Wednesday 4 January 2017

Series REVIEW: Ultraman Orb

Ultraman Orb

2016 inexplicably marked big anniversaries for all of Japan’s still-airing tokusatsu hero franchises, but undoubtedly the most monumental of all was Ultraman’s. Last year the silver giant of light turned 50 years old, and with the franchise having gained new footing in the past few years Tsuburaya Productions did plenty to celebrate. Ultraman X kicked things off in 2015, leading into a movie which also featured appearances from both the original Ultraman and Ultraman Tiga. However the main event was Ultraman Orb – a brand new anniversary series which once again saw worldwide distribution via Crunchyroll simulcasting. Although this main series only ran for a total of 25 episodes, it’s been immediately followed up with an Amazon Prime-exclusive prequel series as well as a movie due for release later in the year.

Gai Kurenai
*Insert harmonica theme here*

As a child, Naomi Yumeno had a dream of a strange warrior of light fighting against a monster. This dream led to pursue the strange, extraterrestrial and paranormal – forming the SSP (Something Search People) with her friends Jetta Hayami and Shin Matsudo. One day while investigating a giant monster attack, Naomi is saved by Ultraman Orb – a warrior of light who fights using the powers of his Ultra Hero predecessors. Shortly afterward the SSP then befriend wanderer Gai Kurenai, the man behind Orb, none the wiser to his heroic alter-ego.

Together with the SSP, Gai/Orb fights to prevent the resurrection of the Demon King Beasts who were sealed away long ago by veteran Ultra Warriors. Pulling away at those seams is the enigmatic Jugglus Juggler – a man from Gai’s past who wields the Dark Ring to counteract Orb’s light.

The best when it comes to monsters. Names not so much.

With Ultraman X securing a revived worldwide audience as well as establishing the Ultra Series as a force to be reckoned with, it was exciting to see what direction Orb would go in to celebrate the 50th anniversary. Not only did Ultraman X adopt the classic “Science Patrol” format that dates all the way back to the original series, but included another traditionally anniversary element by including cameos from the wider franchise. So instead Ultraman Orb takes a very different approach – providing a standalone series with a greater emphasis on serialised storytelling with a smaller and more developed cast. Even though Orb’s powers are derived from previous Ultras, the links start and stop there – making Ultraman Orb just as enjoyable to newcomers as it is to veteran fans. The result is a series that feels very different to X, but has the same spirit, energy and reverence for the wider Ultra franchise.

It all starts with the hero. Whereas Ultraman X followed the more traditional route of having its protagonist merge with the Ultra Warrior, here for all intensive purposes Gai IS Ultraman Orb. It isn’t quite as simple as that and more information will surely be divulged in Ultraman Orb: The Origin Saga, but here there doesn’t feel any disconnect between Gai as a person and Ultraman as a hero. While this takes the strong unity element many Ultra shows share it replaces it with a far more personal edge, further reinforced with Gai’s great characterisation as a whole. With his leather jacket, cowboy hat and harmonica entrance theme, Gai Kurenai feels like a classic hero in a modern setting. He displays and embodies everything you’d want in a traditional protagonist, together with the character development that sets modern toku shows apart from the classic ones.

Jugglus Juggler
Bad guys get the best suits

But often a hero is only as good as their villain, and in Jugglus Juggler Gai has his perfect match. Takaya Aoyagi oozes charisma as he plays an unpredictable agent of chaos mirroring Gai’s devotion to the light with his own brand of darkness. Although their back story is yet to be fully fleshed out in Origin Saga, their exchanges alone are enough for the viewer to buy into the fact that Gai and Jugglus share a rich and troubled history. This is a trend that feels prevalent through the whole of Ultraman Orb – that it’s part of a bigger story but at no point do you really feel like you’re missing an integral part of it. Jugglus’ motivations and development throughout the series are just an engaging (if not moreso) than Gai’s, as he causes death and destruction on a global scale with the sole goal of breaking Gai down. The relationship between these two characters is at the very core of this show, and the prospect of seeing how it all went south in Origin Saga is a very exciting one indeed.

