Tuesday 9 July 2024

First Impressions: Ultraman Arc

Ultraman Arc

2024 looks like it's going to be another big year for the Ultraman franchise! In the last few weeks Ultraman: Rising has dropped on Netflix to largely positive reception, in comics the Giant of Light will be facing off against Earth's Mightiest Heroes starting this August in Ultraman x Avengers and on the main series side of things a brand new instalment in the franchise has just begun! Ultraman Arc invites fans to unleash the power of imagination, once again being distributed worldwide via the ULTRAMAN OFFICIAL YouTube channel complete with a variety of different language subtitles as well as a simultaneously released English dub.

Yuma HizeIntroducing SKIP

16 years ago, kaiju began appearing worldwide in an event known as "K-Day". Since then, the Global Defence Force has worked towards suppressing these kaiju attacks, with the Scientific Kaiju Investigation and Prevention Centre (SKIP) working within Hoshimoto City to prevent the occurrence and aggravation of these disasters. The past three months have also seen a mysterious giant appear in the city to help defeat the kaiju.

Yuma Hize works as researcher for SKIP alongside his colleagues Rin Natsume, Horoshi Ban and the support robot YouPi. Whilst investigating the Monohorn, a mysterious horn left in the ground during K-Day, the team discover parasitic alien organisms known as Oo-ze. The Oo-ze take control of Shagong, another kaiju, who begins rampaging in the city. Working alongside GDF special investigator Shu Ishido, SKIP assist in the evacuation. But as the situation grows out of hand, Yume is called by the mysterious giant - becoming Ultraman Arc!

ShagongUltraman Arc rises

As tends to be the case with all the annually renewing tokusatsu franchises, once you've seen a few series premieres you get a fairly good idea of how they all pan out. But while overall they tend to follow the same beats year after years, it's the little differences that make things interesting. In the case of Ultraman Arc, it's that little touch of not starting the story at the very beginning. The last time an Ultraman series didn't start with a full origin story was Ultraman Orb all the way back in 2016, and while Yuma isn't quite as established as Arc here it does allow the episode to be a lot more straightforward. Not just in the sense that it doesn't have to spend time explaining to Yuma how the transformation device and/or Ultraman powers work, but the story can just flow more naturally whilst teasing plenty of mysteries for the coming series. Even if Ultraman Arc is acting as a jumping on point for new viewers, the concept of Ultraman itself is so simple that it works without indulging in too much exposition right at the very start - a notion that worked particularly well for Ultraman: Rising as well.

But when it comes to mysteries, Ultraman Arc already feels pretty stacked. Between the significance of K-Day, the first appearance of Ultraman Arc three months prior to this episode and the relationship between Arc and Yuma (which presumably goes back even further given the drawing of Arc prevalent in both the cold opening and opening credits), there is a lot to dissect and theorise about already, K-Day is a particularly interesting one, with SKIP chief Hiroshi dropping little facts like how out of the seven kaiju involved in the event that only one of them was from space. There are a few parallels to The Return of Ultraman in this episode (director Takanori Tsujumoto has remarked that he's a big fan), but this was perhaps the one (albeit the most tenuous) that interested me the most. At the beginning of Return of Ultraman all of the threats Goh/Ultraman and MAT faced are Earth-based - when a space kaiju finally arrives, it's a huge moment for the series. So the significance of the Monohorn and the one space-faring kaiju of K-Day is almost certainly going to have a big impact on the series as the story unravels.

The MonohornOo-ze

So what we have here is a very strong introduction for all the main characters of the series, as well as establishing SKIP as a rather different organisation than the ones we've been seeing for the past couple of shows. After a good few years of high budget defence forces with giant robots we're back with a small scale operation that isn't about combat. In fact from their very introduction the episode makes a point of emphasising SKIP isn't an organisation that fights kaiju, which will hopefully lead to plenty of stories about understanding kaiju - the kind that Ultraman has always done so well with. It also suggests future friction with the GDF itself, who on top of being a lot more combat-orientated are withholding information about space-faring kaiju from other research institutions. 

Admittedly we don't learn a whole lot about the characters themselves in this episode, but we do get a good sense of their personalties and dynamic. Their official introduction to Shu reveals that they each bring a different skillset to SKIP - with Yuma as their kaiju biology expert, Hiroshi their geologist and Rin the mechanic. Alongside this there's also the reveal that Yuma joined the team three months ago - rather conveniently the same time that Ultraman Arc first appeared. Rounding off the team is their robotic assistant YouPi - comprised of the drone-like "You-Bot" and the more self-explanatory "Pi-Body". Robot characters are certainly nothing new to the franchise, but compared to the last couple of shows YouPi definitely feels like an attempt at skewing toward a slightly younger audience. Not by any means a criticism, simply an observation and a contrast the more grounded premiere of Blazar. SKIP however also finds itself with a new colleague in the form of Shu, who brings along that more decisive element the team lacks in addition to a brand-new coffee machine. Although Shu may seem like he has that cold, cliche government agent vibe that'll clash with the rest of the cast, that's quickly dispelled and it seems like he'll be right at home with the rest of SKIP.

Shu IshidoYouPi

The success of the franchise in the past few years gave Blazar the opportunity to do what would have once even considered the unthinkable and work with predominantly a whole new cast of kaiju, and while Arc's opening sequence already shows its going to have far more links to the past in terms of legacy monsters it still gets to kick off with a few new entries into the pantheon. Shagong is a very classically-styled kaiju that fits in perfectly with the franchise's overall aesthetic, while the Oo-ze feel that little bit weirder and lean more into those sci-fi trappings. In terms of spectacle Tsuburaya are still firing on all cylinders to really push the practical elements of the medium - an impressive miniature tank sequence being a highlight among the usual display of highly detailed cityscapes.

SKIP's attempts to protect the fleeing citizens leads to Shu falling unconscious in a scene which is an almost-direct parallel to Return of Ultraman, at which point Ultraman Arc calls appears to Yuma to lend him his power once again. After what feels like a very Shin Ultraman-inspired lead-in to Arc's rise sequence it's all about the debut of our titular hero, and as usual Tsuburaya Productions continue to find new ways to make these fight scenes unique and exciting. Framing the battle through a camera recording adds a certain energy to it, with the timer in the top corner adding a sense of urgency even if it is counting up rather than down. There's also some great cinematography on display here, with the fight filmed as one continuous shot with no breaks at all. Though we don't get a full rundown of Arc's powers here (the armours seen in the opening and merchandising remain for another time), the "power of imagination" tagline is very much conveyed here through the imaginative ways we see the newest Ultra fight - the use of his defensive barrier as a weapon, particularly shattering it and then using the shards to stab Shagong, is particularly cool. It's little things like these that make what is otherwise a rather conventional (but nevertheless exciting) Ultraman fight sequence memorable, along with the combined finished of a beam and sword attack. As gimmicky as it may look, the apparition of the Eye Sword (along with its Ultraseven/Ultraman Zero connotations) makes for an insanely cool visual.

Arc appears to YumaAn imaginative way to fight

Even after over 30 series a new Ultraman series premiere hasn't gotten any less exciting, and a few little shakeups in the format prove more than enough to get Ultraman Arc off to a strong start. After the more militarised antics of STORAGE, GUTS-Select and SKaRD its nice to get something a little more lowkey with SKIP, and the decision to start the story in media res offers plenty of mysteries to be revealed over the coming weeks. The cast seems like a lot of fun and Arc's debut proves to be suitably exhilarating without giving too much away. With the franchise in undoubtedly one of the strongest places it's been in years, one thing is definitely for sure - it's going to be another great year for Ultraman fans.

No comments: