Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Ultraman: The Next

Director: Kazuya Konaka
Writer: Keiichi Hasegawa
Producer: Kiyoshi Suzuki
Cast: Tetsuya Bessho, Kenya Osumi, Kyoko Toyama
Country: Japan
Year of release: 2004
Reviewed from: screener DVD

Watching this latest incarnation of the long-running movie/TV series, I couldn't help thinking about the similarities between Ultraman and Doctor Who. Both franchises started in the 1960s ('63 for the Doctor, '66 for the big silver guy) and star an alien who comes to Earth where he befriends and protects humans, while also continuing his adventures in outer space. Both characters have 'superhuman' abilities of some sort and super-advanced technology without being conventional superheroes and can pass for human when necessary.

Both series have changed constantly over the years, including not only their lead actor but the nature and identity of the lead character, even though that lead character has in other ways remained constant (and both have experimented with teaming up different incarnations of the lead character in various combinations). Both are primarily TV franchises which have spun off into films, books, comics, stage shows and other media as well as inspiring plenty of toys and collectables. They are, on the one hand, children's series yet enjoyed by many adults - not merely for nostalgia value - and have attracted a cult following outside their country of origin where the subtleties and intentions of the stories can be widely mis- and re-interpreted.

On the negative side, Ultraman and Doctor Who have both become bogged down - the former with repetition and formula, the latter with continuity and back story. They limit themselves by catering increasingly for established fans at the expense of those coming to the franchises anew. And their effects, especially their monster effects, have become outdated and a little embarrassing - or at least, are viewed as such by many people who don't actually watch the series, which is almost as bad.

In 2005 Doctor Who returned after a 16-year-hiatus (the longest that Ultraman has ever been absent from the screen, I think, is four years) with Christopher Eccleston in the lead role. The new version skipped over a lot of the old continuity without contradicting it or throwing it out, leaving viewers pleasantly uncertain/unbothered about whether this was a sequel (effectively, a continuation of the old series) or a reinterpretation (basically starting from scratch again). The essential premise remained unchanged, successfully fulfilling both the concept of that premise as it existed in the wider cultural zeitgeist and the concept as understood by the hardcore fans. Sufficient iconography was there to please everyone, no matter how detailed or vague their memories - TARDIS, Daleks, sonic screwdriver - without getting in the way of those for whom the series was something completely new.

Around the same time, the character of Ultraman was similarly reinvented in this movie which hit Japanese cinemas in December 2004 - and with, in this reviewer's opinion, similar success. What do we know about the Doctor? He's an alien, a 'Time Lord', who travels in time and space using a spaceship that looks like a blue telephone box (called the TARDIS) which is bigger inside than out. He has a young female companion with him in a strictly platonic relationship, and of all the races he encounters the most deadly are his sworn enemies, the Daleks.

And what do we know about Ultraman? He is an alien who comes to Earth and somehow melds with a military or quasi-military individual. When danger threatens, usually personified by one or more giant monsters, that individual can transform into Ultraman who is a giant humanoid, clad in a silver and red outfit including a helmet with blank staring eyes. Ultraman is never seen without this outfit which may actually be part of him - is that really a helmet or is it his head? He is handy in a fight against any giant monster, whether grappling one-to-one or blasting off rays. But he can only exist for a short time and must return to human form when a light on his chest starts flashing to indicate that his strength is nearly exhausted.

The more recent series - Ultraman Tiga, Ultraman Dyna and Ultraman Gaia - sought to reinvent the franchise from scratch and although they were evidently more successful than the rather poor 1996 Doctor Who telemovie, nevertheless they may end up being viewed as some sort of 'alternative' franchise. On the other hand, the new TV series Ultraman Max (featuring episodes directed by Gamera helmer Shusuke Kaneko and Takashi Miike!) which is in production as I write this in mid-2005 apparently returns the character closer to his roots and it could be this movie which becomes the equivalent of the Paul McGann Who film.

So what is Ultraman: The Next all about? Tetsuya Bessho (Godzilla vs Mothra, Parasite Eve) plays air force pilot Lieutenant Shunichi Maki, who flies an F-15 Eagle and whose nearly-six-year-old son Keimu (Ryohei Hirota) suffers from a terminal blood disease that means he may not see his seventh birthday. Understandably wanting to spend more time with his little boy while he has the chance, Maki retires from the air force and takes a job piloting a light aircraft for private travellers, operating from a small local airport.

Just before Maki retires, he and his wingman Captain Kurashima are scrambled to intercept a mysterious radar blip travelling at incredible speed. Kurashima's instruments go haywire and force him to abort but Maki carries on and finds that the UFO is a glowing red light which envelopes his plane. He finds himself seeming to float in some sort of glowing tunnel where he can see a giant humanoid. (The tunnel effect is, by coincidence, basically the same as that used in the title sequence of Doctor Who!)

Maki's Eagle explodes and he is believed dead, but he later stumbles into a roadside diner, tattered and bruised but without any serious injuries, and with no idea how he survived.

Once into civvy street, Maki's life settles down until a passenger on one of his flights (who has been secretly following and photographing him) pulls a gun and forces him to divert to a nearby highway, which has been specially closed by the military in order for his plane to land. He is then driven to a top secret military base where he is interrogated about what really happened on that mysterious flight. Back at the airport, Keimu waits for his daddy with Maki's wife Yoko (Nae Yuki) and their joy when his plane lands turns to dismay when they find that the pilot is not Maki but Kurashima, accompanied by two soldiers. Kurashima can't tell them anything about where Maki is, but he can at least confirm that he is alive.

That female passenger who pulled a gun and is now interrogating Maki is a military scientist named Sara Mizuhara (Kyoko Toyama: An Obsession) who works for an anti-terrorist organisation called the BCST. She explains that a similar (but blue) light was reported in the seabed location of a downed UFO a few weeks earlier and had similarly affected the minisub pilot who was sent to investigate it: the sub was destroyed but he somehow survived. Archived security camera footage shows this poor soul, Takafumi Udo (Kenya Osumi), in a cell where he can be seen to be gradually mutating into some sort of reptilian beast. He later escaped, drawing to himself and absorbing hundreds of lizards which enabled him to grow and mutate, eventually blasting out of the base. We actually saw this in a dimly lit prologue, with Sara unable to fire at the monster as Udo's human face reappears briefly.

With the monster (codenamed 'The One', and still played by Osumi inside the costume; interestingly he is actually a professional dancer) now on the loose somewhere, the military are naturally keen to contain and study Maki as his development may give them some clue about how to defeat The One. He is codenamed 'The Next' - which explains the movie's apparently ungrammatical title - and held in a fortified underground cell. When The One comes calling, apparently attracted by some sort of psychic link with The Next, something takes over Maki and he is able to break out of his cell, then grows to about twenty feet tall and mutates into some sort of silver-clad alien being.

It's a measure of the maturity of the film-makers that we are nearly halfway through the film before we get our first sight of Ultraman (and that the character is never referred to by that name until right at the end of the film, when a news reporter comes up with it).

The two large (but interestingly, not giant) aliens fight as Sara looks on, incredulous. At one point, she is about to be thrown aside by The One's lengthy, powerful tail but The Next throws himself in the way. Eventually The One smashes its way out of the building, as a light on The Next's chest starts to flash and he collapses into a heap, morphing and shrinking back into the form of Maki.

There are further revelations between this point and the climactic return match, but they mostly concern the people, not the monsters. We never find out what The One and The Next actually are, or where they come from, or what sort of hold they may have over their respective hosts. We do later see Udo once again in human form, further cementing the similarities between the two aliens, although the alien-human connection seems to be different with Udo/The One. The implication is that two warring entities have come to Earth and are continuing an existing fight, with humanity now caught up in the middle. This gives the film a strong narrative thread which stands alone without requiring any foreknowledge of Ultraman's past.

Where the movie really scores is in exploring the way that all this impacts on the lives of Maki, Sara and everyone else who is directly or peripherally involved, which I have always held to be a large part of what good science fiction is about. Take your science fictional premise - whether it's aliens or artificial intelligence or time travel or nanotechnology or whatever - and show how that would affect people. (The new Doctor Who does this terrifically too. For the first time, we get to see how the sudden 'disappearance' of the Doctor's companion affects those closest to her.) We learn more about Sara and discover why she didn't kill Udo/The One when she had the chance, and there is redemption for Kurashima who feels guilty over his collusion with his friend's kidnappers. There are some great minor characters too, including the boss of the airport where Maki works and a junior military officer who challenges Sara over her actions which have resulted in the deaths of some of his men. When did you last see a monster movie where somebody was actually bothered that a squad of miltary grunts had been killed by the beastie?

