Thursday, June 27, 2024

Film Review: Ultraman Rising

Enjoyable, angsty, trope-filled, family-friendly cuteness. 

Ultraman is a long running Japanese superhero franchise. It's sort of like Power Rangers with the superhero protecting people from Godzilla-like creatures known as kaiju. The concept is decades old and has had many variations of live action, animation, and books. Netflix previously did three seasons of an Ultraman animated series. Netflix’s new Ultraman Rising, an animated, family friendly, feature film, is the platform’s latest variation. If you’ve watched the recent Netflix Ultraman television series, the new Ultraman Rising is substantially different in plot, theme, tone, and animation style. However, the backstory basics of the reluctant, artificially super-powered son taking up the hero title from his father, remain the same. Ultraman Rising is the sort of brightly colored, feel-good, animated film that I normally find cloying and predictable. However, I found myself surprisingly drawn to the angsty family dynamics of the story. The theme of “family” is overtly woven throughout the film via the villain, the hero, and the kaiju “monsters.”

Young Kenji Sato lives with his baseball loving mom and his superhero dad in Japan. Kenji’s dad is Ultraman, a megazord sized superhero who protects Japan from the giant kaiju monsters who periodically appear and wreak havoc. Both parents are kaiju experts and Kenji makes clear in the opening monologue that kaiju are neither villains nor heroes. After an attack by a kaiju (Gigantron) interrupts their idyllic family evening, the story time skips twenty years. Kenji (Christoper Sean) and his mom (Tamlyn Tomita) have moved to the U.S. where Kenji has become a major league baseball superstar and is estranged from his father. However, after his mother’s mysterious disappearance and his father’s crippling injury, Kenji is summoned back to Japan to take on his father’s Ultraman responsibilities. All of this backstory happens in the first couple of minutes of the film. 

The real plot begins when Kenji returns to publicly play baseball in Japan and secretly (and unhappily) take on the Ultraman role on the side. During the course of defending a kaiju attack, Kenji comes into possession of an orb that hatches into a baby kaiju. The giant and adorable baby kaiju instantly bonds with Kenji and (for reasons that are unclear) he decides to hide it and take care of the baby himself. In the course of the film Kenji must deal with an angry military leader (Keone Young) in pursuit of the baby kaiju; his never-ending Ultraman obligations; his grief over the loss of his mother; and his bitterness towards his estranged father (Gedde Watanabe); all while enduring his exhausting day job as a major league baseball player. 

In a world where many of us feel exhausted by the pressures of work, family, social responsibilities, and other duties, Kenji’s struggles to handle it all effectively resonate beyond the cute, cartoon environment. An interesting plot element is that Kenji has such a sense of duty, that he leaves his superstar life in America behind and immediately complies with his father’s request even though he despises his father and doesn’t want to be Ultraman. When he struggles in his new roles, the community in Japan feels comfortable directly criticizing him as a superhero and as a baseball player. Instead of motivating him, the in-his-face insults cause him to retreat to mediocrity in both arenas. Speaking to Ami (Julia Harriman), a reporter, Kenji notes that he faced racism in the U.S. which caused him to overcompensate with excellence. Kenji later reveals that his intense pursuit of baseball stardom was an effort to get his father to notice him.

In the film, as in real life, parenting is shown as a collection of joy, frustration, and difficult choices. Kenji’s father chooses to leave his family so he can protect them. Kenji’s parenting of the baby kaiju moves from nurturing her to teaching her how to leave him and live without him. Dr. Onda, the film’s Javert/Ahab inspired antagonist, is grieving the loss of his wife and child to Gigantron’s original rampage and wants to use the baby to destroy all kaiju. Gigantron wants to find and protect her child. In the final, climactic battle scene, each participant is, in their own way, fighting for their family.

Despite the appeal of the core themes, there were many distracting plot inconsistencies. Kenji’s dad ages very dramatically after the timeskip—twenty years is a long time but it’s not that long. Additionally, since Kenji is annoyed by his Ultraman duties and initially has the support of the military-style Kaiju Defense Force (KDF), it is unclear why he chose to keep the baby instead of handing her off to the KDF. Later, when the baby kaiju gets loose, she destroys property in a way that would be devastating, but everyone seems okay. And, unlike the Netflix series, this Ultraman has no team. He is managing everything completely alone, in the family’s high-tech lair, with help from no one but his floating AI, Mina (Tamlyn Tomita). When Ken needs parenting advice, he’s forced to turn to Ami, the no-nonsense reporter who is also a single mom. There is also a side story about Kenji’s Japanese baseball team (ironically named the Giants) which wraps up a little too easily.

Ultraman Rising is ultimately a kids superhero film, so a willing suspension of disbelief and tolerance of extreme cuteness will be needed. Fortunately, Christoper Sean’s portrayal of Kenji Sato delivers enough heart to hold the story together as he ranges from egotistical superstar to grumpy new dad to insecure hero. Despite the outlandish story and the extreme animation style, the overall effect is very relatable.


The Math

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

  • Intense animation style
  • Great family pressure commentary
  • Extreme baby dragon cuteness

POSTED BY: Ann Michelle Harris – Multitasking, fiction writing Trekkie currently dreaming of her next beach vacation.