Thursday, 7 January 2016

Series REVIEW: Ultraman X

Ultraman X

2015 played host to a number of great tokusatsu shows over the year, but very few of them feel quite as important as Ultraman X did. As Tsuburaya Productions gear the Ultra Series and its titular hero up for their 50th anniversary this year, X stormed screens with a 22-episode (not counting a handful of clip episodes) series that was far more than just a delight for Japanese viewers. With staple anime streaming website Crunchyroll steadily adding Ultra Series instalments to its back-catalogue over the past few years, this year it went one step further by announcing the simulcasting of Ultraman X to the rest of the world at the same time as its Japanese airing – making it the first show of its kind to do this. While Japan’s premier superhero might feel like he’s been lagging behind the likes of Kamen Rider and Super Sentai in recent years, it’s fair to say that X brought the franchise back with a bang.

Daichi transforms into X
Daichi takes "playing with dolls" to a new level

Fifteen years ago the Earth was ravaged by a massive solar flare known as the ‘Ultra Flare’, with its strange energy awakening giant monsters from ancient artefacts named Spark Dolls. To combat the threat of these often violent monsters, the organisation UNVER was established to help gather and study the Spark Dolls. Leading the fight is Xio – UNVER’s specialised combat division.

In the present day, Daichi Ozora is a member of Xio’s lab team who previously lost his parents during the Ultra Flare event. When caught in the chaos of a monster rampage, Daichi is saved by a being who identifies himself as Ultraman X – who 15 years inadvertently caused the Ultra Flare when protecting the planet and is now trapped in the form of data-like corporeal form. After bonding with Daichi the two defend the Earth as Ultraman X from any alien or monster threats, supported by the Xio team and new abilities that are accessed through a variety of Cyber cards. 

The Xio team
The Xio team

As many will already know, alongside the likes of the Godzilla and Gamera films the Ultra Series is one of the forerunners of the "daikaiju' (giant monster) genre in Japan. And while Ultraman X features more rubber-suited monster wrestling than you can shake a stick at, there's also so much more to it than that. This isn't a show where all of the monsters are treated as a threat - they're also often creatures in need of understanding more than anything else. This isn't a quality unique to Ultraman X, but it is worth mentioning as a reason why the show can aimlessly wander between such different tones. One episode might have X stopping a giant monster on the rampage, but another could (and does) feature one just in need of a friend or even a rugby match with a band of misfit aliens. Ultraman X the kind of ongoing plot that allows for plenty of diversions, and it's quite the pleasure to find that you never know quite what you're going to get.

The Ultra Series has always placed a strong emphasis on its supporting cast as well as the lead hero, with X keeping things in familiar territories with the staple "Science Patrol" included as support. Daichi and X are both great characters and partners in their own right, but it wouldn't be the same without the heavy inclusion of the Xio team. As you might expect some are mostly relegated to the background and maybe a joke here or there, but its impressive just how many of them do get some sort of focus episode - especially in a series which is only 22 episodes long. Teamwork is a staple theme of Ultraman X and runs throughout the whole series, culminating in a finale where the human characters are just as important as the silver giant towering over them.

Pigmon
Show of hands: who DIDN'T want a Pigmon as a friend after this episode?

Although technically not billed as an anniversary series, Ultraman X features plenty of cameos and throwbacks to previous instalments - continuing the strong connectivity between each series the franchise has maintained. The series features appearances from Ultramans Zero, Leo, Ginga, Victory and Nexus, with both the original Ultraman and Tiga also set to appear in the forthcoming movie (which will actually be part of the anniversary celebrations). In some cases even featuring cast members from their respective series, these episodes are also highlights because they also similar in tone to that that they are drawing from. Take the Nexus episode for example, which is perhaps a far more atmospheric offering than the rest of the series and wouldn't look at all out of place as part of Ultraman Nexus itself.

While a well-told story and plenty of callbacks to Ultra Series history are strong assets, one of the most appealing aspects of Ultraman X is its wonderful use of practical effects and miniature sets. Tsuburaya Productions continue their founder’s legacy with perfect precision, dazzling the audience with minatures so wonderfully crafted and detailed it’s almost painful to see them smashed to pieces or blown up in the ensuing pyrotechnics. This level of craftsmanship can also be said of the various suits seen throughout Ultraman X, be it one of the monsters/aliens or X himself and his various power ups. By featuring both classic Ultra Series creatures alongside some brand new designs, the series wields a perfect blend of old and new that will make nostalgia senses tingle as well as continue to propel the franchise forwards.

Ultraman Nexus
Standing with giants

In order to keep up with the likes of Super Sentai and Kamen Rider (as well as most other superhero shows that wants to be deemed a success in Japan), Ultraman X has its own gimmicks and toy sales to push within the story. The Spark Dolls from Ultraman Ginga return once again, however this time they feel much more integrated into the story. Surely some will not be able to shake off the fact that visually they are nothing more than vinyl toys, but as “mysterious objects” and a method of storing the monsters at a smaller size they certainly serve their purpose. It also helps that they aren’t the main focus either, as X has his own card-based powers which unlock various different weapons for him to use in battle. Due to the shorter run of Ultraman X it can feel a little too “power-up of the week” in the beginning, but each power is well thought-out and visually impressive – adding a nice bit of punch to what would otherwise be mostly formulaic fights. The show itself also isn’t too preoccupied with keeping new powers at the forefront either, which is a huge benefit to the overall storytelling. Once X unlocks his “Exceed X” upgrade midway through the show, the cards move to the background as this form takes centre stage. Sure you could argue that it’s still pushing a toy, but now it’s the same one each episode.

Ultraman X Cyber Eleking Armour
Cyber powers activate!

With the Ultra Series feeling so overshadowed in recent years it isn’t any surprise that many felt like this show came out of nowhere, but the fact that Ultraman X blitzed all competition to be the best tokusatsu offering of 2015 shows that the legendary franchise still has plenty of spark left in it. This is a series that truly combines everything fans love about both the medium and superhero genre in Japan – brilliant practical effects and suits, a fantastic lead supported by a strong and memorable supporting cast along with a simple but effective plot and great action sequences. Most importantly it continues to do the one thing that truly sets the Ultra Series apart from many of its rivals – presenting monsters as something other than a threat that always needs to be vanquished. The story isn’t quite over yet as we still have the movie to come later this year, but for now Ultraman has made a return that should hopefully remind fans why he’s still the true superhero icon in Japan. And thanks to Crunchyroll, now people have the opportunity to experience that all over the world.

3 comments:

Luke Clemens said...

Y'know, I always get sceptical whenever people say things like "Best [...] of 2015" but Ultraman X really outdid my expectations. You can really tell how much love was put into this series. I should totally check out some of the older Ultra series.

Alex said...

I know exactly what you mean! Not being overly familiar with the franchise as a whole I wasn't expecting to be as completely blown away by X I was. I'm really eager to check out the rest of the Ultra franchise now.

Santiago Scarpino said...

personally speaking i recomend mebius (wich is a beatiful love letter to the showa era) leo (because of the story and hey even dan moroboshi aka ultraseven is the mentor) and ultraseven x (or as i like to call it "what the hell are glaive, zolda and the snake orphenoc doing here)