Although the 'terminally ill son' subplot gets a wee bit soap opera-esque at times, it gives the character of Maki greater depth and clearly defined motivation, both in seeking normality and in resolving to accept the responsibility thrust on him to aid the military organisation which kidnapped him. But more than this we get some real insight into what it might be like to actually be Ultraman's host - a concept which of course implies that Ultraman himself is a form of parasite. Maki doesn't know that he is (or could be) the defender of mankind against alien attack. All he knows is that under certain circumstances he loses consciousness and/or control and something alien (in every sense) takes him over for its own ends. We do later see Ultraman save a mother and child from a collapsing building, but we are left to make up our own minds whether this is the action of a sympathetic human father (Maki is the first ever Ultraman host to have a wife and kid) or a philanthropic alien - or some melding of the two.

Ultraman/The Next may be a superhero (he isn't really one in this movie, except in the broadest possible sense, but he could become one) but Maki isn't any sort of hero at all, super or otherwise. He's just some poor guy who is being used by something beyond his, or anybody's, understanding - and also being used by the military. The great irony lies in the fact that Maki was a military man himself, a terrific Eagle pilot, but he tried to escape the responsibilities of that life, only to have something bigger and worse thrust upon him (and by proxy, upon his family) against his will. It's his acceptance of this, but only on his own terms as much as he can (for example, he briefly escapes his captors when he hears that his son is in hospital) which makes him an ersatz hero, not his uncontrollable ability to grow to 50 metres high and fire energy blasts from his forearms.

The difference between this version and previous incarnations is summed up perfectly in a line that a shaken, confused, possibly even terrified Maki says after that first big fight with The One: "I became a monster." In fact there are numerous dialogue references to Maki's new giant alter ego as a 'monster' - and none as a 'hero'.

And yes, Ultraman does grow to his traditional giant size before the final battle, to match the now-similarly enormous The One, although there is an unusual scene at one stage where the good guy, even at 20 feet or so, is dwarfed by the newly grown monster, something that has rarely if ever been seen before.

As well as a script which brings new depth and breadth to both plot and characterisation, Ultraman: The Next also benefits from good special effects, including a CGI Ultraman for the climactic flying sequences (these were directed by Ichiroh Itano whose anime credits include Urusei Yasura, Macross and Megazone 23). Those who consider anything less than state-of-the-Hollywood-art effects to be 'cheap' will no doubt bring their prejudices to bear and still mock, but this movie is a huge step up from 1970s/1980s series that many people in the West might recall. There are still limitations in the suitmation; for example The One has a quite long but completely rigid neck - the actor's head is between the costume's shoulders - which means that the monster often tends to not look at where it is going or what it is doing. This is a shame because the head itself is an excellent animatronic effect with moving jaw and eyes. If a flexible neck couldn't be achieved on the budget available, then the neck should have been shortened to almost nothing. It's a design problem rather than a construction one.

On the whole, however, The One is a terrific monster. There is a marvellous sequence towards the end of the film when he draws to himself, and absorbs, hundreds of crows. As with the lizards (and rats in another sequence) this causes him to grow and mutate, in this case sprouting a massive pair of wings in preparation for the climactic aerial showdown with The Next. In striking a heraldic pose, and in another shot when he bursts out of the ground, The One reminded me of the recent Thai monster flick Garuda, though this is probably just coincidence. The removal/destruction of these wings, incidentally, is arguably the highlight of the film, a pair of successive images which form a real 'double wow' moment.

Ultraman's own costume is fantastic. It looks enough like the (many) previous incarnations to be recognisable but has been given a 21st century make-over, resembling a suit of body armour or an android body. As mentioned above, I subscribe to the theory that what we see as a 'costume' is actually the being himself, and this stylish, effective design plays to that idea much more than the old silver ski-suits with their baggy wrinkles at hips and shoulders ever did. We do, incidentally, finally get to see the iconic crossed-arms pose but like so much else here a rationale has been found for this. It's a way for the character to steady his forearms and blast off his energy bolts accurately. He doesn't just stand like that because That's What Ultraman Does and the fanboys expect it. Similarly, the flashing light on the character's chest, which has always previously been an entirely gratuitous 'ticking clock' to add tension (and sometimes to keep effects sequences to an affordable length!) is finally given a genuine reason to exist in this movie.

Another interesting point of note is that there is very little miniature work on show. Two of the three main Ultraman-vs-monster fights (monster-vs-monster?) actually take place indoors and the third is mostly green-screened (very effectively, using low-angled shots) against real buildings, before shifting up into the sky. The camera is frequently positioned at human eye-level, looking up at the two giants, which works wonders. There is a tendency for effects unit directors on kaiju eiga to place their camera at the eye-level of their protagonists which often hinders the suspension of disbelief required to accept that these are giant beings, not just two men in costumes. Similarly, many effects directors on these pictures don't bother to overcrank the camera during action shots, which is essential to slow down the movement slightly and give these giant beings weight; it's done properly here. Ultraman: The Next is a film made by people who have looked at current and previous productions within this genre and learned from them, without ditching what made them great in the first place.

This is director Kazuya Konaka’s fourth Ultraman movie, following Ultraman Zearth 2, Ultraman Tiga and Ultraman Dyna and Ultraman Gaia: The Battle in Hyperspace (which was actually a three-way team-up between Messrs Gaia, Tiga and Dyna). He also directed the thoughtful sci-fi picture Dimension Travellers and ghost story Shigatsu Kaidan. Keiichi Hasegawa’s other scriptwork includes the aforementioned Gaia/Tiga/Dyna picture, various episodes of the Ultraman Tiga TV series and the Godzilla kaiju-fest GMK: All Monsters Attack. The cinematography is very dark but that is more likely a problem with the timecoded DVD-R screener that I watched rather than the work of DP Shinichi Ooka. Yuichi Kikuchi (GMK: All Monsters Attack, Godzilla X Mechagodzilla) is credited as special effects director.

I would love to see more Ultraman like this, although by all accounts Ultraman Max restores such temporarily absent elements as the character’s origins in Galaxy M-78 (and slightly baggy silver ski-suits). Maybe production company Tsuburuya have decided that pleasing the hardcore fans is the way to go. But given how many times the character has been reinvented over the years, I would like to think that there is sufficient room for both sorts of Ultraman.

Being picky, my biggest problem with the film is the music. I recall a meeting with the UK Sci-Fi Channel in the mid-1990s, trying to persuade them to show Ultraman and the biggest stumbling block (apart from the fact that the channel was only prepared to pay peanuts) was the martial, orchestral music, which the channel said would need to be replaced with something more techno. Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately) nothing ever came of that meeting. In this film, the music (credited to Tak Matsumoto aka 'B'z') is rockier and generally very good but unfortunately his 'Theme from Ultraman' which plays whenever the F-15s appear on screen (and that’s quite often during the first 20 minutes or so) is a stirring pastiche of the Top Gun theme which rapidly becomes as irritating as it is derivative.

That’s a shame, but not nearly enough to spoil a corking movie, and most of the other music is great. (The closing credits play under an English language song by Matsumoto's group TMG called 'Never Good-bye', written by bassist Jack Blades, formerly with Night Ranger and Damn Yankees, and sung by Eric Martin from Mr Big - who must be a kaiju fan because his 2003 solo album was called Destroy All Monsters.)

I can't claim complete familiarity with every incarnation of Ultraman - God knows there have been enough of them - but I really did enjoy Ultraman: The Next hugely. It works not just as a new version of a cinematic/televisual icon, and not just as a terrific sci-fi romp, but as one of the new breed of more sensible kaiju eiga. If you can accept the basics, not least that a fifty-metre tall humanoid could exist and move freely without collapsing under his own weight because of the vastly increased size-to-mass ratio, then what you will find here is a well-written, well-made, exciting, thought-provoking science fiction adventure which explores its premise and builds to a rip-roaring finale.

It's not your parents' Ultraman.

MJS rating: A

No comments:

Post a Comment