Tuesday 5 January 2021

Series REVIEW: Ultraman Z

Ultraman Z

Tsuburaya Productions have been leading the way when it comes to releasing tokusatsu worldwide for some time now, but their release of Ultraman Z in 2020 made Ultraman more accessible than it’s ever been before. Whereas previous series had been simulcast via Crunchyroll, the 32nd entry in the Ultra Series was released directly to Tsuburaya’s own YouTube channel - with each episode appearing moments after airing in Japan and remaining available for a period of two weeks. Okay so the time limit might not be ideal, but at the rate Mill Creek have been pumping out the Blu-Ray releases that can’t be far away either. Ultraman Z is the eighth entry into the New Generation Hero lineup, as well as celebrating the 10th anniversary of Ultraman Zero.

Haruki NatsukawaUltraman Z, Alpha Edge!

When newly created Ultra Medals are swallowed by the ferocious space shark Genegarg, Ultraman Zero gives chase - with his self-proclaimed disciple Ultraman Z in tow. Before a surprise attack from Bullton sees Zero sucked into a black hole, Zero presents Z with his own Ultra Medals and Z Riser before asking him to carry out his mission. Z arrives on an Earth protected by the Anti-Monster Robot Unit STORAGE, a division of Global Allied Forces Japan that fights back against kaiju attacks with its specially made combat robot Sevenger. 

Whilst Ultraman Z teams up with Sevenger against Genegarg, both its pilot Haruki Natsukawa and Z are caught in a near-death experience. To save their lives Z bonds the pair, giving them the ability to fight using the combined powers of the Ultra Medals. From then on Haruki continues to fight as Ultraman Z, balancing this new life with his STORAGE duties. As the battles get tougher and STORAGE’s technology continues to grow, an evil alien’s plan is finally coming to fruition.

 (Ultra)man and MachineCelebros

With Ultraman becoming now available worldwide more than ever, naturally a lot of newcomers are coming to the franchise and asking where a good starting point is. Many of the New Generation Hero series have been cleverly built to welcome in newcomers whilst not deterring them with their vast continuity links, but the ease of Ultraman Z being on YouTube and the hype surrounding its weekly release made it an ideal jumping on point. Though the distribution method may have changed, the construction of the series has not and Z remains approachable yet entrenched in Ultraman history. With strong links to Ultraman Zero as well as Geed and Orb there are plenty of lines to be drawn, and from the beginning these links can feel especially daunting to newcomers. However for the most part Z is careful to ensure anything important about these connections is spelled out clearly for those who haven’t seen them yet. Many of these callbacks simply work as context that eventually allows Z to stand on its own two feet, whilst others can work as primers to encourage viewers to go back and experience these older shows. Tsuburaya were particularly clever when it came to this strategy, releasing choice episodes of previous series on their YouTube channel when they had a specific link to what was going on in Z. Of course that doesn’t stop the show from digging much deeper when it wants to either, with episode 18 being the perfect example of this. Newcomers don’t lose out on anything not knowing that it’s a spiritual sequel to a 54-year-old Ultra Q episode, but the fact that it is both excites older fans and shows a particular reverence for its history. Put simply Ultraman Z might be your first Ultraman series, but it tries its damn hardest to make sure it won’t be your last. 

Once again the story opts for the more traditional route of an Ultraman and host, with their relationship being central to the story. The promotional material for the series arguably made Z’s status as Zero’s “student” more of a thing than it actually is in the series, with their relationship explored more over in voice drama vignettes (also released weekly on YouTube, though without subtitles). Elements of Zero’s boisterous personality can certainly be seen in Z, such as his insistence to “chant his name” during transformation, but if anything the series feels more about what Z is able to achieve without his master’s guidance. Though he might seem young and impetuous Z actually proves himself wise and insightful like previous Ultras, resulting in an interesting dynamic with Haruki. Haruki isn’t STORAGE’s greatest pilot, but his never-give-up attitude and strong sense of justice make him an asset to the team. Haruki’s journey fighting alongside Ultraman Z also brings him to question the difference between protecting lives and simply killing any oncoming threat - something that each episode chips away at slowly before it eventually reaches a tipping point. The rather brutal and unwarranted murder of Gomora in the third episode doesn’t feel quite right at the time, but is a crucial moment in moving toward this conflict. The fact it isn’t just a “one and done” subject is a particular highlight too, as even when Haruki and Z are able to properly reconcile it continues to linger over future battles.

