Monday 11 July 2016

First Impressions: Ultraman Orb

Ultraman Orb

2016 is a pretty big year for tokusatsu anniversaries. Kamen Rider turned 45, Super Sentai hit the big 40 (though technically last year, the celebration comes with the 40th series) and GARO is also celebrating 10 years on the scene. But there's one anniversary this year that's even bigger, as July 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of Ultraman - arguably Japan's leading toku hero. Of course such a milestone can't go by without a party, so Tsuburaya Productions are celebrating with Ultraman Orb, the latest Ultra Series instalment. Western fans will also be pleased to hear that Crunchyroll are simulcasting the series with English subtitles, expanding their rather impressive Ultraman back catalogue all the more. With the site expressing a further interest in toku AND plans to move into the home video business, things could get very interesting in the future should these simulcasts continue to be a success.

When a giant bird is spotted along with a tornado that suddenly hits Tokyo, the Something Search Party (consisting of members Naomi Yumeno, Jetta Hayami and Shin Matsudo) sets out to investigate and study the creature. However it isn't long before the SSP find themselves caught up in the tornado and under attack from the monster. They are saved by the appearance of another giant - the being of light, Ultraman Orb. Orb reveals his identity as Gai Kurenai - a man who transforms by combining cards of previous Ultras Ultraman and Ultraman Tiga in a device known as the Orb Ring.

Being a big anniversary series the obvious route may seem to simply mirror the original in tribute, but given that last year's Ultraman X followed the traditional Ultra setting route (established Science Organisation, Ultra's human partner within said Organisation) it's nice to see Orb mixing things up a bit. Here the Something Search Party (a name which is both wonderfully brilliant and incredibly half-assed all at once) is more akin to a crackpot group of bloggers rather than a group that commands any decent amount of respect. This instantly paints them as a rather fun and eccentric bunch, and the smaller size also provides a better introduction and hopefully bodes well for better development ongoing. Gai himself is also shaping up well to be a rather interesting lead, with his quirky alien-like mannerisms clearly masking a rather emotional backstory. 

However it isn't until the action hits that Ultraman Orb really hits its stride, proving that when it comes to effects and visuals Tsuburaya and the Ultra Series are still the cream of the crop. This doesn't just apply to the wonderfully detailed miniatures or great costume design either - Orb also shows off some pretty fantastic camera work during it's tornado-based sequences. While modern Ultra shows may only last half the length of your average Super Sentai or Kamen Rider series, you can tell just how much effort and attention goes into making every action scene count. Ultraman Orb himself is also a really nice spin on the "transformation item turns lead into past heroes" gimmick, combining two existing heroes into one new one. Cards are still the go-to collectible, but as a gimmick is feels less intrusive that Spark Dolls and ultimately didn't have a whole lot of focus placed on them. 

Last year Ultraman X set about proving that Ultraman is still the undisputed king of tokusatsu heroes and now Ultraman Orb looks to continue that while Tsuburaya celebrates this landmark anniversary in style. This first episode combines the Ultra Series' usual high quality craftsmanship with a new cast of memorable characters, repurposing toku's usual go-to gimmick for anniversary series in a new and interesting way. Not only should this series please existing Ultra fans, but once again Crunchyroll's great dedication to making it easily accessible to Westerners makes it another perfect opportunity for newcomers to dive into the vast world of Ultraman. One episode is all you'll need to see how this franchise has stood the test of time to reach such an incredible milestone.

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