‘Ultraman: Rising’ centers family, generates buzz

A CLASSIC REVIVED — A scene from Netflix’s new animated spin on a Japanese classic, “Ultraman Rising.” courtesy of Netflix

“Ultraman” is one of the most successful Japanese pop culture uccessful Japanese pop culture exports — since the original “Ultraman” debuted in 1966, there have been dozens of sequels, spinoffs and variations in a variety of media, including movies, live-action TV, animated versions and manga. Few have been big hits in the U.S., but there’s a huge — and devoted — cult following that consumes every iteration of Ultraman, and buys up the zillions of Ultraman-related merchandise cranked out by the franchise’s producers.

Now, Netflix has dropped “Ultraman: Rising,” an animated feature (and the 44th Ultraman film) that’s already being cited as an Oscar contender and the best superhero movie in some years. It could explode the Ultraman mystique to Godzilla-sized proportions.

Which would be ironic, since Ultraman is an alien creature who inhabits the body of a human, but when a kaiju, or monster, appears from the sky to attack Tokyo or threaten the Earth, he turns into a giant, Godzilla-sized superhero to save the day. That’s the basic premise of the Ultraman character in all its variations (alone and with other characters from his planet) over the decades, including in “Ultraman: Rising.”

The alien origins and back story of his power and ability to morph into a kaiju-sized superhero isn’t explained in the new film, but the audience won’t need to know the details of how and why Ultraman does his thing. Because in this movie, the human element is front and center. “Ultraman: Rising” is an exciting, engaging animated feature, and it’s about family dynamics first and foremost.

The opening scene introduces us to Kenji Sato, a kid who’s in love with baseball (the Yomiuri Giants, the Tokyo team) and who loves his father, Professor Sato, who is the original Ultraman (in this telling).

The family, including Kenji’s mom Emiko Sato, are getting ready for dinner and Kenji’s dad asks his son whether he’d want to grow up to play baseball or be Ultraman. But there’s a kaiju alert and Professor

Sato has to go save Tokyo.

The film jumps to the present. Kenji is grown and he’s now Ken Sato, a superstar baseball player for the LA Dodgers, who quit the team to move back to Japan and play for the Yomiuri Giants — a reverse Shohei Ohtani move. He and his mother moved to the U.S. when he was young so he could play baseball, and dad stayed in Japan to fight kaiju as Ultraman. He made the Major Leagues, but after an injury, his aging dad asked him to return to Japan to take over as Ultraman. Out of filial duty to his estranged dad, and grieving for his mom, who’s missing after a battle, Ken goes back to live a double life playing baseball and fighting kaiju.

But fate throws a curve ball at him when a kaiju dies in battle, and he becomes a surrogate mother to a baby monster. The story arc follows the parental challenges of Sato, who arrives in Japan as a snotty, egotistical American and becomes humbled with the responsibilities of being Ultraman and the challenges of trying to tame baby kaiju, which is named Emi after Ken’s mother. He also has to protect Emi from the clutches of Dr. Onda, the head of the Kaiju Defense Force, which is trying to kill all kaiju.

The cast of voice actors is all Japanese American, including Christopher Sean as Ken, Gedde Watanabe as professor Sato, Tamlyn Tomita as Emiko Sato (and also as the voice of the AI robot ball that floats in the air and advises Ken), and Keone Young as Dr. Onda. The animation is strikingly cinematic, with angles, focus perspectives and kinetic action that look like they’re captured on cameras with amazing lenses.

the figures, especially of Ultraman, are elongated and manipulated so they don’t look “realistic” at all, but are completely believable. The visual effect is neither of Japanese anime or American cartoons.

]It’s an animated realism. Viewers will have no problems suspending disbelief as they watch the story unfold.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *