Friday 3 April 2020

Series REVIEW: Ultraman Taiga

Ultraman Taiga

The Ultra Series has been on an upwards swing for some time now, but 2019 truly was the year that Ultraman made its bid for world domination. Finally emerging triumphant in their long-running legal battle with Chaiyo, Tsuburaya Productions wasted no time in establishing the franchise on a global platform - both through fully-subtitled Blu-Ray releases of the show's back catalogue and partnerships with leading brands such as Marvel Comics. But back in Japan business also continued as usual, with the seventh entry in their New Generation Hero lineup arriving in the form of Ultraman Taiga. The 31st Ultra series overall and first to premier in the Reiwa era, though much like previous series Ultraman R/B Taiga was not simulcast worldwide the speed of Mill Creek's current home video releases suggests that it won't be long before the son of Ultraman Taro is legally available to a wider audience.

Hiroyuki KudoBuddy, Go!

Overwhelmed in battle against Ultraman Tregear, the New Generation Ultras are joined by the Tri-Squad - the newest team of Ultra Warriors consisting of Ultraman Taiga, Ultraman Titas and Ultraman Fuma. However even their help wasn't enough to turn the tide against Tregear, with the Tri-Squad seemingly killed in the fight and their light spread out across the cosmos.

12 years later on the planet Earth, Hiroyuki Kudo works as part of E.G.I.S. (Enterprise of Guard and Investigation Services) - a private security organisation which often deals in alien-related cases. During a monster attack in which the creature's baby is threatened, Hiroyuki's resolve is recognised by Taiga - who bonds with the human and reclaims a physical form. As their battles continue Taiga's comrades also find their way to Earth, also bonding with Hiroyuki and granting him the power to switch between them. However Tregear has also found his way to Earth, hatching plan to corrupt the son of Taro and turn him away from the light.

The Tri-Squad reformed!Ultraman Tregear

Ultraman's firm but at the same time tenuous grasp on continuity has always been one of its strengths. Each series has built on the last to create a wealth of continuity at this point, but at the same time each one has an element of reset to it. There are of course fans out there that'll have complex charts detailing each and every dimension out there and which Ultras visited which Earth, but for the for the most part it never truly matters. The legacy lies in the characters rather than the setting, and even then it's never enough to become too overwhelming for newcomers. Much like how Ultraman Geed gave viewers the basics on Zero and Belial going in to the series, Taiga's status as Taro's son is symbolic above all else. Taro's previous exploits aren't what's important - it's his status as a legendary hero and there's enough here to convey that perfectly. These are the elements that make Ultra continuity so perfect - the shows have extra meaning for longtime fans but it never puts new viewers out, and instead if anything only encourages them to dive further into the franchise - especially with certain episodes specifically being homages to classic moments in Ultra history.

It's been some years since Ultraman returned to the classic template of having the lead character bond with an Ultra Hero, and Taiga brings it back to the forefront in style with the brand new twist of having three Ultras within the same body. Though it may seem like a large number of characters to include in such a small headspace, the series handles it surprisingly well. Given the show's title Taiga is naturally the one at the forefront receiving the majority of growth and development, but it never feels like the Tri-Squad aren't a team and that Taiga could easily do it all on his own. Backstory is available for those who want it through a series of audio dramas that expand on the three Ultras and how they met, but the series itself mostly forgoes that to comfortably set out the trio in the now. Each one brings something different to the table, but they're all united by the youthful energy they all give off. Though it's mainly Taiga that's presented as the young one, all three of them are suitably ridiculous and fun in their own ways - whether its Titas' constant muscle flexing and exercising or Fuma's cool guy mannerisms and stock ninja moves. Whereas previous Ultraman stories that dealt with partnerships between human and Ultra largely present the silver giants from a position of authority, here all of the lead characters are learning about the importance of the bonds we all share. This important distinction is what makes the show so energetic even through its more serious moments, as well as making all the real-life lessons it has hit all the harder.

The Sage of Strength, Ultraman TitasUltraman Fuma

This year's human cast comes in the form of EGIS, with their private security status proving a nice in-between the more sophisticated organisations of classic Ultraman and the civilian groups of the more recent series. It gives the cast a position of authority and a good starting point for stories to build upon, but the cast remains relatively small so that each of them receive a decent amount of focus. Hiroyuki is the perfect partner to Taiga, sporting the same fiery passion and eagerness to do the right thing but also that same naivety that'll inevitably get them into trouble. Fighting alongside him is Homare Soya, a hot-blooded tough guy with a heart of gold and troubled past. This past is wonderfully explored over the course of his focus episodes, culminating in a beautifully poignant moment where not only does he feel his comrades accept him for who he really is, but he does as well. Leading the team is Kana, whose previous experience working in External Affairs Division X has resulted in her own traumas and demons to face. Finally there's the bubbly Pirika, who might not seem as fleshed out as the other three but ends up playing a huge role during the show's endgame. Their bonds are equally as important as the ones between Hiroyuki and the Ultras, and its their faith in each other that the brash young hero could learn a lot from.

Heroes are nothing without a good villain to face off against though, and much like how Zero found an eternal rival in Belial it's against Taiga that Ultraman Tregear truly makes his mark. After feeling largely undefined in his Ultraman R/B the Movie debut, a full-length series is exactly what the newest evil Ultraman needed to show just how much he stands out from the rest. Late into the series he remarks that the jigsaw puzzle is Earth's most ingenious creation, taking scattered pieces to create one larger image. This couldn't be a more perfect summation of Tregear's brand of meticulous chaos. Every little move he makes over the course of the series is just part of one bigger scheme to turn Taiga to despair, from secretly manipulating characters behind the scenes to abhorrently murdering innocent kaiju right in front of those they were important to. All these moves are shocking in their own right, but show little signs of being simply puzzle pieces until the whole picture is laid out. Even with his origins still undefined within the show itself Tregear proves to be a thoroughly captivating villain - revelling in his deeds yet showing hints that there's more than meets to eye to his complete dismissal of light and dark. Though all of this actions are carefully planned he remains both unhinged and unpredictable, largely thanks to the brilliant performance of Koh Nanase as his human guise Kirisaki.

