Friday, 29 April 2022

Anime REVIEW: ULTRAMAN Season 2

ULTRAMAN season 2
Ultraman is available in streaming form on Netflix

It's been a long three year wait exacerbated by production delays and a global pandemic, but the second season of the ULTRAMAN anime has finally landed. The adaptation of the ongoing manga by Eiichi Shimuzu and Tomohiro Shimoguchi, the series continues to be produced by famed studios Production I.G. and Sola Digital Arts (who also collaborate on fellow Netflix series Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045). Despite its detachment from the main Ultraman universe, the ULTRAMAN manga/anime continues to be a key player in Tsuburaya Productions' bid for Ultraman global takeover – supported through a wealth of merchandising, videogame crossover appearances and the accessibility of the anime through a huge global platform like Netflix.

The disappearance of UltramanAlien Pedan

Crowds of people have begun mysteriously disappearing across the world, including new Ultraman Shinjiro Hayata! Behind these abductions are an alien terrorist organisation known as the Star of Darkness, who demand that half of the Earth is handed over to them in 24 hours.

Meanwhile photographer Kotaro Higashi has arrived in Japan, following his own investigation on the missing people. But a run-in with Black Star agents leads to him mutating into a fiery humanoid, with his ensuing rampage leading to him needing to be put down by SSSP informant Jack. Using a specially developed suit to regulate his new powers, Kotaro joins Shin, Shinjiro, Dan, Jack and Seiji as Ultraman number six – Ultraman Taro!

The birth of TaroUltraman No.6, Ultraman Taro!

Following some of the adjustments made to the story in the first season, it was expected that the ULTRAMAN anime would continue to diverge from the source material should it continue into further seasons. But while the broad strokes of season two largely continue to be the same (adapting chapters 54 to 70 of the manga), here things have been altered so much that anime has arguably become its own separate entity. The overarching storyline has been simplified, side stories have been omitted whilst side characters have been removed and/or outright replaced. While fans of the manga will no doubt be disappointed at the liberties that have been taken here, it has at the very least been adapted and presented in a way where anime-only viewers won't feel like they've missed a huge chunk of the story. What they will notice however is how ridiculously short season two is - clocking in at a mere six episodes compared to the first's 13. Whether this is a result of the pandemic is unclear, but whatever the case may be it's extremely unfortunate and means the anime couldn't really follow the manga even if it wanted to - there just simply isn't the space. But whether it's by design or making the best of a bad situation, it's unfortunate to see ULTRAMAN's potential squandered this way after such a long wait for a continuation. Much of the darker intrigue of the original story has been taken away, replacing it with a slick but ultimately rather straight-forward action-oritentated sci-fi series.

One of the most notable shakeups compared to the manga is reforming the story to primarily focus on Kotaro Рthe newest of the six Ultramen to join the series (although Jack hadn't previously been established as an Ultraman, nor had Shin's "Zoffy" suit). Though a lot of Kotaro's superhero origins here are anime-original, it still does a good job of setting up his backstory and personality Рor more specifically his separation from the SSSP and all the alien affairs that have gone on thus far. Though his progression from cheery photographer to tortured hero is rather clich̩, (Ko)Taro remains likeable enough that the show doesn't suffer from making him the focus.

Kotaro HigashiJack

In addition to pushing Taro to the forefront, a shift in focus to the ensure the series is specifically about the Ultramen themselves is also clear – to the point where many of the periphery characters are forced into the background. It isn't all that surprising given that the previous season did exactly the same thing, but in taking away the supporting (and usually alien) characters much of the show's nuance and intricacies. For example; in the manga Adad plays a key part in both Taro's backstory and the final battle against Alien Pedan, but in the anime he only briefly appears acting as an informant to Dan. While there are still "good" (or at the very least morally grey) aliens such as Edo and Yapool, neither really play an active role in progressing the story. Even Bemlar, both a key character and point of mystery for the series, is relegated to momentary scenes. It's also bizarre that so much of this season's promotion (as well as its opening sequence) focused on the six Ultramen coming together, yet the episodes themselves don't feature a proper full group sequence or (outside of the opening's final still) line-up shot. Instead they spend most of the episodes each doing their own thing, whether it be alone or as part of a smaller group. When they do finally all meet up for the final battle, again they're all split off to do their own things without any sense of unity.

The villains are another interesting aspect, as despite it being a terrorist organisation the Ultramen are up against ultimately as far as the story's concerned it might as well be a single villain – Alien Pedan. Though other members of the organisation do appear (and are similarly based off of pre-existing aliens from the Ultra Series), there's little in the way of characterisation so they're effectively cannon fodder for the Ultramen to go up against. Instead the development within the Star of Darkness comes from the anime-original Alien Wadoran – or more specifically their princess Maya. As the last of their species, the Wadoran have been manipulated into working with the Star of Darkness in order to survive – creating some good drama for them as well as emphasising Pedan's ruthlessness. It's debatable how well Maya's overly sexualised anime girl design gels with the rest of the show's aesthetic, but the homage to Ultraseven's Alien Magellan (also named Maya) is nice. But really it's Pedan that rules the series – not only a great redesign of the race but also a competent villain that's more than a match for even the combined force of the Ultramen.

