Friday 1 April 2022

Series REVIEW: Ultraman Ginga

Ultraman Ginga

With Ultraman now spreading its light on a worldwide scale, it's easy to forget that it wasn't all that long ago that the franchise was in a pretty precarious place. Tsuburaya Productions were taking hit after hit financially, whilst still embroiled in their long legal battle with Chaiyo Productions over the rights to the Ultraman franchise outside of Japan. Nevertheless the company persevered, and in 2013 celebrated their 50th anniversary with the 25th instalment in the Ultra Series, and the birth of the New Generation series that continue on to this day. Ultraman Ginga aired as part of the New Ultraman Retsuden programming block, running for a total of 11 episodes with two theatrical movies (the first of which was abridged into an additional episode for the show's eventual US release). Though one of the shortest Ultraman series, Ultraman Ginga would eventually return for a further 16 episodes the following year as the show became Ultraman Ginga S.

A great battle, long ago...Hikaru Raido

Long ago a dark force turned all of the Ultraman and monsters into little figures known as Spark Dolls, which then became scattered across the universe. On Earth, Hikaru Raido returns hometown of Furoboshi after seven years of exploring the world, only to find that the town's Ginga Shrine burned down in a meteorite storm. The shrine has since moved into the town's school, where Hikaru also takes up residence. One night Hikaru's curiosity gets the better of him and he investigates the shrine's mysterious artefact - the Ginga Spark, which marks him with the emblem of the chosen one.

Under the guidance of Ultraman Taro, Hikaru discovers he can transform using the various Spark Dolls he finds - as well as the unknown Ultra warrior, Ultraman Ginga! But a mysterious force has cast a shadow over Furoboshi, feeding on the darkness of people and transforming them into monsters as well. Together with child prodigy Tomoya Ichijouji and his Jean-Nine robot, the group defend Furoboshi town and attempt to uncover the mysterious villain.

Ultraman Taro as a Spark DollIntroducing Ultraman Ginga!

As established as the Ultraman franchise may be, it's one that's always seemed fairly rigid when it comes to format – so much so that certain elements are just accepted as a given by fans. So when an instalment is bold enough to step away from those tried and tested tropes, it ends up feeling like something very different. In regards to Ultraman Ginga this of course refers to the absence of any sort of Science Patrol or Monster Group, a significant aspect that's been with the franchise since the very beginning. While the idea has been played with over the years and taken a number of different forms, Ginga is one of the rare times where it is absent altogether – instead just focusing on a group of teenagers. Calling Ginga more of a "high school drama" might be a bit of a stretch given the absence of a larger cast (even though it's a drama series quite literally set in a school), but the struggles some of the cast experience over the course of the series certainly make it feel more akin to that.

The characters are always what act as the heart of Ultraman, but the more lowkey setting of Ginga makes their stakes feel far more personal this time around. Hikaru is presented much like any other protagonist is – immediately likeable, overwhelmingly amicable and a positive influence on those around him. He may be the protagonist, but it's his friends – Misuzu, Kenta, Chigusa and later Tomoya who are developed in a far more nuanced way. The majority of Ultraman Ginga takes a typical "victim of the week" approach to storytelling, with the darkness in said victim being manipulated until they use a Dark Spark to take the form of a monster (or later, evil Ultraman). In the first half of the series Hikaru's friends are the victims, and it's an opportunity to showcase their own struggles. These may seem fairly pedestrian in some ways, such as Chigusa's dreams of becoming an idol or Kenta's sense of isolation when he's the only one unaware Hikaru is Ginga, but in turn they feel much more relatable to the audience. Though the stories of the few episodic characters are far less defined, Ginga for the most part is very good at giving all of its characters purpose. This eventually leads to Hikaru's friends also being able to transform using Spark Dolls, allowing them to play a more active role in the story instead of just being emotional support. Though only Hikaru is Ultraman Ginga, the sense of Ultraman being more than just one person runs throughout the show – and a mindset that feels particularly prominent in the final episode. 

It's a series that's big on ideas, which can be something of a problem when your episode count barely scrapes double digits. Character drama often takes precedent over Ultraman himself, with combined with scenes of creatures running down dimly lit school hallways can often make the show feel more like some sort of Ultra Q production rather than a true Ultraman series. In fact Ginga can often feel so preoccupied with the individual character drama that it barely feels like the overall plot is moving at all, and then all of a sudden once it launches into its endgame it feels over before it's even begun. 

