Ultraman: The Next is a heartwarming tale about following your dreams and punching giant monsters.
A long, long time ago, in the distant past of 2004, Tsubaraya created the Ultra N Project to revive the Ultraman franchise. The project centered on a mysterious figure named Ultraman Noa whose appearance was more biological and insectoid than your average Ultra. Not so coincidentally, Noa was also the name of a mythological Ultra-like god in episode 7 of the original Ultraman, but that’s another story for another time. The centerpiece of the Ultra N Project was the Ultraman Nexus television series. The show featured the titular Ultra that passed between multiple hosts, called Deunamists. In the middle of the season, a film hit Japanese theaters that told the story of the very first Deunamist, pilot Shunichi Maki. That film is Ultraman: The Next.
Shunichi is a fighter pilot in the Japan Air Self-Defense Force. He pilots an F-15 Eagle, a fact his young son is immensely proud of. Sadly, his son has a congenital blood disease and may not live past the age of 7, so Shunichi quits the JASDF to spend as much time with his family as he can before it’s too late. On his last mission, he encounters a bright ball of red light flying through the sky. Shunichi’s Eagle and the light collide and our hero finds himself surrounded by energy and staring at a giant being before finally blacking out. This incident mirrors the origin of Shin Hayato in the original Ultraman. The doctors at the base can’t find anything wrong with Shunichi, so he’s free to retire without a hitch. Of course there’s another branch of the military that’s taken an interest in him, and they’re about to make Shunichi’s life a lot more complicated.
The other major player in these events is Sara Mizuhara, a member of the aforementioned mysterious military unit. While Shunichi had his close encounter in the skies, Sara’s teammate Udo had a similar experience in the ocean. Udo’s accident left him possessed by an alien creature, codenamed The One. The One is a homicidal nightmare that absorbs the life of anything it comes in contact with, but Sara didn’t kill it when she had the chance. She and the rest of her unit kidnap Shunichi to use him as bait for The One, and fix her mistake.
Most of the film is Shunichi’s story. We get a good glimpse of his life with his family, and we genuinely feel for him once the new normality he fought so hard for is taken from him. Actor Tetsuya Bessho (Godzilla vs. Mothra) convincingly brings out Shunichi’s desperation in one of the film’s best scenes, where he rushes to the hospital to reunite with his son for what may be the last time. Also to the film’s credit is the fact that Shunichi doesn’t communicate with Ultraman until the end, and his fights prove it. Shunichi is in control after he transforms, so the combat is rough and desperate, which makes it feel like an extension of the host. This is an Ultraman who really has to earn his powers and upgrades, and the moments in which he does feel like genuine triumphs thanks to the films strong soundtrack.
Once our hero’s family drama is resolved, Sara’s conflict takes the spotlight. The truth about her relationship with Udo comes to light, and she gets a final confrontation with him that allows her to atone for her earlier slip-up. The added drama comes a little late in the film, but it’s effectively used and doesn’t feel like an intrusion on the main conflict.
As The One absorbs different lifeforms throughout the film, his appearance goes through a few major changes. They get better looking as the film goes on, which is to say only the final form is excellent, the preceding forms not so much. The intermediary forms feel unbalanced, and have one or two aspects, like the mouth or arms, that look cartoonish compared to the rest of The One’s body. The final form actually looks grotesque thanks to some particularly nasty shoulder accessories, and achieves the goal of being a truly menacing final boss.
As far as the Ultraman himself is concerned, I’m a huge fan of the design. I’m a sucker for organic-leaning re-imaginings and I especially like this one. The highlights of the design are how his color timer reflects a beating heart and the red, muscly bits of his upgraded form.
The Ultra N (Next, Nexus, Noa) project is my favorite chapter of Ultraman history, since it’s how I got reintroduced to the franchise years after watching the 4kids dub of Tiga. Even if it didn’t hold that special place for me, I’d like to think I’d still enjoy this film as much as I already do. Shunichi’s arc is totally compelling and heartwarming, and the film approaches its more fantastical elements with just the right amount of seriousness without going overboard into grim territory. The digital effects aren’t as good as I’d like, but considering the year, I figure they could have been a lot worse. Ultraman: The Next does a great job at what it sets out to do, establish a new Ultra mythology for a new age. Sadly the project wasn’t that successful with young children and got scrapped, but maybe someday someone can look at what worked back then and put together a worthy successor to the film.
Things are about to change here at the TokuNet Film Club! Starting next week, drop by our forums to discuss the Club’s March entries: Kamen Rider The First and The Next. I and other TokuNet teammembers will participate in the discussion, and hopefully address some of your opinions in the biweekly review that hits the front page. We look forward to hearing from you!