Saturday 8 July 2023

First Impressions: Ultraman Blazar

Ultraman Blazar

While the "New Generation Series" era of Ultraman has been pivotal in helping Tsuburaya Productions re-establish the franchise as a major player in both Japan and the rest of the world, there's no denying that it's lost the lustre it once had. While the overall quality of the shows remain high, the look and feel of the shows have become formulaic. Even shows like Ultraman Trigger and Ultraman Decker, both of which were supposed to harken back to Ultraman's return in the 1990s, didn't feel all that removed from their recent predecessors. Clearly TsuPro have recognised this themselves as well, which is why for the 2023 instalment of the franchise they seem to be going back to basics. Ultraman Blazar has arrived, with fans worldwide once again able to watch the series legally via TsuPro's official YouTube channel or the Ultraman Connection website. Additionally for the very first time, the series will be available with an English dub released simultaneously with the original Japanese audio.

The GGF team head inBazanga

Following an increase in kaiju disasters across the globe, the Global Guardian Force (GGF) has been formed to combat both these Earth-based and extraterrestrial threats. When Ikebukuro is attacked by the giant space kaiju Bazanga, a GGF cleanup force is sent in to subdue the creature. Leading the First Special Mobile Team is Gento Himura.

But when their operation takes a turn for the worse, the GGF team find themselves in a desperate situation. Just as things are at their most desperate, a strange device materialises around Gento's wrist - forcing him to insert an equally mysterious stone into it. Suddenly Gento transforms into a giant of light, combating Bazanga with his newfound abilities. As his team watch on, one member identifies the giant with a codename used by astronauts for generations - "Ultraman".

The Brace calls GentoUltraman Blazar is revealed!

If Ultraman Blazar's intentions really are to tear down the formula set by the series of the past decade then it's certainly letting the audience know already. While there's also going to be some level of familiarity in there for longtime Ultraman fans, it's definitely different to the majority of series openers. We kick off with a cold opener in a dimly lit aircraft, as the GGF cleanup force prepare to airdrop down and fight the rampaging Bazanga. It's an opening very reminiscent of 2014's Godzilla, which is a pretty good place to draw from (if intentional) given that was one of the most memorable sequences in that film. As introduction to this world it really drops the audience in at the deep end - mid-operation, little context to the characters or setting and taking place all over the course of one night. Anyone who's been following preview material for the series (or watched last week's preview episode) will know we'll eventually be seeing Gento lead a more typical Ultraman defence team, but that's yet to come in episode two. For now, this is a pretty military affair.

The lack of proper introduction means we're learning about Gento on the go, and as such it's through his actions just as much as words. It's a really interesting change of pace to have the main character be the captain of the team, and even moreso to see how it impacts on the team dynamic in future episodes. But for now we get to see Gento as a competent leader, giving orders as well as adapting to the situation. There are some interesting tidbits about his past, as well as hints toward him having an almost future sight ability - already creating speculation that his relationship to Blazar might not be as new as this "first encounter" suggests. Of course tokusatsu fans will also recognise Gento as Tomoya Warabino, who played Heart in Kamen Rider Drive. As one of the standout characters from that series (particularly in its later episodes), Warabino is a fine choice for Ultraman and I look forward to seeing what he brings to the series.

The GGF airdrop inGento Himura

Calling this episode of Ultraman Blazar "gritty" would be doing both it and the franchise at large a disservice, but there's undoubtedly a much more down to Earth approach when it comes to watching these ground combatants take on a giant monster. Even the air support is standard fighter jets as opposed to typically Ultraman sci-fi gadgetry. The spectacle certainly isn't any lessened though, in fact the high-speed shots of jets evading Bazanga's attacks add an extra level of scale to the situation. But there's definitely a grittiness to it in that the battle feels far more urgent, making the arrival of Ultraman turning the tide far more dramatic than usual. 

When Ultraman Blazar does finally arrive on the scene, it's the little things that make all the difference. Right from the very beginning we're treated to a visual of Gento being guided into Blazar's transformation sequence, rather than the Brace just appearing and him almost instantly knowing what to do with it. There's no elaborate transformation or rise sequence either (although the latter will almost certainly show up eventually), just some very simple graphic overlay and gradual reveal of this giant being. Touches like Blazar pushing himself up using the building as support and eventual reveal from behind said building further add to the suspense, with Blazar seemingly taking in his form just as much as the audience is. I say "Blazar" as right now we don't really know where Gento starts and Blazar ends - there's no shots of Gento from within Ultraman, which is a huge departure from the New Generation era. While there's certainly enough hints to suggest Gento retaining some level of control while as Blazar, from this episode alone it feels more reminiscent of the dynamic Shin Hayata had with the original Ultraman - further emphasising the back to basics feel Blazar exudes. 

Blazar scales a buildingBlazar fights back

But what's especially refreshing about Ultraman Blazar is just how alien he feels. TsuPro have been pulling off action-packaged nighttime kaiju fights for decades now, so it goes without saying that the set design and miniature work on display here is top tier. Instead it's Blazar's body language and fight choreography that make things interesting, as well as a suit design that really embraces the alien nature of Ultraman. The asymmetrical design and colouring immediately makes him stand out from past Ultras, especially with those pulsing streaks of colour and glowing section on the left side of his head. The design remains true to Ultraman in that it retains those familiar heroic qualities, but it also feels like there's a level of uncertainty to it as well. Blazar movements are noticeably feral, scaling buildings and then leaping off them to attack in addition to the usual grappling we see in fight sequences. This is all then further amplified by Blazar's grunt, which skews away from the usual "Shuwatch" and more along the lines of (and has been described as) "Herowatch". It's much deeper than usual, adding to that extraterrestrial feel. Moments like Blazar repeatedly grunting to intimidate Bazanga really stand out in making him seem just as wild as the actual kaiju. With early rumours/reports suggesting Ultraman Blazar won't be getting the usual form changes, it'll be interesting to see just how this affects the story as well as toy sales. The former is definitely more important than the latter, but it isn't a move one would expect Bandai to agree to so readily.

Blazar vs BazangaFinal attack!

Though it's true that every New Generation show enjoyed a strong introductory episode, Ultraman Blazar stands out because of the way it highlights a different kind of Ultraman. Bucking nearly all the conventions set in the past decade or so, Blazar's introduction takes the franchise back to its sci-fi roots - shrouding its titular hero in mystery and really making the viewer feel like they're watching an alien rather than a superhero. Though pre-series previews suggest the show will fall into more familiar territory with the introduction of a defence team and support robot, if it maintains this sort of atmosphere then this could be something really special. Ultraman has been in danger of getting too complacent for a while now, and a shake-up like this is exactly what it needed.


Stephen Cassat said...

I gotta say, this was an amazing first impression.
Blazar, acting and fighting just as feral as the alien he's fighting (and dismembering) is a nice change of pace.

The human cast was just as good, with us not seeing Gento inside Blazar, and them using the grunts as scare tactics.

Lucas said...

Doesn't every single Ultraman season have this exact same set up? There's a fine line between tradition and repetitive.