A few thoughts on the Ultraman Saga film shown at the Hawai‘i International Film Festival.
For those not in the know, Ultraman is a series of tokusatsu (Japanese special effects) shows and media very popular in Japan. The original Ultraman dates back to 1966, and has many sequels over the years. There have been many Ultramen over the years, and they generally take the form of a giant (compared to humans) silver humanoids who fight giant (yes, rubber suit) monsters. These Ultramen also usually have human hosts or forms. Ultraman Saga is the most recent film (March 24, 2012) and its Hawai‘i showing is said to be its debut in the United States.
The Movie (spoilers)
The movie begins in Tokyo, devoid of almost all life. A transmission goes out searching for any other living beings on the planet to no response. It turns out that Earth is a victim of the evil Alien Bat. A lively crew of Earth Defense Force (EDF) girls called Team U, man three transformable vehicles and make a raid on a local supermarket for supplies. The raid is interrupted by a kaiju (giant monster) attack, but this attack is thwarted by Ultraman Dyna.
The scene switches to an alternate universe where we are introduced to Ultraman Zero who receives a mysterious request to travel to Earth. Though annoyed and reluctant, he makes the journey as requested.
In yet another alternate world, we meet our main character, Taiga, who is a headstrong and wreckless Defense Force pilot. In this universe, Ultraman Dyna disappeared into a black hole some years ago.
During a battle, Taiga is transported to Earth and becomes the reluctant host for Ultraman Zero. He meets another Ultraman named Ultraman Cosmos who rescues a young boy named Takeru who is mute because of a traumatic incident.
The plot goes through several stories involving the team members of Team U and the kids they "adopt" after most of people of Earth were "disappeared" by the invading Alien Bat. Taiga also goes through the process of finally accepting the power of Zero.
It turns out that the leader of Team U (Anna) and Takeru were present at the defeat of Dyna (which is why he never returned to his planet of origin) and the hold the key to Dyna's return to action. The main villain of the film, Z-Ton, is birthed and the three Ultramen (Cosmos, Zero, and Dyna) team up to fight the creature. After an initial defeat, and some human drama, the three Ultramen combine to form Ultraman Saga and defeat the upgraded Hyper Z-Ton and Alien Bat.
After the defeat, the people of Earth are returned to their rightful place and are reunited with the kids that Team U were taking care of. The Ultramen return to their galaxy, but Taiga decides to stay on Earth to live out his future.
First things first, Ultraman and most of its tokusatsu brethren are really meant for kids. There are some trappings that come with almost all of its ilk that might rub the typical (especially Western) viewer the wrong way. The lingering posing shots, the inevitable kid involvment, cheery and talky philosophies, and the giant rubber monsters to name a few. If you can get past that, and the not-as-good-as-Hollywood special effects, you might have a good time.
I'm not that familiar with the Ultraman franchise as I am with some others (such as Kikaida or Kamen Rider), but I have a passing knowledge of it. I watched Ultraseven on TV as a kid and have seen a couple of recent Ultraman movies featuring Zero. Though there was some brief infomation about each character, I couldn't help thinking that I was missing a bunch not knowing more about the background of Cosmos and Dyna.
Compared to the more recent Ultraman films, I found this one a bit below them in the fun factor. The use of flashbacks seemed a bit excessive and broke up the action and story in odd places, which made the flow of the story a bit less smooth. The girls of Team U (played by members of the ultra popular J-Pop group AKB48) were okay but seemed too clean and prettied-up for the situation they were in. In fact, there were too many humans in the film for my tastes. I understand that others prefer that, but I liked that the previous film "Mega Monster Battle: Ultra Galaxy" focused mostly on the Ultramen and their monstrous foes. There were a few scenes, especially revolving Ultraman Cosmos' home planet, that were corny even by tokusatsu standards.
In the end, I'd say the movie was okay for the tokusatsu fan, and probably not recommended for people who are not fans of the genre. It had a few scenes of what most tokusatsu fans look for, the fights, and they were fun while they lasted. I think some of the previous recent films and specials involving Ultraman Zero to be more enteraining and had a lot more action.
The HIFF Experience
The Hawai‘i International Film Festival (HIFF) has been bringing in films from around the world to show in local theaters since 1981. I've been to several films presented by this organization, and though the venues change, HIFF doesn't change much. They often are a bit disorganized and it always takes longer to get into a film and for it to start than scheduled. This time was no different.
However, there are sometimes perks to attending a HIFF film. When I went to see Appleseed, we were greeted to a short introduction to the film by its director Shinji Aramaki. This time around, we were treated to an introduction to Ultraman Saga, by it's director Hideki Oka. Though he could only speak Japanese with a smattering of English, but his humor came through even if most of his speech was filtered through a translator. Also making an appearance was Hiroko Sakurai who played Akiko Fuji from the original Ultraman TV series. Both were gracious and charming. Also, after the movie they hosted a brief Q&A with the audience and gave prizes out to those who asked questions (no I didn't ask anything, I figured I'd let the kids in the audience ask).
All in all, it was an okay movie and a fun experience. Shuwatch!!!
Ultraman Saga director Hideki Oka, translator, and Ultraman actress Hiroko Sakurai at HIFF
Link: HIFF Ultraman Saga Page