Z and HarukiYoko Nakashima

The relationship between these two lead characters may be a highlight of the series, but at the same time unfortunately it’s also one of the very things holding it back. An Ultraman far outclassing everything that series’ science patrol/military organisation is able to throw at monsters and aliens is nothing new, what’s different about STORAGE in what they’re armed with. STORAGE’s unique trait amongst the various science teams there’s been over the years is their ability to fully engage in the giant monster battles alongside Ultraman, thanks to their arsenal of robots. When we’re first introduced to them they only have the lovable Sevenger on hand, but as the story progresses and opponents become stronger they eventually add both Windom and a modified King Joe to their ranks. Each robot is given a strong debut episode to show off what they can do, but are quickly rendered ineffective in any battle following that. From a story perspective that’s actually turns out to be the whole point, but from a character perspective it means the supporting cast are immediately limited. The finale might deliver a glorious robot battle where Z fights side by side with STORAGE, but the show could have really stood out of it had done that regularly. Especially since the robots actually tend to steal the show visually just as much (if not more so) than Z himself. 

But ultimately it is the supporting cast that focus takes away from. For example Yoko is introduced to the audience as STORAGE’s ace pilot, but in action we rarely see the robots succeed so her abilities don’t feel properly measured (it also doesn’t help that Haruki is sent out alone a lot of the time either). Yoko’s a great character, but definitely had a lot more to offer than a half-baked romance, some weird quirks about marriage and needing rescuing in the final battle. In comparison she feels much less realised than Yuka or Kojiro (Bako-san), the scientist/mechanic duo responsible for STORAGE’s robots. Despite arguably being less at the forefront than Yoko, these two have some great moments over the course of their series and constantly prove to be an asset to both Haruki and STORAGE as a whole. STORAGE work so well because they regularly feel more like a family than an organisation, a notion that’s reinforced by scenes of them celebrating their victories together. This sense of camaraderie makes their particular story thread in the finale that much stronger, arguably exceeding that of Haruki and Z. So even though perhaps more could have been done with these characters on an individual basis, together they prove extremely memorable.

Bako and YukaJugglus Juggler

For many though the more interesting addition to the team here though is Captain Shota Hebikura, better known by his true identity of Jugglus Juggler. Immediately from Takaya Aogi’s casting in the show Ultraman fans were suspicious that he would be returning as Ultraman Orb’s friend turned rival, but to their credit Tsuburaya remained tight-lipped about it until his grand reveal in the series itself. With Juggler slowly walking the path of redemption in his own way, placing him at the head of a science team was an interesting choice and Z plays it off in particularly enjoyable fashion. Juggler is caught somewhere between being the snide demon he used to be and some sort of proud father, trying to lay his plans as cooly as possible but showing a deep care and devotion toward his teammates. He might claim to have been in it for himself, but his actions here constantly show the opposite. This is one aspect to Ultraman Z where prior series knowledge really comes in handy, as although Juggler can be enjoyed here without seeing Orb it's only with that past knowledge do you appreciate his actions. 

In typical modern Ultraman fashion the series generally features one-off stories that all contribute toward something bigger. In Z’s case its villain Celebro is one that’s quietly been working in the background, orchestrating the show’s various conflicts before eventually making their move. But although perhaps better plotted out that previous finales, Celebro’s endgame quickly shoots itself in the foot by moving away from many of the elements that made it so interesting in the first place. Instead of the clever parallels we’d get from Z fighting off against a man-made weapon of destruction in the form of his own master, Celebro instead just turns into another fusion monster - something that’s already been done plenty of times before. That said - one could easily argue that one of Ultraman’s main strengths is that it doesn’t necessarily need a big main villain because the episodic stories are so strong, and that certainly isn’t any different for Z

Visually Tsuburaya Productions continue to bring their A-game to the franchise, with Ultraman Z again showing off what sets them apart when it comes to miniature work. The scale and detailing of these sets is incredible, each featuring tiny little lights and working parts that truly bring them to life. Even in the midst of the battles, these details are constantly being showcased and/or highlighted. The size of these cityscapes has become so vast, that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell when Tsuburaya are integrating it with CGI/camera trickery to expand them or actually building the whole thing. With each passing series they seem to debut some new technique or effect, some of which are more subtle than others but continue to add to their already impressive repertoire. Among Z’s highlights are Bullton’s rampage, as the monster’s reality-warping abilities sees buildings fly into the air and even miniatures within miniatures spiral into chaos.

