Thursday 21 April 2022

Series REVIEW: Ultraman Ginga S

Ultraman Ginga S

Despite its obvious budgetary issues, 2013's Ultraman Ginga proved enough of a success for Tsuburaya Productions to push forward with another Ultraman series the following year. With lead actor Takuya Negishi eager to continue the story, Tsuburaya chose to produce a direct sequel to Ginga - a rare but financially sound decision given many aspects were already established. Bringing in renowned tokusatsu director Koichi Sakamoto to take the reigns, Ultraman Ginga returned to the New Ultraman Retsuden programming block as Ultraman Ginga S for a further 16 episodes. Though the second entry in the still-ongoing run of New Generation series, it is here that style and hallmarks of this era truly began to develop.

Hikaru joins the UPGIntroducing Sho

Two years after the events of Ultraman Ginga, Hikaru Raido continues travelling the world whilst his friends pursue their own dreams. After encountering a mysterious crystal in Mexico, Hikaru returns to Japan and encounters the UPG (Ultra Party Guardians) – a defence force formed after an increase in monster attacks. Controlled by an alien mastermind, these monsters are after an underground energy source known as Victorium, which takes the form of the same crystal that Hikaru had previously encountered.

The Victorium is also protected by the Victorians, an ancient civilisation living deep underground. The Victorians send Sho to the surface, who uses the Victory Lancer to transform into their protector Ultraman Victory. Reuniting with Ginga once more, Hikaru protects the world from this new threat as the UPG's newest recruit whilst also attempting to win Sho's trust.

Alien Chibull ExcellerUltraman Ginga & Ultraman Victory

Issues aside, there is a very distinct feel and flavour to the original Ultraman Ginga. With the limited characters and locations they had to play with, Tsuburaya created a rather intimate series that played up the mystery of the Ultra Series – so much so that many aspects of it could easily be mistaken for something more akin to Ultra Q. A lot of this mysticism is taken away in the sequel series – with Ginga S taking a more bombastic approach when it comes to scale and scope. It's a double-edged sword in that it sees Ginga lose its more unique identity, the claustrophobia of that one school setting giving way to a more traditional science patrol set up. But on the other hand, it's beneficial in that it allows the series to grow in a way that was previously impossible. From the very first episode it's clear that Tsuburaya were ready to unveil a very different type of Ginga, with his initial transformation launching into a full-scale battle laden with miniature sets, practical effects, CGI wizardry and up-close monster grappling. Seemingly free from their previous constraints, Tsuburaya immediately set about showing what Ultraman was capable of and Sakamoto's often over the top direction was the perfect vision to see it through. The wider variety of locations, more intricate miniatures and improved visuals mean Ginga S is unapologetically loud, but nowhere in that does it ever lose the heart of what makes Ultraman so special.

That said, as a direct sequel there's still plenty familiar about Ultraman Ginga S. Despite being older and a little world-wiser this is still very much the same Hikaru – a cheery optimist that often rushes in without thinking, but whose demeanour brings out the best in those around him. The supporting cast of Ginga are largely gone – with only Tomoya returning in a regular role as the UPG's chief scientist. However the rest are far from forgotten, with Misuzu, Chigusa and Kenta all appearing in cameo roles. While it's unfortunate that Kenta does not receive a focus episode in the same way Misuzu and Chigusa do, seeing all three of the them again is extremely important in maintaining the connection between the two seasons – Misuzu's episode particularly having a significant impact on the current story and characters. With plot threads carried through from the previous season, Ginga S is undeniably a sequel despite the shift in style perhaps making it feel more like a reboot or retooling of sorts. While a new viewer could feasibly jump in with Ginga S, it's far more rewarding to know where these characters came from and how they've grown.

HikaruThe Victorians

But more so than all of the visual enhancements, the biggest change to Ginga S is the introduction of a secondary hero – Ultraman Victory. Right from the outset Sho is the perfect foil to Hikaru's optimism – distant, stoic and almost completely distrusting of the people he's been sent to the surface to protect. Whereas Hikaru often rushes into battle without thinking whether or not he can do it alone, Sho on the other hand simply doesn't want any help even if it's offered to him. Though this results in a very tenuous (and sometimes violent) relationship between the two to begin with, over the course of these initial episodes Sho learns first hand than Ultraman's real strength comes from those around him. What follows is a superb dynamic between the two heroes, with Sho's personality continuing to act as the perfect balance to Hikaru's even as he becomes more accepting of this new world. The series may be titled Ultraman Ginga S, but Victory is just as much the star the of the show as its Sho that goes through the most development – with Hikaru acting as the catalyst.