Alien Pedan & MayaThe Golden Fortress

And despite all its flaws, ULTRAMAN season two does at the very least still manage to provide that all-important entertainment factor. The combination of a simplified story and shorter episode count allow for a much tighter focus that places a greater emphasis on spectacle. Each of the six episodes features at least one action sequence as its centrepiece, with the story comfortably flowing alongside it despite minimal downtime. Even for manga-readers it's hard not to be impressed by the climax of the season, where the Star of Darkness' ships come together to form their "Golden Fortress" (the story's version of iconic Ultraseven robot King Joe). Its appearance takes ULTRAMAN back to its giant-sized tokusatsu roots, as the fortress rampages across the city firing a suitably over the top array of weaponry.

There's little to no change in quality when it comes to the show's 3DCG visuals, so if you weren't won over by (or at the very least accepting of) them in the first season then these new episodes aren't likely to sway you either. Like before it's an interesting choice of medium for the series – one which doesn't really capture the sharpness of Shimoguchi's artwork but works brilliantly for capturing the detail and intricacy of the Ultraman suits. Abridging the story so that it primarily focuses on the action definitely worked to the season's advantage, because this is the area where the animation truly shines. The fight choreography adopts all those familiar Ultraman poses and movements from across the franchise, but cleverly shrinks them down to human-sized while also mixing them up with diverse designs and fighting styles the various Ultraman suits have. For example, Shinjiro fights much like classic Ultraman whereas Moroboshi is a swordsman, Jack a brawler etc. In addition to each one being unique, there's a fluidity to the animation (presumably from the series using motion capture actors as it did in the previous season) that makes the movements feel suitably lifelike. The handling of the Ultraman suits is particularly interesting, as a careful balance has been struck between giving them the weight of the heavily armoured suits they appear as but allowing them to still move like traditional Ultras. It's a stark comparison to the more low-key, dialogue-orientated scenes where character movement feels far more jilted and unnatural – the very things that make 3DCG anime so divisive in the first place.

Ace vs Alien LlubihcShin Hayata becomes Zoffy

ULTRAMAN season two really is a mixed bag. When compared to the source material so much as been removed, changed or abridged that it loses a lot of the story's original intrigue, and with how short this supposed "season" is it's hard not to just recommend reading the manga instead (which honestly you should do anyway because it's fantastic). But based solely on its own merits it still manages to be entertaining throughout – keeping a tight focus on the introduction of Taro and the formation of the six Ultra "brothers". Ultimately it's a nice supplementary piece to see some of those manga scenes in motion, but definitely not a replacement for it. With the next season confirmed to be the anime's finale and the manga still in full swing, it'll be interesting to see what direction it takes.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Fun fact: in the first season, the framed rate for the animation in the first season was heavily lowered during certain scenes, while others were full 60fps. Here though, all the animation is 60fps, most likely due to the shorter episode count

TheBeastAR said...

As someone who enjoyed the first season quite a bit (not having read the manga), I was disappointed by this season. It being six episodes isn't really an inherent problem- but it's paced in such a way that makes me think this would have been better off as an actual 150 minute movie instead of as episodes. The core story as it stands is ultimately fine and a decent watch, but it's clear just how much more flawed the story is this time around and how poorly paced it feels. It's a classic case of seemingly feeling like too much and too little at the same time. Seeing re imagined versions of classic Ultraman characters was great in theory, but despite the action and what not, they didn't get a whole lot of screen time.

In terms of characters, I kind of have to talk about how this show treats its precious few female characters. Not counting that one SSSP member, there are at least three with more than a few speaking lines and two of them in the beginning are essentially yeeted into another dimension for the remainder of the series. The idol singer from the first series really just exists to give Shinjiro a kiss (that they cut away from) and nothing else, while Kotaro's girl is pretty much gone. We're all aware that tokusatsu has had (and still does have) a significant problem with the way it treats its female characters (or lack thereof), and this anime iteration of Ultraman is arguably worse than the live action counterparts in this regard. For all the divergences it may take from the source material, at least it's faithful to how a lot of live action toku have been in that respect. I am aware these shows are targeted for a male demographic but that's really not much of a defense.

On both those notes, I hear Akiko Fuji from the original 1966 series IS in the manga. If so, I would love to know why she was removed from the anime adaptation because I think that's a really bad change to make.

With the next season reportedly being the finale one, I have good reason to check out the manga now. I guess, thank you Netflix?

Escape Room said...

Great article!