The cast of Ultraman GingaTomoya Ichijouji

Ultimately though everything Ultraman Ginga does comes down to how limited its budget is. From the small cast to minimal locations the series films in – everything it a by-product of Tsuburaya trying to squeeze every penny. To their credit its clear that the team behind the series were well aware of its limitations, and attempts are made to make them relevant to the storyline wherever they can. But as respectable as their efforts may be, sometimes there's just no getting around how cheap the show feels. While the limited scenery and lack of background cast give the show an eerie and atmospheric feel, they also make it feel decidedly empty. Episodes are also repeatedly subject to recap sequences aimed to fill up the runtime, some going on for far longer than should given how short the series is to begin with. Thankfully this is something that gradually improves over the course of the show, with signs of the franchise truly beginning to bounce back to former glories by its final episode. 

Unfortunately what are affected most of all by this are the fight scenes, as well as the one thing Tsuburaya Productions is perhaps most renowned for – the miniature work. Ultraman Ginga features a single rural area where all of its fight sequences take place, and while it does make for a nice change from the more commonly seen cityscapes its repeated use makes it feel like an Ultra Fight miniseries rather than a fully-fledged television production. But even more painful is just how obvious it is that the costumes and set couldn't suffer from too much damage, with many of the fights featuring stale choreography and an over-reliance on ranged attacks. Nothing sums this approach up more than Ginga having a sword attack, only for it to simply be used for a ground attack to hit an enemy from several yards away. Again this is something that steadily improves over the course of the show, with the fights becoming more and more physical as the episodes progress. The minimal destruction also turns out to be a benefit to the final episode too, with the visuals of it suddenly being smashed to pieces helping to raise the stakes significantly. That isn't to say Ultraman Ginga is completely devoid of exciting fight scenes though, with the mid-season (originally movie) battle against Ultraman Nexus' Dark Zagi being a particularly impressive display largely carried out with CGI. 

Ginga vs Jean-KillerDark Zagi

Of course there's also no getting around just how blatant the show is when it comes selling toys. Whereas other tokusatsu series try to at least mask the merchandise flogging by giving the collectible gimmicks some sort of story logic, Ultraman Ginga's Spark Dolls are quite literally sofubi figures. While the gimmick would continue to be implemented in both Ginga S and Ultraman X, Ginga is the Spark Doll craze in its purest form and you almost have to admire how shameless Tsuburaya are about it. There's some very loose story sense in how all of the Ultras, monsters and aliens were transformed into Spark Dolls at the very beginning, but when you see the toys being used in the show itself and all of these figures being carefully laid out in "collect them all" displays you can clearly see the bigger stake Bandai now had in the franchise. But like all the other budgetary issues, Ginga makes a conscientious effort to make it work – it's completely ridiculous, but the show's sincerity makes you completely buy into it. And based on the retail success of the line it clearly worked, so you clearly can't fault their efforts. 

The appearance of the Spark Dolls ties back to something that's become a core element of the New Generation series – the idea of legacy. Compared to its closest rivals the Ultra franchise is far more steeped in continuity and legacy, and the New Generation series have become all about respecting the past whilst trying to push forward with something new. As the first major series in some time as well as the beginning of a whole new era for the franchise, Ultraman Ginga draws a lot from the past. Hikaru and his friends are able to transform in past Ultras and monsters – with the show drawing on Heisei series such as Ultraman Tiga and Ultraman Nexus as well as the Showa classics. But despite adding the ability to transform into these characters as well as the show's reliance on existing suits, Ginga is careful not to make the this gimmick its core identity like many other anniversary series have. Instead it's just one faucet of the series, and a way of "bringing back" Ultraman as a franchise both to newcomers and existing fans.

Ultraseven, Ultraman and Ultraman TigaBeing Taro is suffering

A big part of grounding this legacy is the inclusion of Ultraman Taro, trapped in a Spark Doll body but still acting as a mentor and guide to Hikaru and friends. As the most light-hearted entry in the Showa era Taro was the perfect veteran to put in such a position, and the show has a lot of fun putting this little toy in all manner or silly poses with scaled props. But on top of working well with the comedy aspect Taro acting has a mentor has plenty of story benefit too, with his more unique placement in the Land of Light hierarchy able to relate to various struggles of the human cast as well. Taro builds a bond with Hikaru (as well as the rest of the cast) in the place of Ginga himself, who is presented as a mysterious entity that even Taro doesn't recognise. It's a unique take, but sadly means Ginga doesn't have much of a presence or bond with Hikaru in the series. A few wise words here and there, but nothing that really highlights the bonds Ultra and human share. 

