Unlike its spiritual predecessor “Shin Godzilla,” which brought the King of Monsters back with a wave of angry, acidic satire and horror, “Shin Ultraman” is deliberately old-fashioned. Its satire is at the forefront (Japan’s leadership is depicted as constant kowtowing to larger powers, whether they be western or extraterrestrial), but it’s all softer, window dressing rather than the point of the whole thing. The real focus is on putting Ultraman (delightfully performed via an old-school “man in suit” performance) in action early and often, testing his limits, and letting him serve as a beacon of hope for a world that probably doesn’t deserve him. Hideaki Anno, who co-directed “Shin Godzilla” with Higuchi, returns as a writer here, and his script is far more “Rebuild of Evangelion” than original recipe “Evangelion” — we’re worth saving, the movie says, even though humanity is predisposed to poor choices. We’ll get better.
It’s this spirit that kept me wrapped up in “Shin Ultraman” even as it kept spiraling in odd directions that seemed to leave the fans in the audience enthusiastic and me just plain confused. I knew I was watching a love letter, but I could not decipher it. This is simply not as approachable as “Shin Godzilla,” a film I would recommend to any kaiju neophyte. This one requires a big-ass asterisk.
But like I said: I cannot bring myself to dislike this movie in the slightest, with its goofball can-do attitude and strong “chaotic good” (pardon the Dungeons & Dragons terminology) energy. Higuchi and Anno are less interested in structure or coherence and more interested in jamming in as much Ultraman stuff as possible, and letting the game supporting cast of mere mortal humans provide able back-up. Even as the film becomes increasingly episodic and scattered, climaxing with colorful, cosmic action that seared my brain, it’s all so … nice.