The introduction of Sho might be one of Ginga S' strongest aspects, but it also highlights one its biggest shortcomings. Right from the very beginning to the series introduces us the Victorians, an underground civilisation that not only has their own power source but also their own Ultraman. That alone is a concept that could have easily carried the series, delving into their origins as well as how this Ultraman came to Earth to be their protector. Sadly outside of Sho himself and the battle for the Victorium, the Victorians as a civilisation are woefully underdeveloped. It's the one area where Ginga S feels limited in its scope – the appearance of only a handful of other Victorians making them less a race and more a small tribe. Any history is told through short flashbacks, offering moments of context for episode-specific plotlines but rarely utilised as the central premise.

This could due to the Victorians also having to share the spotlight with the UPG, the series making a conscientious effort to bring back this familiar Ultraman trope. Joining Hikaru and Tomoya on the team are Captain Yoshiaki and agents Arisa and Gouki, all of whom are a constant presence and frequently engage in ground-based combat to balance the Ultras' giant-sized battles. Development among the team is a little uneven though, with only Arisa and Gouki getting any sort of character focus or backstory. One could perhaps argue that Tomoya got plenty of development in the previous season, but it's a little disappointing to see him do so little in his new role even if he's in the unique position of being the only member of the team to know Hikaru is Ginga. Given all the other call backs to the previous season, not bringing back Jean-Nine for the final battle was definitely a missed opportunity. However even with a lack of more direct focus you still get a good sense of who each member of the UGP is, with none of them feeling completely forgotten even if some of them struggle to break out of their designated role within the team.

Exceller and VorstMana (Android One-Zero)

Ultraman as a franchise usually opts for a more nuanced approach to its overarching villains, so Ginga S immediately stands out by handling its own in a surprisingly straightforward way. But what they lack in depth, they certainly make up for in fun factor. This is classic tokusatsu villainy at its finest, with the Alien Chibull Exceller as the evil space alien barking orders from his orbiting spaceship while constantly proclaiming his superiority. With so many weird and wonderful aliens in the Ultraman universe a puppet like Alien Chibull is unlikely to top anyone's lists of favourites, but Ginga S created a really enjoyable and surprisingly expressive character in Exceller. His Alien Guts subordinate Vorst is similarly engaging despite being relatively one-dimensional, determined to prove himself as the "strongest warrior in the universe" despite constantly losing to Ginga and Victory. But as a sequel series it's unsurprising that all roads eventually lead to the return of Dark Lugiel, though to the show's credit it finds a way to bring him back that doesn't feel like a rehash nor does it let his shadow completely loom over the entire series. Instead the problem lies in it wanting to build Dark Lugiel up as a significant part of Ginga's lore without doing any of the legwork, dropping pieces of lore as a casual endnote rather than working into the story in a meaningful way.

That isn't to say the villains are completely without nuance though, and in fact one of the show's best character arcs comes from the most unlikely places. If you've ever seen a Koichi Sakamoto show before then on first glance Android One-Zero looks as though she's only there to serve one purpose – to act as the show's eye-candy whilst simultaneously showing off Sakamoto's leg fetish in her specifically choreographed fight sequences. But following repeated failings and Exceller's eventual rejection of her, One-Zero (later taking the name 'Mana') goes on to find purpose elsewhere as well as what it means to be human. Though it might not be the most original of arcs, the fact it's done so well in such a short space of time is what makes it so impressive. Ginga S might be bursting with so many ideas that it sometimes struggles to articulate them properly in a mere 16 episodes, but this is one that it didn't stumble on.

Ultraman Ginga StriumThe Strium Brace

With Ginga's fighting prowess having been limited in the previous series, Ginga S offered a chance to properly establish what this Ultraman from the future is truly capable of. This time around we get to see Ginga engage in far more up-close combat, with his Ginga Spark Lance weapon from the series finale returning as his standard weapon. The unique colour-changing gimmick remains woefully underused, but thankfully not outright forgotten. But in true tokusatsu tradition a new series naturally means a new form to market, and Ginga S finds an ideal link to Ultraman's history in Ginga Strium. Rather than see Hikaru continue to transform into both Ultras and monsters from the past, here he is upgraded with protector armour akin to Ultraman Taro's as well as the attacks of all six original Ultra Brothers. Though far simpler in its execution than future fusion forms would be, Ginga Strium works because it allows that legacy element to be brought in without detracting too much from Ginga himself. With a bond already established between Hikaru and Taro it makes sense for Ginga to take a form similar to that of his mentor, and it also allows Taro himself to remain a presence in the series (albeit in a far more limited capacity). The beam attacks and other abilities of the Ultra Brothers are realised in a wonderfully gimmicky fashion, with the turntable switch of the Strium Brace calling out each brother's name as their strength is summoned.