However the few all-new costumes Tsuburaya were able to create for this series are ones to definitely take note of. Much like the positioning of the series itself, Ultraman Ginga is a beacon of this newest era of Ultra Heroes – taking the core traits the franchise continued to use over the years and making them shine all the more through the illuminating crystals that cover his body. Though criminally underutilised in the show itself, the crystals' colour changing is a simple but extremely effective gimmick – highlighting how something as basic as a shift in colour can perfectly reflect a change in mood or abilities. Ultraman Ginga might have had a limited budget as an overall production, but Tsuburaya could certainly never be accused of making anything that looked cheap. With the pristineness of the Ginga suit throughout the series owing much to its visual appeal (which in turn would have helped bring in newcomers to the franchise), it's no surprise that Tsuburaya were hesitant to put it through too much until the profits started rolling in. 

Ginga Thunderbolt!Dark Lugiel

The same can be said of Dark Lugiel, the main antagonist of the series and in many ways the opposite to Ginga. Whereas Ginga shines as a beacon of hope, Lugiel is a void of malice – his jet-black body only lit up by his blood red eyes and orbs scattered across his body. Though not an Ultraman himself, the similar design cues Lugiel has make him the perfect parallel and antithesis without simply returning to the concept of an "evil Ultraman". This black and red colour scheme also works beautifully for the dark Ultras that are awakened across the course of the series. With black being a colour absent from nearly all of the Ultras that have existed over the years whenever one pops up it's immediately striking, and even in their largely character-less state the dark Ultras presented here feel like a force to be reckoned with. 

Legacy was a big part of the franchise long before Ginga though, and this is particularly true when it comes to the various monsters and aliens it has spawned over the years. As such the series features plenty of favourites that have appeared over the years, from straightforward classics like Kemur Man and Alien Nackle to slight twists on previous monsters such as Thunder Darambia and Super Grand King. Hikaru (and company) being able to transform into them also adds a new twist to their appearance, vastly changes their mannerisms and fight choreography in a way that makes them feel fresh again (as well as giving them their own nifty Ultra Rise sequences). The few aliens that appear in the show are all given distinct personalities too, usually on the more light-hearted side but able to pose a threat when needed. Following its first appearance in 2011's Ultraman Zero Gaiden it's also great to see the Jean-Killer/Jean-Nine suit again, not just as a wonderful homage to classic Tsuburaya hero Jumborg 9 but also continuing the dynamic of an Ultraman and their robotic ally. 

Black King Ultra Rise!Ultraseven Dark

Though Ultraman Ginga is undoubtedly a troubled series, it nevertheless manages to build a good foundation for the New Generation run of Ultraman series - one that the franchise continues to work from to this day. Despite the very obvious budget issues Tsuburaya Productions worked to tell the best story they could with what little they had to work with, resulting in a series that has plenty of heart and ambition even when it doesn't have the production values to match. Its short length also helps in overcoming these shortcomings, and as it stands Ginga remains a fascinating time capsule of both the franchise and Tsuburaya Productions' return to power.


Unknown said...

Is Ginga a good show? No, in my opinion. Is Ginga the show that has done the best it possibly can in its situation, and helping our beloved Tsuburaya Productions survive another day until their great come back in Ultraman X? Absolutely, and I will always respect Ginga for that.

M said...

Just Ginga S review left and then you reviewed all New Generation Ultra shows!

Alex said...

Absolutely! They did an amazing job given the situation.

Alex said...

It's been a long time coming!

Greenorange1 said...

Ginga honestly saved the entire Ultra franchise

Anonymous said...

FUN FACT, Did ya know: that Ginga and Dark Lugiel are voiced by the same actor, Tomokazu Sugita?

shaddoe said...

I would agree it's not a great show, but it is pretty good and does actually make the most from it's limited resources. While the series suffers from tonal whiplash, it does have very strong themes and the characters are very likeable overall.

shaddoe said...

I watched Ginga on Tubi TV out of curiosity, but it took a while to get through it cuz it's not something u can binge watch despite the short episode run. I was on the fence about it at first because Of its budgetary limitations, and cuz the series had a tendency to suffer from tonal whiplash, which was off putting. The fact that the cast was small and the locations limited didn't bother me too much. Even the fact that this series didn't feature the typical Science Monster Organization groups the franchise is known for didn't bother me. The characters were all very likeable and engaging.

I found some interesting themes with this show, the fact that they were all former classmates and the location for the series was their old school gave it a sense of the transition from childhood to adulthood.

The fact the school is abandoned and set to be demolished brings with it a sense of sadness that their carefree youth has passed, and it's time to embrace more adult responsibilities. And the notion over whether their childhood dreams still matter and can be achieved is also represented well. In addition, the fact that some of these people are chosen and given Dark Spark Lens which feed off their resentment and regrets makes it seem almost Faustian.

Obviously the series is no masterpiece, but it's still really good. It does something different by necessity, makes great use out of their limited budget to tell a very good story about people, their dreams, their hopes, ehat brings us together and what can separate us.