Saturday, June 29, 2019

Ultraman Review By James Halmer


Ultraman, a SciFi series that started in 1966, based on the character from Ultra-Q, a Japanese twilight zone style show, gets a Netflix Original anime based on the manga by Eiichi Shimizu which is a sequel to the original TV series. Produced by Production I.G it shares some visual similarities to Netflix’s other 3DCG anime Ajin: Demi-Human made by Polygon pictures.

The Story

The story follows a young Shinjiro Hayata a second year in high school and the son of Shin Hayata the current Minister of Defense and retired Ultraman of days past. Shin has lost his memories of being Earth’s giant warrior after the threat of invading aliens has come to its conclusion. Earth, now enjoying a period of peace, lacks a defender as slowly but surely unrest and uncertainty congeals in the secret alien settlements of earth. The SSSP, that is the Science Special Search Party, still operates in secret and deals with an alien that breaks the law and has been “marked for elimination”, a la Men in Black. It’s newest member is our protagonist Shinjiro as he dawns the new Ultraman suit to protect the earth from evil aliens and saving people from dangerous situations. It is also worth mentioning that the anime deviates from the original as it is no longer a fight between men in rubber suits fighting in model cities, causing massive collateral damage and death wherever they fight, but rather becoming Japanese ironman in regular human size, thus making the public believe the hero is but a simple cosplayer in the first act. The story is grittier and more rooted in reality than the original as it explores its themes of responsibility, power and the ability to wield it, ethical murder, and terrorism. 

As we follow our protagonist coming to terms with murdering evil aliens, the responsibilities of dawning a hero’s mantle and being able to use his abilities properly, his character becomes more heroic and far less reminiscent of a whiny Shinji Ikari. A bit more time could have been used to develop the relationships between Shinjiro and his father, as he barely gets any screen time as it is and feels like a praise dispenser in the first place, as well as the complicated relationship between Shinjiro and Dan Moroboshi who dawns the mantle of Ultraman Seven. The story moves quite quickly yet never feels rushed due to its extensive use of quieter and slower parts that gives a bit of breathing room to its action-packed fighting sequences. Another caveat of the show is that it spends quite a bit of time on world building which is quite welcome to viewers who never even heard of the original series, and like me, certainly weren’t around at the time to enjoy it. Yet it also has quite a few glaring flaws. The whole season has a few distinct conflicts and set pieces, yet by the time the final one rolls around one are left asking oneself “Wait, what was that all about? 
That was a bit sudden.”. In fact, the finale was marred by sloppy writing as it desperately attempts to connect plot threads from the beginning of the season yet it came across as completely forced and an excuse to indulge in some much-needed character development and show off how awesome our heroes are. As far as character flaws go, and I don’t mean the kind that is the hallmark of good writing, Shinjiro seems really incompetent about keeping his identity secret, not out of malice or self-destructive habit, but simply because he can’t keep his mouth shut in front of a girl. Its as if he never grasped the concept of “think before you act”. Another glaring writing flaw is highlighted by the fact that Shinjiro has trouble controlling his inborn superhuman strength despite living with it for 16 years. One would think that at least by then one would have mastery over their own body. Furthermore, part of his character development is that he was initially in it for the glory of being a superhero without all of the strings that come attached with that, spawning a subpar plot of “will he or won’t he ever take up the mantle”. In fact, Shinjiro as a character is barely believable as it stands. On one hand, he seems to barely be able to rub two brain cells together and on the other he is somehow a hand to hand combat master, holding his own against powerful foes. No explanation is given as to why that is the case by the way. Most of the supporting cast is either a walking talking conflict generator or they react to what is happening on screen in a desperate attempt to convey the emotions the audience is supposed to feel. Dan Moroboshi is one of the few characters that break the mold. He despises Shinjiro for his lack of experience yet acknowledges his outstanding talent that makes up for it, making him a lot more interesting and complex than the protagonist. His motivations are far more clear and righteous, even if he won’t hesitate to take out “alien scum”. In fact, I subconsciously only started to tolerate the protagonist when Dan did.

The Audio

The sound design in Ultraman is quite the treat. Sound effects are good and convincing allowing one to immerse themselves in the show and the soundtrack is great. All the audio is in very high quality, clear, well mastered and not grating or annoying. As a “man of culture” aka. “A massive weeb” aka “dumpster fire connoisseur” I prefer the original voice acting for anime and read the subtitles like a hipster film student watching French movies in an attempt to look more sophisticated for his social circle. Therefore it is not exactly an easy task to judge the voice acting as I don’t speak Japanese. However from what I can discern it seems at least on par with most shows out there. All in all, there isn’t much more to say, the soundtrack has an excellent heroic main theme, the battle theme has some great electric guitar, and quieter scenes get some nice strings and piano treatment. To summarize, “it sounds good bro.”

The Animation

Its visual style has become a point of confusion for me. The character models all have enough depth and detail to make the characters believable when they aren’t attempting to emote that is. 3DCG does not work well when it comes to detailed animation. Facial expressions look stiff, blank, and awkward most of the time. It certainly helps that the most important characters emote with a mask on. Furthermore, the animation is wildly inconsistent resulting in some hilarious eye cancer at times. More on that later. The lighting is fine if not good in some scenes but the environments suffer from the typical low-resolution texture work used for backgrounds. Crowds and background character models are straight from bad CG hell. This is not the only time something appears low quality or cheap though. A severed arm and head that looked like it came straight from the PS2 era, odd character movements, Video Copilot Action Essentials blood spatters and more. My biggest gripe, however, is with the frame rate and animation quality. It is quite well established that 2D anime will typically be produced at a lower frame rate in general even half of what one would normally use in filmmaking and even less for background characters yet this does not translate well to 3DCG. Like, at all. A lot of motions look choppy and unappealing while at times it will be smooth as butter. Its as if you are playing a game and your system from 1999 is melting as it attempts to render cutscenes in real time. The worst part about this is that the choreography is really excellent in its hand to hand combat scenes. A lot of work was put into them and it shows. Clearly, this was a stylistic choice and not a technological limitation, one I am no fan of. Another issue pops up occasionally due to this choice as sometimes it is nearly impossible to judge how fast something is happening. Most of the time when slow motion is used it is very clear and deliberate, yet I remember one very distinct scene where I for the life of me could not tell whether it was supposed to be in slow motion or real time. But the worst animation seems to be during the shows quieter dialogue moments. There are very few words that can describe this particular brand of motion vomit but the best word I have for it is jarring. This seems to be a fairly common trait when it comes to 3DCG anime, however, this unsettling style can be used to one's advantage and doesn’t always have to be a detriment. Ajin: Demi-Human is an excellent example of this. The jarring animation and cel-shaded character models helped solidify the creepy undertones of the story and especially the unsettling nature of the “Ghosts”. The animation serves to illustrate the story and the style subtly adds to its atmosphere. If you haven’t seen Ajin yet, it is certainly worth your time. Give it a try.

The Conclusion

In conclusion, Ultraman is certainly watchable. It has enough action scenes where you can simply turn your brain off and enjoy the spectacle. That is if you can stomach some of the choppy animations. Set pieces are for the most part quite awesome without getting too ridiculous, bar one exception in the finale, and the story will keep you engaged long enough even if it is not something to write home about. So if you have nothing to watch, give Ultraman a try, it's not great but not terrible enough to never touch with a 10ft pole.

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