If Ultraman Ginga and his Ginga Strium form represent the link to Ultraman's past, then Ultraman Victory certainly represents its future. Acting as a visual foil to Ginga the same way Sho does to Hikaru, Victory adopts a more unconventional colour scheme and silhouette to appear quite unlike any Ultraman that had previously been seen at that point. Victory also represents the evolution of the Spark Doll gimmick, with monsters now creating unique limbs and weapons to wield rather than simple transformations. Rather than just take the form of swords and spears like so many Ultra weapons tend to, Victory's arsenal includes more unconventional pieces like a whip, scissors, a sci-fi tommy gun and of course a giant fist. It shows a level of imagination that Tsuburaya just weren't capable of conveying previously, revitalising the Spark Doll gimmick and making them insatiably collectible all over again.

Victory's EX Red King KnuckleShepherdon

Once again the series shows off a wide range of monsters from over the years without relying on them being simply homages, ranging from well-known faces like Gomora, Bemstar and Eleking to some of the more unique evolutions that have developed over the years like Fire Golza, EX Red King and Hyper Zetton. Like the previous series Ginga S is limited in how many new creatures it has to offer, but more than makes up for it with the ones it does have. Enemies like the gestalt Five King or final foe Vice Lucile speak for themselves, but it's the introduction of Shepherdon – an underground kaiju that lives in harmony with the Victorians, that has the biggest impact. Repeatedly joining the battle to protect its friend Ultraman Victory, Shepherdon quickly establishes itself among the very best of Ultraman's kaiju allies both in design and emotion. There are few New Generation kaiju that feel that they could stand the test of time in the same way some of the Showa era monsters do, but Sherpherdon is unique in that it falls into that category despite not actually appearing since because it's so uniquely tied to the story and mythology of Ginga S.

All of the above contributes to the joy of Ultraman Ginga S' overarching story, but it's worth noting that the show does some fantastic things when it comes to episodic plots as well. "Gan-Q's Tears" (Episode 11) is among the best the franchise has to offer when it comes to heart, telling the story of a timid salaryman who befriends a young boy and helps him ride a bike after being transformed into a monster. Though the use of Gan-Q is tied into an earlier appearance of the monster in the series, the story is a deeply personal one that focuses on these one-shot characters more than any of the series regulars. Another strong offering is Chigusa's return in "In Order to Meet You" (Episode 12), where her biggest fan is revealed to be an Alien Metron (whose human disguise is a homage to Kaiketsu Zubat's Ken Hayakawa) who abandons his covert mission after hearing her music. The episode cleverly plays on many of the Alien Metron tropes originally established in the Ultraseven episode "The Targeted Town", but does so in a way that it'll resonate with newer audiences as well.

Gan-Q's TearsA different kind of Alien Metron

After the difficulties they faced with Ultraman Ginga it seemed as though Tsuburaya Productions had something to prove, and boy did they prove it with Ultraman Ginga S. While the previous series may have set the foundations arguably this is where the New Generation run truly begins – setting the template in terms of scope, tone and scale for everything that would follow. Though the series might not be without its flaws, it overcomes these with an optimism and love for everything Ultraman that shines through in every aspect. The franchise may have gone on to do bigger and better things with future instalments, but Ultraman Ginga S is something special – a return to form for Tsuburaya and the beginning of an upwards trajectory that they're still on to this day.


M said...

Now you reviewed all New Generation Ultra! Do have an Ultraman already planned to review in the future?

Alex said...

Going to check out the Ginga S movie this weekend, but then I'm going to move back to Rider and Sentai for a little bit. There's a few Super Sentai shows I'm long overdue reviewing.

I am hoping to do Ace to Leo and Tiga as soon as I can though, especially Tiga.

Greenorange1 said...

Please do Cosmos review it's my favourite