In the place of the usual hi-tech organisation are the SSP, who are only one consonant away from Ultraman’s own Science Special Search Party. Their position as a crackpot group of bloggers immediately gives them their own distinct personality, as well as allowing them to be both essential to the plot and a healthy dose of comic relief when needed. Naomi especially earns her place as the female lead, going from what could easily be perceived as a mildly-irritating support character in the early episodes to a strong moral compass point for both Gai and the show as a whole. Ultraman Orb isn’t completely without its proper science team though, as the VTL (Versatile Tactical Leader) operate in the background assisting Orb and cleaning up any alien/monster attacks. Their main link to series is only through Naomi’s uncle and supporting character Ittesu Shibukawa, with most of their wider operations being either implied or quickly referenced. It’s in-keeping with the mantra that Ultra Series Earth is actually prepared for the regular rampages it receives, but this approach helps demonstrate how Orb feels far more about the little people than a lot of the other instalments there have been over the years.

Ultraman Orb Thunder Breaster
That escalated quickly

As usual Tsuburaya’s visual effects are on top form, pushing the envelope when it comes to miniature set design, pyrotechnics and physical stunt work. Orb continues to enjoy Ultraman’s rich heritage of classic creatures, with appearances from monsters/aliens both old and new. Old foes are brought back in exciting ways, from the ridiculous retro Space Mafia to the hilariously edgy (but unequivocally cool) reimagining of Zetton as “Hyper Zetton Deathscythe”. Special commendation also goes to the forms of Orb himself, which wonderfully blend the distinct traits of two different Ultramen while keeping Orb’s visual trademark of a circular colour timer. Each form clearly has its own purpose and arguably all get their time in the spotlight – acting as more than just a shameless toy advertisement. Thunder Breaster, combining Zoffy and Belial, is a particular highlight not just for the way it merges darkness and light into a ferocious form but also the relevance this has in some of Orb’s strongest episodes.

Even when Orb regains access to his original form in the show’s latter half (making a wonderful twist on the usual way “final form” power-ups work), the combos aren’t completely forgotten about and still see use from time to time. However this arrival also marks the one time Orb’s toy-shilling becomes a little more blatant, with lengthy displays of the Orb Calibur’s gimmicks and sound effects sometimes overstaying their welcome during action scenes. But as a partially merchandise-driven show Orb could have done a whole lot more, so one lapse in what’s otherwise an extremely tight story is entirely forgivable.

Orb with the veteran Ultra Warriors
By your powers combined!

Immediately after winning a new legion of fans with Ultraman X, Tsuburaya has gone and done it again. On top of boasting the same level of technical quality that makes the Ultra Series just so spectacular to watch, Ultraman Orb pushes its narrative even further to create a story and characters that manages to surpass its predecessor. Providing suspense, drama, laughter and most importantly good old fashioned kaiju wrestling, Ultraman Orb is both the perfect anniversary celebration and gateway to new fans coming in from across the globe. Forget Kamen Rider and Super Sentai, Ultraman is once again the tokusatsu hero you should be keeping your eye on.


TF RyuShin said...

I really love your review. Once again, Ultraman is another thing again in recent Tokusatsu heroes. It's a great opportunity for the Ultra series to shine, especially since Kamen Rider and Super Sentai aren't in their best time lately, as per Ghost and Ninninger. I agree that Orbcalibur's gimmick was getting in the way in the fight or the fact that Origin was so overused later. But, it's justified since the very tight story with episode slots here and there. Believe me too, when we try to complain about Origin and Orbcalibur, most of the time we are silenced by its cool bgm. In anyway, if you want to check out other Ultra series, I bet that you should choose Tiga and Gaia. Those two Ultra series has some great stories to boot and I'm sure it's at X's level at least, especially Gaia.

Alex said...

Once I've finished the three Heisei Rider shows I've got left to watch I'm hoping to properly dive in Ultraman, so those two will definitely be on the cards. Tiga especially since the X movie got me interesting. Gonna be checking out Ultra Q soon though, and then Ultraseven will probably follow. Appreciate any recommendations though! Max is another one I've heard good things about.

Anonymous said...

If you want to review The Origin Saga, here's a list no to some fansubs:

Stephen Cassat said...

I love Ultraman Orb. Gai Kurenai transformation phrases may sound redundant, but Hideo Ishiguro makes them sound so cool it doesn't even matter. Out of all the fusions, Lightning Attacker is my favorite. Ultraman Orb's concept of a wanderer is a genius move and honestly makes this a very wholesome watch.