Saturday, 20 June 2020

First Impressions: Ultraman Z

Ultraman Z

Is there no end to Ultraman's worldwide takeover? Not just content with a popular Netflix animated series based on an ongoing manga, reasonably-priced region-free Blu-Ray sets available in the West and a forthcoming Marvel Comics series, the latest series is available online to the masses! The next logical step from their release of Ultra Galaxy Fight: New Generation Heroes last year, Tsuburaya Productions have announced that Ultraman Z - the 32nd entry in the long-running Ultra Series, will be made available on their official YouTube channel with English subtitles. As well as the first series beyond the New Generation Heroes lineup (which ran from Ultraman Ginga to Ultraman Taiga), Ultraman Z celebrates the tenth anniversary of Ultraman Zero. Sadly the run up to its premiere has also been marred with tragedy, as it was recently announced that Kota Fukihara, one of its lead writers, had tragically passed away at the young age of 37. Whilst it isn't clear how much of the series had been written by Fukihara prior to his death, Tsuburaya have stated that their staff will "continue to strive to create an amazing final product for the series to which he gave all his spirit." So above all else, this one's for you Fukihara.

Haruki NatsukawaIntroducing Ultraman Z

On the planet Earth, the anti-monster robot unit STORAGE defend against kaiju attacks with their giant robot Sevenger. Meanwhile in space Ultraman Z, the self-proclaimed disciple of Ultraman Zero, grapples with the space monster Genegarg. When Zero is sucked away by a surprise attack, he presents Z with the Ultra Z Riser and Ultra Medals - instructing him to recover the other medals that Genegarg has swallowed.

After chasing him to Earth Ultraman Z teams up with Sevenger and STORAGE pilot Haruki Natsukawa to battle Genegarg, until an attack leaves the pair on the brink of death. After bonding together, Haruki is able to use the Ultra Z Riser and Medals to unlock new powers - transforming Ultraman Z into his Alpha Edge form!

Chant my name!Ultraman Z- Alpha Edge!

Given that Ultraman Z is an anniversary series one might expect this first episode to have a heavy focus on Ultraman Zero as well as our newest hero, but in fact "I Ask That You Chant My Name!" couldn't be further from it. Ultraman Zero barely features in the episode at all, and in typical Ultra Series fashion all the connections and callbacks are simply another layer on top of the episode for older fans to enjoy. Little things like Sevenger making his first appearance since Ultraman Leo, the Ultra of which Zero was originally a pupil of isn't required information, but knowing it does make everything feel that little bit more connected. It's something that the franchise has always managed to do particularly well in recent years - presenting each series as its own thing but with plenty of jumping off points to continue exploring other entries in further detail. It's a testament to how well Tsuburaya handle the Ultra universe despite as this point being a horrific web of parallel universes, as well as just how infectious Ultraman truly is.

But for all the enjoyment there is to be gotten out of this episode, at the same time it isn't anything fans won't have seen before. While it may have some unique moments to help make up its own identity, there's only so many times you can watch a human bond with an Ultra following a near-death experience and not recognise all the story beats. Haruki already shows great potential as another strong lead, and that isn't solely based on his introduction being him going out of his way to save a dog from a monster attack. His status as a rookie with a strong sense of justice makes him a good match for Ultraman Z, a wannabe hero who equally wants to prove himself to his senior. The little injections of humour into their exchanges, like the first use of the Ultra Z Riser for example, already show a good camaraderie between them that will inevitably grow as the series goes on. Given how all the marketing for the series presented Z as "the student of Ultraman Zero!" it was also a nice surprise to see Zero barely register him at first, let alone accept him as a pupil. Whilst the seemingly pompous Zero having a student might seem in character it actually feels more natural that he'd deny one, his attitude being more talk than anything else despite his ability. 

Yoko NakashimaShota and Yuka

On top of that there we also get a very brief introduction to the rest of the STORAGE team, with the series already raising some serious questions in the case of certain members. In addition to Haruki there's also Yoko, who we're first introduced to piloting Sevenger at the beginning of the episode. There's also lead scientist Yuka and captain Shota, the latter of whom is played by none other than Takaya Aoyagi aka Ultraman Orb's Jugglus Juggler. Now having Aoyagi secretly reprise his role as Juggler might be a bit too on the nose, but given his reaction to the appearance of Ultraman later in the episode (as well the suspicious figure seen at the end) there's definitely something going on here - and undoubtedly his casting was meant to put fans' heads in a spin. Also leaving the end of the episode with big red flags was Kaburagi's introduction - a hapless researcher who's rather horrifically taken over by an extraterrestrial host Alien style. There's quite a lot crammed into approximately 20 minutes, but its more than enough to get you to grips with the setting!

The real star of this episode though is of course Sevenger, the capsule monster that hasn't been seen since Leo all the way back in 1974. The robot is back with a much sturdier costume this time around, but as usual Tsuburaya have been wise enough to not mess around with the design too much and that adorable expressionate face is just the same as ever. The opening footage also reveals that Sevenger will also eventually be joined by Windom, the similarly robotic capsule monster from Ultraseven. I maintain that Capsule Monsters is a concept Ultraman still hasn't used to its full potential, so it's great to see these robots making a comeback even if it is outside the capsule gimmick. Sevenger in particular is a good choice because of the parallels it has to Ultraman in its limited operation time, which naturally the show plays up on in their team-up fight sequence. A giant robot also presents the supporting cast to have much more active role in the fights than vehicles would too, and though Haruki may have done the bulk of the piloting here that's not going to be the case now that he's housing Ultraman Z. With co-operative fights usually done by two Ultras, particularly in recent years, regularly having kaiju as backup is one of Z's most exciting elements. 

Versus GenegargSevenger and Ultraman Z

But to address the elephant in the room, after what was barely a hiatus at all Ultraman is back with another series featuring a fusion gimmick based on legacy powers - the third in only five years. The difference this time around though is that the changer merges three heroes this time around rather than two, featuring the new (but ultimately not all that different from Ultraman R/B) collectible of medals. To the show's credit it's clever how Alpha Smash is a combination of Ultraman Zero and the two Showa Ultras that had the biggest impact on him, but it doesn't stop the gimmick from feeling pretty uninspired. It's true that these shows can live and die by their toy lines and eventually all gimmicks repeat themselves, but surely they should have a longer life cycle than this? Tsuburaya's insistence to hold on to the franchise's legacy may be one of its greatest strengths, but in terms of originality it's also beginning to be one of their greatest weaknesses.

Finally, it wouldn't be an Ultraman review without commenting on just how good the series looks. Tsuburaya are constantly refining their craftsmanship, and over the years haven't just continued to improve their suit/miniature work but also experience with different lightning, moving scenery and CGI sequences. Ultraman Z just continues to build on this further, mixing tokusatsu traditions and physical props with CGI trickery for additional scaling and extravaganza. When Sevenger is sent out against the rampaging Gomess, it absolutely towers over the kaiju. When Z Alpha Edge faces off against Genegarg, it's a mix of impressive choreography and flashy beam attacks. It's a visual delight that's made all the stronger by a great soundtrack - spearheaded by an opening theme from JAM Project legend Masaaki Endoh. A vocal tour de force with credits spanning across anime, tokusatsu and more, "Goshōwa Kudasai Ware no Na o!" ("Chant my Name!") immediately pumps the viewer up for the episode to come.

The Ultra MedalsA new threat

It isn't any surprise to see yet another strong premiere episode with Ultraman Z, but one does have to question whether Tsuburaya are perhaps getting a bit too complacent with the state of things right now. The franchise really found its groove with the New Generation Heroes series, so while there's an element of "if it ain't broke don't fix it" the repeated use of similar gimmicks and a hesitation to truly break the mould will hold it back sooner or later. At the very least, the show being more widely available than ever before bodes well for the show so keeping up the high quality of the last few years may be all it needs to do. Either way, I'm very much up for more of the Sevenger show featuring Ultraman Z.

2 comments:

M said...

I am 99% certain that Takaya Aoyagi will be Jugglus Juggler

Stephen Cassat said...

I honestly like the medal combinations used to symbolize relationships between each Ultra. Out of Z three forms, Beta Smash has got to be mine. Alex, what's yours.