Friday, 29 March 2019

Series REVIEW: Ultraman R/B

Ultraman R/B

With the Ultra Series having firmly established itself as an annual franchise once more, Tsuburaya Productions have finally been getting the traction they needed to go stand by side with its closest rivals once again. Merchandise revenue is on the up, and with both Tsuburaya's victories over Chaiyo in court and interest in bringing Ultraman to a global platform the state of the series is looking pretty great right now. The Ultraman New Generation continued in 2018 with Ultraman R/B – the 30th entry in the franchise overall and the last that will be produced during Japan's Heisei era. Sadly this is also the first series since Ultraman X to not be simulcast with English subtitles via Crunchyroll, with the relationship with the streaming service and Tsuburaya seemingly having come to an end for at least the time being.

(This post is also part of a cross-promotion with Tokunation.com - please visit the site and discuss your thoughts on the series at the dedicated discussion thread there!)


Brothers Katsumi and Isumi Minato live happily with their younger sister Asahi and father. When the pair are caught in a monster attack, they are protected by a pair of mysterious crystals. After placing the crystals in devices known as the R/B Gyros that appear before them, the pair transform into the newest two Ultra heroes – Ultraman Rosso and Ultraman Blu!

As the brothers begin to research the strange items that give them their powers, they discover that the R/B Crystals had been previously discovered by someone else – their mother than went missing 15 years ago. Their search for answers brings them face to face with enemies who don't believe they are worthy to carry on the Ultraman legacy. These include the egomaniacal Aizentech President Makoto Aizen, as well as the enigmatic Saki Mitsurugi – a girl who holds many of the answers the brothers are looking for.


Identity and (more significantly) the power of bonds are two key themes that played an important part in Ultraman for the past few years, and in Ultraman R/B they feel more prevalent as ever as it ties them back to a proper family unit. Whereas Ultraman Geed tackled how its lead character learned to define themselves and forge their own path/family, R/B looks at family in the more traditional setting and the strength they bring to each other. “Ultra Brothers” is a term that’s been part of the franchise for decades by rarely is it as literal as this, nor does it portray said brothers as naturally or believably as it does here. While the series has clear moments of drama that culminate into a strong emotional finale, on the whole it also feels like a much lighter affair than some of the previous series as well. Though it may result in the show being not quite as engaging at times it isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, as there are some genuinely funny and memorable non-plot orientated episodes sprinkled into its 25 episode run.

The core themes of Ultraman R/B are so intrinsically tied to its characters that if there was one thing it needed to get right above everything else it was the cast. Interestingly while a conventional Science Patrol hasn’t been a key part of an Ultraman series since X back in 2016, R/B is the first one since then to completely dispel the idea altogether. Brothers Katsumi and Isumi have excellent chemistry both in and out of their Ultraman forms, also bringing an element of humanity to their giant alter egos that feels particularly refreshing. The brothers consistently feel like the underdogs in their fights, and that struggling makes their victories all the more satisfying when they are finally able to turn the tide. Little moments such as Rosso stopping to project a vehicle and then sending it back on its merry way also go a long way to inject a bit of fun into the fights.

But as good as the two leads are, it doesn’t always feel like these are the characters holding the show together. Ultraman R/B also boasts a small but incredibly effective supporting cast, with younger sister Asahi often feeling like the star of the show in her own right. Asahi brings a certain innocence to the series that’s not only pivotal in encouraging the brothers to keep fighting, but essential to later developments in the wider story. It’s a huge injustice that she doesn’t get to fight alongside her brothers in the series itself, but her appearance in the newly released R/B movie as Ultrawoman Grigio at least gives her the role she’s always deserved. Used to a lesser extent but also effectively is the trio’s father Ushio, who for the most part plays a simple comedic role but really comes into his own in a later arc where Asahi’s identity is called into question.


The antagonists also prove to be an interesting bunch, with the whole show being stolen very early on by a certain Makoto Aizen. Right from the get-go the show paints him as a particularly flamboyant character, but as he reveals himself to be the one behind the monster attacks and transforms into Ultraman Orb Dark (full name Ultraman Orb Dark Noir Black Schwarz) things get really interesting. Becoming a twisted Ultraman fanboy who sees the brothers as unfit to be Ultras, on top of some hilariously meta dialogue Aizen immediately feels comparable to certain fans out there unwilling to give the newer iterations of the franchise a fair chance. While it’s sad that Aizen isn’t used throughout the series, the fact he’s not there long enough for his routine to become stale and overused definitely works to the character’s advantage. When he’s eventually replaced by Saki things take a more character-driven turn as the best parts of her development come from her interactions with Asahi. Her overly stubborn nature does make the frequent poor conversation between her and the brothers tedious to sit through, but her backstory plays a big part in the overall story and her eventual fate one of the show’s finest moments of drama.

But if there's one thing you can rely on above all else with a Tsuburaya production, it's that it's going to offer the very best when it comes to production values and those wonderful practical effects tokusatsu is known for. Though Ultraman R/B doesn't bring anything new to the table as far as special effects go, the bar has been consistently high for the past few years so simply matching that is an acceptable achievement. Where is does make its identity however is in costume and choreography – the latter making full use of having two giant heroes onscreen and the different ways they can work together. Meanwhile the Ultra brothers themselves offer some interesting modifications to the template Ultraman design – opting for a silver and black body suit with the primary colours placed on raised "armour" sections such as body plates and forearm/shin gauntlets as well as the heads. The elemental motif is also directly tied into the look of the Ultras, highlighted through moulded sections unique to each suit on top of their varying colour schemes. The changes are minor enough that what you're looking at is still very much a base form Ultraman, but still offer clear visual distinction from their predecessors. Even recolours like Ultraman Orb Dark work brilliantly, with Aizen's eccentricities brought out beautifully in the suit acting to offer a stark contrast to the genuine article.


On the kaiju side of things Ultraman R/B again offers a healthy mix of creatures new and old, keeping some of the more familiar faces in the public eye as well as showing newcomers just how well some of the classic foes still stand up today. But as great as it is to see the likes of Dada, Zarab or King Joe again, Ultraman R/B really goes all out when it comes to its newcomers. Whether Tsuburaya intend to give any of them the same staying power as Galactron is yet to be seen, but monsters such as the Grigio variants or big bad Reugosite set a new standard when it comes to detailing and craftsmanship.

Ultraman R/B's main problems aren't just a flaw of the show itself though, they're issues that have quietly crept throughout the franchise for the past few years and are only now reaching boiling point. Just as Bandai's stranglehold over tokusatsu has affected other rival franchises Ultraman continues to become more toyetic in nature, relying more heavily on gimmicky transformation items and collectible trinkets for toy sales rather than just the affordable "sofubi" vinyl toys the Ultra Series is known for. While R/B is far from the first Ultraman series to feature such things, the fact it features two heroes highlights how painfully drawn out the transformation sequences have become. In many instances the fights come dangerously close to losing all momentum, as they're broken up by the lengthy toy demonstrations. Though the series is wise enough to speed things up later on when it's at a point where these things should be able to sell themselves, it doesn't make those earlier sequences any less tiresome to get through.

Another issue stemming from this is Ultraman's ongoing insistence of having its new heroes draw their powers from their predecessors. Thankfully there's no fusion involved this time around, but each of the crystals Rosso and Blu use directly correlate to one or more past Ultra warriors. Similarly the same collectibles are also used to summon kaiju from the franchise's long history. In the past I've always had a huge respect for Ultra's use of its legacy characters, both as a means of it keeping classic characters in the spotlight and maintaining an internal canon and consistency even amongst it's varying parallel universes. However in Ultraman R/B it all just feels superfluous, especially as the main form changes are all elemental based anyway. To keep resorting to featuring past Ultras in this way is just going to hold the series back – crossovers or vague story continuations (i.e. Ultraman Geed) are more than enough to keep the past in the present.


Though perhaps not quite as sharp as some of the other offerings from the past few years Ultraman R/B is another solid series that keeps up the high standard modern Ultraman has set itself. Like its predecessors R/B has a strong grasp on its core themes and concepts, conveying them through an excellent cast of characters and a format that mixes the traditional Ultraman setting enough to keep it interesting. Its only real downfall comes from the pattern Tsuburaya have set for themselves, but in a perfect world these shows wouldn't have to be so reliant on toy sales to get the recognition they deserve. What can be fixed however is the stale format of using past Ultras as power ups, and if it can be shed by the time the next instalment rolls around the franchise will be all the better for it.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Do you intend to watch Ginga to complete the New Generations Ultras ?

Alex said...

Absolutely! When I'll do it I couldn't tell you though...hopefully before the year is out!