Fans who are familiar with the 2011 Ultraman manga series – a direct sequel to the original 1960s TV show – may not be thrown off-balance so much by this new animated show based on that comic.
If you’re going in totally without a clue, then this 13-episode series could leave you frequently scratching your head – or worse, the furniture.
The premise is that Shin Hayata, the original Scientific Special Search-Party (SSSP) operative who was the human host of Ultraman, was left with certain abilities as a result of his, erm, hosting work.
And like all dutiful parents, he passed on those abilities to his kid, Shinjiro.
Still, what’s a potential Ultraman to do when Earth has been free of alien threats for decades?
In a pretty terrific opening two episodes, we see long-kept secrets emerging and new/old threats showing up to menace the planet.
Then it all becomes a jumbled mess with elements from Iron Man (even Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Training Wheels Protocol) and Men In Black tossed in.
There’s a bigger picture here, of course, one which Hayata, his SSSP colleagues and certainly not Shinjiro can grasp right away.
Aliens show up and one in particular, the burned-out-matchstick-headed Mr Edo, is bafflingly put in charge of protecting the planet.
Never mind that he’s a member of the Zetton race, which menaced Earth and came close to offing Ultraman in the original series finale.
Blink (if you’re following this through the subtitles) or take a phone call (if you’re listening to the English dub) and you could miss some vital exposition.
Though … it’s not really all that vital, is it?
Mainly because the writers seem to pluck random things out of thin air, and Ultraman lore, and cram them into the show to perform double duty as both Easter egg and plot device.
Devotees of the Ultra Series should, in fact, recognise the numerous cameos and name-dropping from all over the place, not just the original.
And before you can say “Ultraman Tiga”, there are three Ultramen on the show, though not one of them is terribly fond of the others.
‘Hi, I’m just your everyday, ambiguously villainous menacing alien. Get used to my kind – you’ll be seeing loads of us on this show.’
There’s also a love interest for Shinjiro, a teen idol named Rena who is a big Ultraman fan one moment and then hates him for causing her mother’s death the next minute. Like, literally, the very next minute after gushing over the Ultra-fella.
She’s an oddly written sort indeed, a pop sensation who performs to sold-out crowds and with a huge fan base.
Yet she wanders around Tokyo without any kind of personal security, just so she can be menaced by perverts, just so Shinjiro can perform a heroic – if overzealous – rescue.
It also helps that she is somehow so unrecognisable that she can have coffee in public with Shinjiro a few episodes later and continue her conflicted love-him-no-hate-him Ultraman outpourings without being bothered by so much as one autograph-seeker.
Yes, I know things don’t always flow logically in anime, but Rena pretty much tears right through the protective envelope that keeps our mental fingers from plunging deep into steaming, gooey disbelief.
‘If your basic instincts aren’t telling you to run, just wait till I uncross my legs.’
But she’s not alone in the credibility-stretching department. There are characters that show up and behave so villainously that you can’t peg them as anything but baddies, only for them to be revealed as quite the opposite – so suddenly that it might give you whiplash.
Did I mention the “tough love” moment (as a friend who also watched the show put it) where a veteran Ultraman thinks the way to teach a hotheaded student is … to cut his freakin’ arm off?
It’s all in the name of character development, though in most instances in Ultraman 2019, it involves one point being harped on over several episodes until the character in question finally gets it.
You might be thinking by now, boy, this guy really doesn’t like the show.
Well, I liked a fair bit of it actually.
For one thing, the 3DCG visuals are spectacular in the action sequences, when they need to be so (just don’t expect such glorious detail and textures in the quieter character-driven moments).
The character/armour and creature designs have a contemporary slickness about them, though the manga can take a lot of the credit for that.
‘What do I call the voice in my heads-up display? JARVIS and Friday are taken, so … oh, hi, Dad.’
The opening two episodes are great, the Internet troll subplot is intriguing (but confusingly resolved), and the last two episodes are exciting and will fill you with fist-pumping exuberance when Ultraman – I’m not saying which one – finally comes into his own.
Only then, it somehow turns out that this whole bubble universe could reside within The Matrix.
Regardless of whether or not this show is AI-driven or human-controlled, though, surely something can be done by Season Two (should that be in the works) to overhaul Rena completely, have the Ultramen be more civil to each other, and keep events and motivations a little more consistent?
Oh, and more Hayata, please. The dude hasn’t lost a step. Learned a few neat tricks since we last saw him, too.
Heck, just rewrite him as the main character, already.
All 13 episodes of Ultraman are available on Netflix.