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

Last of the Wolves (孤狼の血 LEVEL2, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2021)

“The Showa era’s over. We don’t use guns now, business is our battlefield.” a recently released foot soldier is told, finding himself in a whole new world emerging from a not so distant past of turf wars and street scuffles into a late bubble wonderland of besuited corporatised gangsters. Set in 1988, Kazuya Shiraishi’s Blood of Wolves had been about the twilight of post-war gangsterdom forever associated with an era that was literally about to pass. Set three years later in the twilight of the bubble economy and an already established Heisei, Last of the Wolves (孤狼の血 LEVEL2, Koro no chi: Level 2) finds no longer rookie cop Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka) taking on the mantle of his late mentor Ogami, attempting to broker peace by getting uncomfortably close to yakuza. 

At the end of the previous film, Hioka had managed to engineer a truce between rival gangs Odani (with whom he is affiliated), and Irako through pushing top Odani guy Ichinose to take out boss Irako. Three years later, the peace has held and in any case Heisei yakuza no longer take violence to the streets. The release of crazed Irako foot soldier Uebayashi (Ryohei Suzuki), however, threatens to destabilise the local balance of power. Despite mournfully declaring that he doesn’t intend to wind up back in prison, Uebayashi’s first call on release is to the sister of one of his guards whom he rapes and kills in quite gruesome fashion. Hioka is put on the case and partnered with a genial veteran, Seshima (Yoshiko Miyazaki), weirdly excited about investigating a murder at this late stage of his career, but quickly realises that Uebayashi’s recklessness is primed to destroy everything he’s built. 

Having started out a straightlaced rookie, Hioka has fully incorporated the Ogami persona dressing in sharp suits and sunshades, driving a sports car, and hanging out with the Odani guys, while also using his girlfriend’s little brother Chinta (Nijiro Murakami) as a mole in rival gangs. As a cynical reporter points out, however, Ogami was essentially “undercover” in that he understood hobnobbing with yakuza was part of his job and something he did solely to keep civilians safe by preventing another street war. Hioka has started to lose his way, enjoying himself a little too much and already way out of his depth as the fragile peace he’d brokered by less than ethical means begins to crumble beneath his feet. 

Having been in prison, Uebayashi is unaware of the various ways in which the world has changed seeking to return to old school rules of gangsterdom, ironically lecturing his superiors on the absence of jingi (honour and humanity) in their new corporate existence. He’s a monster and a sadist, but his violence is also a result of the horrific abuse he suffered as a child which led to an equally heinous act of revenge while as a member of the ethnic Korean Zainichi community, like Chinta and his siblings, he continually faces discrimination and social oppression. His first act on release is of revenge against the guards who relentlessly tortured him in prison, the murdered woman’s brother confessing that they wrote him up as a model prisoner in the hope he’d be released early so they wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore.  

Yet what Hioka and Uebayashi have in common is that they’re both pawns in a game they were unaware was being played. As it turns out the police corruption Hioka discovered during the previous film did not go away, and in certain senses they liked things the way they were before. Hioka’s truce is very bad for business for a certain subset at least. They might be minded to let a dangerous killer go loose if it disrupts Hioka’s attempt to suppress the criminal underworld to manageable levels. Mimicking the classic jitsuroku, Shiraishi throws in occasional voiceover from an anonymous narrator along with freeze frame and montage while skewing still darker in the levels of depravity among these desperate men fighting over the scraps of a world already in terminal decline even as the bubble seems fit to burst. Shiraishi ends on a note of change with the institution of the organised crime laws which have contributed to the ongoing decline of the yakuza, a relic of the Showa era unfit and unwelcome in the modern society, but also discovers that for good or ill there may yet be wolves in Japan.


Last of the Wolves screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Zokki (ゾッキ, Naoto Takenaka, Takayuki Yamada, & Takumi Saitoh, 2020)

“Thanks to secrets carefully kept by people the world keeps turning” according to one of the many heroes of Zokki (ゾッキ), a series of intersecting vignettes adapted from the cult manga by Yoshiharu Tsuge and directed by three of Japan’s most prominent actor-directors, Naoto Takenaka (whose Nowhere Man also adapted Tsuge), Takayuki Yamada and Takumi Saitoh. According to the philosophical grandpa who opens the series of elliptical tales everyone has their secrets and without them you may die though each of the protagonists will in fact share their secrets with us if by accident or design. 

Seamlessly blended, the various segments slide into and around each other each taking place in a small rural town and primarily it seems around 2001 though as we’ll discover the timelines seem curiously out of joint as motifs from one story, a broken school window, an awkward moment in a convenience store, the retirement of a popular gravure model/AV actress etc, randomly appear in another. This is however all part of the overarching thesis that life is an endless cycle of joy and despair in which the intervals between the two gradually shrink as you age before ceasing to exist entirely. 

Or so says our first protagonist, Fujimura (Ryuhei Matsuda), a socially awkward man heading off on a random bicycling road trip in which he has no particular destination other than “south” or maybe “west” as he later tells a potential friend he accidentally alienates. Fujimura’s unspoken secret seems to link back to a moment of high school trauma in which he betrayed one burgeoning friendship in order to forge another by joining in with bullying gossip and eventually got his comeuppance. Meanwhile the reverse is almost true for Makita (Yusaku Mori) who relates another high school tale in which he overcame his loneliness by befriending Ban (Joe Kujo), another odd young man rejected by teachers and the other pupils for his often strange behaviour such as his tendency to shout “I want to die”. Ban claims to have heard a rumour that Makita has a pretty sister and Makita goes along with it, eventually having to fake his sister’s death in order to seal the lie only for Ban to find happiness in his adult life largely thanks to Makita’s act of deception. 

The broken window which brought them together turns up in another tale, that of Masaru (Yunho) whose adulterous father Kouta (Takehara Pistol) took him on a midnight mission to steal a punching bag (and some adult DVDs) from the local high school only to encounter a sentient mannequin/ghost who is later likened to the young woman from Fujimura’s past. Bar some minor embarrassment there’s no real reason the ghost sighting would need to be kept secret, the deception in this case more to do with Kouta’s affair and his subsequent departure from his son’s life only to make an unexpected return a decade later. The affair also makes him a target for fisherman Tsunehiko, the betrayed husband and one of the fisherman celebrating the birthday of a colleague along with an existentially confused Fujimura. Meanwhile, Fujimura’s fed up neighbour secretly writes a rude word on a note to himself instead of the usual “good morning” only to realise it’s been moved when he opens the local video store the next morning. 

Eventually coming full circle, Zokki insists what goes around comes around, everything really is “an endless cycle”, and that in the grand scheme of things secrets aren’t always such a bad thing. They keep the world turning and perhaps give the individual a sense of control in the necessity of keeping them if running with a concurrent sense of anxiety. The criss-crossing of various stories sometimes defying temporal logic hints at the mutability of memory while allowing the creation of a zany Zokki universe set in this infinitely ordinary small town in rural northern Japan. As the various protagonists each look for an escape from their loneliness, unwittingly spilling their secrets to an unseen audience, the endless cycle continues bringing with it both joy and sorrow in equal measure but also a kind of warmth in resignation. Beautifully brought together by its three directors working in tandem towards a single unified aesthetic, Zokki defies definition but rejoices in the strange wonder of the everyday in this “obscure corner of the world”.


Zokki streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also screen in London on 24th October as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

NYAFF intro

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)

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)