its ambitious courtiers plot amongst themselves in order to steal the throne. Casting Yo Oizumi in the role he apparently inspired in the book is another masterstroke of meta commentary as his thrill-seeking manipulator plays the long game but even if the prognosis for Japan’s publishing industry may be bleak there is unexpected glee to be had in the eventual triumph of a righteous underdog over a thoroughbred plotter. 


Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction screens on Aug. 26 and 28 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (リップヴァンウィンクルの花嫁, Shunji Iwai, 2016)

the_bride_of_rip_van_winkle“Being naked in front of people is embarrassing” says the drunken mother of a recently deceased major character in a bizarre yet pivotal scene towards the end of Shunji Iwai’s aptly titled A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (リップヴァンウィンクルの花嫁, Rip Van Winkle no Hanayome) in which the director himself wakes up from an extended cinematic slumber to discover that much is changed. This sequence, in a sense, makes plain one of the film’s essential themes – truth, and the appearance of truth, as mediated by human connection. The film’s timid heroine, Nanami (Haru Kuroki), bares all of herself online, recording each ugly thought and despairing notion before an audience of anonymous strangers, yet can barely look even those she knows well in the eye. Though Namami’s fear and insecurity are painfully obvious to all, not least to herself, she’s not alone in her fear of emotional nakedness as she discovers throughout her strange odyssey in which nothing is quite as it seems.

We first meet Nanami on an internet blind date with the man who will later become her husband. Looking lost and alone, she passively waits for her online suitor to find her in the busy city streets. Tetsuya (Go Jibiki) does indeed turn up and assume control of the situation, to which Nanami submits just as she has to everything else. Bonding over little more than their shared vocation of teaching the pair drift into a relationship and then later into a marriage, as is the natural order of things.

Though she seems happy enough, Nanami vents her frustrations in her caustic online blog. Isn’t this all just too easy? She asks herself. It’s almost like online shopping, she simply added a boyfriend to her basket and now she’s about to check out. A failure to win over Tetsuya’s mother adds to her sense of unease as does the fact she has no close friends or relatives (aside from her soon to be divorced parents) to invite to the wedding. Her decision to take the advice of an online friend and employ the shady fixer Amuro (Go Ayano) to hire a selection of professional party goers to bulk out her side of the hall will prove to be a disastrous one (though perhaps more in the short term), turning her entire life inside out.

Nanami’s essential personality trait is her passivity. Like Rip Van Winkle, she is largely asleep while things happen all around her. Though she dreamed of being a teacher, Nanami has only been able to find temporary supply roles with an agency but even this seems unlikely to last thanks to her softly spoken nature which makes classroom teaching a poor fit for her shy, attention avoidant personality. Discovered at her part time combini job by an old university friend, Nanami is embarrassed and has even been wearing a (useless but endearing) disguise in case any of her students come by despite the fact she chose a store far away from the school. Her friend now works at a hostess bar which Nanami finds a little bit shocking. That kind of unconventional way of living is not something she would contemplate, and so when offered the extremely dull but comfortable life alongside the dull but comforting Tetsuya, Nanami settles.

After Amuro spectacularly derails her non-happiness, Nanami is cast adrift which eventually leads her straight back into Amuro’s web of morally dubious activities. Taking a job as a maid at the cheap hotel she ends up in after leaving Tetsuya, Nanami also works part time as another of Amuro’s professional guests which is where she meets motivator no. 2 – Mashiro (Cocco), “actress” and all round live wire. Bonding over sad karaoke, Nanami and Mashiro later wind up working together as live in maids in a creepy, isolated mansion filled with poisonous animals. Enforced proximity leads to genuine friendship and then to more than that, but, ironically enough, Mashiro has not been entirely honest about her intentions and Nanami is soon adrift once again.

Undergoing a “fake” wedding that’s sort of real (in contrast with the “real” wedding which was sort of “fake”), at least in sentiment, Nanami looks much happier than in the extremely bizarre ceremony which bound her to Tetsuya. Nanami and Mashiro’s union was “engineered” yet mutually beneficial and ultimately genuine despite its artificial genesis. Making a last, heartbreaking speech, Mashiro attempts to explain herself and her life philosophy in a final act of nakedness. She prefers to pay for connection because, she says, the world is too full of kindness. There is so much happiness out there that it’s completely overwhelming. Sometimes there’s more truth in the lie than there is in the reality.

The resurfaced Iwai is both more cynical and more romantic than he has ever been before. He has serious things to say about constructed identities and disconnectedness, that the increasingly open nature of the anonymous online world only makes the real one seem less reliable and harder to navigate. We’ve all been wearing masks but we turned them round when we went online, and now perhaps we’re forgetting that we made them in the first place. Nanami may be adrift again at the film’s conclusion but she finds herself in a world of infinite possibilities. Emerging with more certainty and firmer sense of self, Nanami has retaken control and even if she doesn’t know where she’s going, the choice is entirely her own. Another beautifully nuanced, endlessly affecting character study from Iwai, A Bride for Rip van Winkle is a gloriously rich experience, filled with both hope and despair, but told with all the ethereal warmth and strangeness of the best of dreams.


This review refers to the 180 minute director’s cut, rather than the shorter international or four hour TV version.

Original trailer (English subtitles)