Ultraman Z, Delta Rise Claw!Ultramen Geed, Zero and Z

This same level of quality can also be said about the show’s design and costume work, even if it feels all too familiar. It’s only been three years since Ultraman Geed, however the franchise is back with its third Ultraman in the New Generation Hero roster that uses fusion powers. The gimmicks might be different, but the end result is the still the same. Given the strong ties to both Orb and Geed this series has you could argue it's somewhat fitting, but there’s definitely a fear that Ultraman is beginning to box itself in reusing the same gimmicks over and over with so little time between them. I will never stop admiring Ultraman’s continued dedication to its past, but these gimmicks quickly stop being special when they’re all the same. That said the combinations and suit designs in Ultraman Z are particularly clever, paying homage to very specific corners of the Ultra franchise with little crossover between them all. The 90s get some much-needed love with the mystical Tiga/Dyna/Gaia fusion Gamma Future, whilst the Ultraman, Ace and Taro medals combine into a brutal wrestler with more than a passing resemblance to 1972 kaiju murderer Redman. Z’s final form Delta Rise Claw is a full tribute to Ultraman Geed, combining the key forms of that series along with resurrecting Belial into a talking sword with a bad attitude and the desire to cut anything in its path. Even Geed gets in on the action with a brand new form, combining the medals of his New Generation predecessors. 

But as previously mentioned, while the Ultraman suits may continue to impress it’s arguably the STORAGE robots that prove the real stars of Ultraman Z. From the very first episode Sevenger stole the show, with its animated look that hasn’t really changed since 1974 and limited operation time that parallels Ultraman’s own Earthly restrictions. Though Sevenger is eventually retired its spirit lives throughout the whole of the series, and when it eventually returns those moments prove to be particularly special. In the meantime though Windom is a worthy replacement, even if its time in the spotlight is just build-up to the sheer magnificence of the King Joe STORAGE custom. It takes some guts to completely redesign an iconic monster like King Joe, but STORAGE’s reverse-engineered robot is a fantastic update that doesn’t lose any of the original’s unique charm. Tsuburaya have delved into the world of combining robots plenty of times before, but it’s been a while since they did it with this much focus and flare. The robot’s debut proves one of the most memorable action sequences in the whole show, and even when it quickly becomes overshadowed by Z himself its appearance is never any less enjoyable. The show might have been titled Ultraman Z, but an Ultra-less spin-off series just starring these STORAGE bots would go down just as well.

King Joe STORAGE CustomThe mighty Sevenger

With incredible visuals, an engaging story that appeals to both veterans and newcomers alike AND one of the best opening themes you’ll ever hear, Ultraman Z is another strong entry into the Ultra Series and continues the incredible streak of shows the franchise has had in recent years. Though it does do a slight disservice to its supporting cast and continues the risk of the fusion gimmick becoming stale, it’s very hard not to fall in love with the show regardless. The fact it came out this well despite the tragic death of head writer Kōta Fukihara mere months before the show's premiere is a testament to the love and care the staff at Tsuburaya take with these shows. Above all else though Ultraman Z is a game-changer when it comes to distributing tokusatsu worldwide, and although the two-week time limit isn’t ideal for people jumping on later it’s still a stepping stone toward something bigger. 2020 was a year when the fans needed the kind of hope Ultraman brings more than ever, and Tsuburaya delivered. They really are blazing a trail when it comes to these shows, so it’s going to be exciting to see where their global expansion plans take them in 2021.


M said...

Ultra Nice Review! Also, Alex, do think that they scrapped the Devil Splinters (Belial's remains) plotline because the original head writer died?

Alex said...

Thank you! And yes I'd agree that seems likely, the way Geed only popped in and out was surprising as well. If the devil splinters had played a big part I imagine he'd have stuck around more.