Tuesday 14 July 2015

First Impressions: Ultraman X

Ultraman X

These days when people think of iconic Japanese superheroes their minds probably immediately go to Kamen Rider or Super Sentai, but there's one hero that definitely stands above them in terms of legend status - Ultraman. Starting way back with Ultra Q way back in 1966, Tsuburaya Production's Ultra Series has spawned a whole host of intergalactic silver-faced heroes. However some might argue the franchise doesn't quite have the pulling power that it used to. Individual series have been getting shorter and less regular, with Ultraman Ginga feeling like little more than a blip despite being the 50th anniversary celebration of Tsuburuya. Even on a more personal note my relationship with Ultraman isn't quite as familiar as I'd like - having only finished Nexus and only getting about two thirds of the way through Ginga before losing steam with it.

However Japan's legendary hero is back again in the form of Ultraman X, and this time a global takeover seems more likely than ever. With anime streaming site Crunchyroll already doing a massive service to toku fans worldwide by streaming classic Ultra shows Max, Mebius, 80 and Leo, they've also gone and announced that they will also be simulcasting this latest entry into the franchise on a worldwide scale (though sadly not in Asia).

15 years ago a solar flare awakened mysterious Spark Doll artefacts to transform into giant monsters, rampaging and causing terror across the globe. In retaliation, the organisation Xio was formed as a means to combat this new threat. Among its ranks is 20 year old Daichi Ozora, a research and development officer is miraculously saved when facing certain death during a monster rampage. Bonding with a strange being, Daichi becomes Ultraman X - the planet Earth's newest protector!

As far as introductions go this was a pretty straightforward opener for Ultraman X, and what I gather a pretty typical setting for the franchise in general. Giant monster threat, Earth defending science force, protagonist bonding with the Ultra etc. - I guess if it isn't broken there's no need to fix it. There isn't a whole lot to say about the characters yet either - Daichi clearly shows a bit of a sympathetic side towards the monsters (buddying up with his Gomora Spark Doll), making him the obvious candidate to become Ultraman X. The rest of Xio all just seem to fit bill of a science team - whether they're barking orders or kicking butt. As is the case with any first episode of this kind of show, the aim is going to be to look as flashy as possible - there'll be plenty of time for character development later down the line.

But in terms of action, this episode certainly delivered. There's just something magical about the tokusatsu medium - seeing all those miniatures and physical props exploding and getting stomped on by suit actors. Ultraman has always been a place where the craft of toku can be really appreciated, and this was full of great shots of the surrounding to accompany the fight sequences. Even if the story doesn't quite deliver, I feel that the visuals will always be something X has going for it.

Making a rather surprising return is are the Spark Dolls, a gimmick previously seen in both Ultraman Ginga and its sequel series Ginga S. To put it in the bluntest way possible, Spark Dolls are a rather blatant way of getting the Ultraman sofubi/vinyl toys into the show. While it kinda worked in Ultraman Ginga thanks to it being an anniversary series (making it a great tribute to the incredibly popular toys) and a little more tongue in cheek than the usual Ultraman format. Here I'm a little more skeptical of just how well it's going to work - I have no real complaints about it in the context of this episode (even if it did look like Daichi was carrying his favourite toy around with him everywhere), but there's a fine line currently separating it from product placement madness. It'll be interesting to see if the show can find a good way for them to work not only as a visual prop, but in terms of the story as well.

The Ultra Series is good ol' fashioned tokusatsu at its finest, and it looks like Ultraman X will be carrying on that long and proud tradition. Giant rubber suited monsters, physical props and a gloriously retro sci-fi story, X is already shaping up to be a hell of a lot of fun. With the show being so readily available thanks to Crunchyroll, there really is no excuse for toku fans not to check this out for themselves or for those curious to give it a look on. Between Crunchyroll streaming Ultraman and Shout Factory licensing Super Sentai releases in the US, it's a pretty great time to be a Western tokusatsu fan.


Max said...

Dude, you REALLY need to see more Ultraman, particularly the older stuff. The original show can be purchased for under $10...

Alex said...

I know I do :( with the original being so cheap and so much of it on Crunchyroll I really don't have any excuse, but it's just a case of finding the time. I was hoping to get through the Heisei Kamen Rider shows faster than I am, but I definitely plan to turn to Ultraman more in the near future.

Max said...

You're in for a great time. RETURN OF ULTRAMAN is probably the best of the bunch, even if the last dozen or so leave a lot to be desired.