The EGIS TeamKirisaki

The puzzle piece metaphor also does a good job of describing Ultraman Taiga as a series, with strands of the main plot carried through a number of episodic stories which either serve to develop the cast or introduce threads that prove to be important later on. Some of these stories have deeper meaning, while others are a bit more light-hearted. Prior to this it's hard to imagine an episodes featuring Belial in any capacity to be anything other than series, but Taiga is able to spin it into a story about a group of disgruntled aliens making their own version of the demonic Ultra in a bid to take out both the Tri-Squad and Tregear. Ultraman has never shied from being ridiculous and fun, but  again Taiga does it with a youthful energy that fits the characters perfectly. That said, when the show wants to get serious it's more than capable of that as well. Taiga is very heavy on the core Ultraman themes of how its the bonds we share that allow the light to truly triumph over darkness, but it also has a lot to say about immigration and tolerance for others as well. The fear and rejection of aliens integrating into human society doesn't just play heavily into Homare's storyline but also the series as a whole, with Tregear preying upon these hostilities. Ultraman's life lessons have always been ones that can be carried into reality but this is one that feels especially relevant in today's climate.

On the technical side of things Tsuburaya Productions continue to show off an almost unparalleled craftsmanship, with painstaking detail put into both the sets and costumes. If each New Generation Hero series has highlighted a different aspect of Tsuburaya's skillset so far then for Taiga it would definitely be the sheer scale of their operation. Fights take place in sweeping cityscapes that look almost lifelike, complete with working lights and moving vehicles. The show also makes great use of lowdown cameras and filming through the sections of the model work to give a real sense of scale to how giant these characters are supposed to be. There's so much to take in with each sequence that pausing the episode just to appreciate all of the details should be considered a necessity, and all the more so when you remember that the set designers build these incredible pieces only to have most of it crushed to pieces minutes later.

Zetton vs TaigaWoola

Similarly the costume work is just as sharp as ever, with each of the four Ultramen visually distinct from each other and featuring their own unique design traits. The gimmick of having three Ultras inhabiting one body also places a much smaller emphasis on alternate forms than some of the more recent shows, with Taiga only receiving two upgrades over the course of the show rather than the four or five others have opted for. This doesn't make the fights any less interesting though, as the ability to switch between characters brings vastly different personalities and choreographies on top of simply just a visual switch-up. And though the franchise is still insistent on giving the current hero(es) gimmicks and abilities based on their predecessors, in Taiga this has been downplayed in a far simpler and less merchandise-aggressive way. At the start of the series the Tri-Squad are presented with bracelets for each of the New Generation Heroes, which when called upon allow them to channel their powers into a final attack. The toyetic aspect may still be there, but the implementation is considerably more natural and doesn't take away from what the Tri-Squad are able to do by their own power either. The same can also be said of the weapons later introduced with Taiga's upgrade forms, which have a fair element of "toy demonstration" to them but are able to wrap that around visuals enforcing the show's core themes of the bonds shared between friends and comrades.

Monster and alien representation is as great as ever, with Taiga including a healthy mix of both classic creatures from Ultra history as well as brand new ones that can hopefully forge their own legacy the same way Galactron has since Ultraman Orb. It's amazing that despite how more simplistic some of the older designs are that they are still just as striking decades later, as well as how well they gel with some of the newer creatures when placed in the same scene. Creatures like Gorothunder and Woola also show how Tsuburaya haven't lost that old school charm with their newer designs ether, as both would fit just as well in a classic Ultra series as they do here.

The ultimate poseUltraman Taiga Tristrium

While Ultraman Taiga may not completely reinvent the wheel in terms of what it means to be Ultraman, it's still able to take its long-standing themes of bonds, hope and tolerance and put its own spin on them with a youthful but reverent energy. At this stage Tsuburaya have truly mastered the format of the New Generation Hero shows, telling a clear and concise story in 26 episodes that not only provides ample development for its cast but also has time to dip into the weird and wonderful side of the franchise. For the past few years Ultraman has produced hit after hit and Taiga is no exception - building on the strengths of its predecessors whilst also seeking to improve on some of its shortcomings. Between this and everything else Tsuburaya are doing, the future of Ultraman has never been brighter.


M said...

Do you what is more exiciting than watching the show itself? Reading your review of it! Everytime I finish a show I can't wait to read your review.

Ang Peng How said...

So you have finally make a review of the first Reiwa-era Ultra series. Why don't you make a review of the first Heisei-era Ultra series, Ultraman Tiga and the first of the New Generation Ultra Series, Ultraman Ginga (as well as its sequel, Ultraman Ginga S)?

Anonymous said...

I like how taiga is having that showa-era ultraman vibe to it, maybe because i like showa ultra lol. Also, definitely agreeing that taiga is a must watch show.

Stephen Cassat said...

I loved the dynamic of the Tri-Squad. I loved Taiga's cockiness, Fuma's flamboyance, and Titas' flexing. Tragear was a great villain. The story was just as good as ever. Taiga is certainly the Hero of Light.

Kepin_151 said...

Will you review taiga movie?

Alex said...

I will look to see if there are good subs out for it!

Kepin_151 said...

This is the link for english sub

Anonymous said...

Are you gonna do New Generation Climax?

Alex said...

The demand for a New Generation Climax review is clearly high!

I finally managed to watch it over the weekend so yeah, review later this week :)