TokuNet staff writer Brody Salzman dives into the adventures of STORAGE, Haruki, and the titular ultra warrior, Ultraman Z, in his first experience with Ultraman.
Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers. Please be advised.
My excitement at the idea of an international YouTube simulcast for any tokusatsu show cannot be overstated. Watching shows like Kamen Rider or Super Sentai as they air in Japan on a platform as widely accessible as YouTube is pretty much the absolute dream for any tokusatsu fan, right now. Imagine my surprise when we reported that this very approach to simulcasting would actually be happening for the first time with Ultraman which I had never watched apart from the Netflix anime.
Despite not previously being a fan of the Ultra series, I was absolutely over the moon to hear this would be happening since it made for the perfect time to start watching. After all, jumping on releases like this is the easiest way to let Japanese production companies know that we want more. I was really looking forward to my first proper foray into the Ultra series, and the fact it was with an official release airing alongside each new episode in Japan was even more thrilling.
I know those of you reading at home probably won’t be able to access the show through YouTube anymore, seeing as each episode only stayed up for two weeks, but the official Ultraman YouTube channel is still uploading more shows with the same approach so you should check in periodically to see what’s available. Team TokuNet will surely report any notable new releases. I highly recommend supporting these releases as they happen because Ultraman Z might be a turning point in tokusatsu distribution. Ideally, we could even see the upcoming Shin Ultraman release on YouTube.
Before we jump into my experience with Ultraman Z, I’ll let you know upfront that although I can say this was my first Ultra series show, I binged all of Ultraman Geed between the release of Ultraman Z episodes 6 and 7 so that I would understand the context of Riku’s inclusion. I think this has probably colored my opinion in some way, but I’m excited to share my thoughts on Geed in the future. For now, let’s discuss what it’s like to watch Ultraman Z.
From Toei to the Land of Light
My history with tokusatsu is mostly Toei productions. I love Kamen Rider and Super Sentai a lot. Since getting into tokusatsu with Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger in 2013, I’ve seen 15 total Super Sentai Series shows including Mashin Sentai Kiramager (going on 16 now that Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger is airing) and 14 Kamen Rider shows including Kamen Rider Saber. Fans like me should be aware that making the jump from those series to the Ultra series, at least with Ultraman Z, means you should not expect the same kind of storytelling. From speaking with friends, I learned that Ultraman Z takes a pretty traditional approach to story structure when it comes to Ultraman.
Ultraman Z opens with a kaiju attack which is stopped by the Special Tactical Operations Regimental Airborne and Ground Equipment unit (STORAGE) and its giant robot, Sevenger, piloted by primary pilot Yoko Nakashima. Our protagonist, Haruki Natsukawa, is also part of this kaiju defense unit, and we first see him rescuing a dog during the attack which puts the entire operation at risk.
Joining these two on the attack team are the kaiju-obsessed scientist, Yuka Ohta, who’s responsible for advising Yoko and Haruki in their battles, and Captain Shota Hebikura. Hebikura, the team leader, is actually Ultraman Orb villain Jugglus Juggler in disguise. Although, as someone who has yet to watch that show, I can’t tell you a thing about what motivates him. His goals seem to fluctuate as events unfold despite always helping Haruki in the end. Throughout Ultraman Z, Hebikura just seems like he’s pushing things along for the sake of his own entertainment with only one clear moment where he seems to have a malicious goal near the end.
In short, Haruki and his friends in STORAGE are in charge of fighting kaiju that show up on Earth. Meanwhile, out in space, Ultraman Z and his “master,” Ultraman Zero (who apparently wasn’t really asked if he wanted to be Z’s master), are fighting an alien kaiju born from a Devil Splinter out in the depths of space. The Devil Splinters are pieces of the evil Ultraman Belial that spread through space. During their battle, Zero is sent into a wormhole, and he leaves behind three Ultra Medals and a Z Riser for Ultraman Z to take with him. The Ultra Medals, which contain the power of various past Ultramen, can be used with the Z Riser for a user to transform into an Ultra.
When the monster Z was fighting escapes to Earth, both Haruki (this time piloting Sevenger) and Ultraman Z reach their limits. In order to save Haruki’s life, Z fuses their bodies which enables Haruki to transform into Ultraman Z Alpha Edge using the Z Riser and fight by combining their strength. Using this power, Haruki saves the day.
From here, the show takes on a sort of pattern before bringing in Riku/Ultraman Geed. The pattern is as follows:
STORAGE is involved in a normal situation of some kind.
A kaiju wakes up or otherwise approaches to attack.
Haruki will either try to help from the ground or from inside a robot, but he will inevitably fail.
Haruki transforms into Ultraman Z and saves the day, usually by using extra intelligence given by Yuka.
A key difference between Toei shows and Ultraman shows, at least these days, is that Ultraman shows run for about half the length of a Toei production. This being the case, I expected a lot more plot development than I got. Early on, a mysterious character named Kaburagi uses materials from kaiju to create Kaiju Medals similar to the Ultra Medals. With his own Z Riser, Kaburagi is able to summon kaiju and even combine three together, transforming into the result. It seemed like Kaburagi had some maniacal plan that would be put into motion, but nothing notable happens with him through almost the entire show until the final four episodes or so.
I don’t think I was doing myself any favors by watching all of Ultraman Geed in between episodes 6 and 7, and I want to explain why without going too deep into my thoughts on Geed.
Sitting Around Doing Nothing Doesn’t Get This Show Anywhere
As I said, episode 5 reveals that Captain Hebikura is Ultraman Orb‘s Jugglus Juggler. Episode 6 reunites him with Riku Asakura who first met him in the Ultraman Geed movie. Riku, for the uninitiated, is Ultraman Geed’s human form. Born the son of Belial, Riku cannot hold his Ultra form for very long on Earth. By using his Geed Riser with Ultra Capsules powered by Ultras of the past, Riku can “Fusion Rise” into various Ultra forms. In Ultraman Z, it’s revealed that a kaiju from Ultraman Geed The Movie was revived by a Devil Splinter. When Riku failed to destroy it, his Geed Riser was broken. Now, he uses a Z Riser with the Ginga, X, and Orb Ultra Medals to become Ultraman Geed Galaxy Rising.
Riku pursues the kaiju to Haruki’s Earth, in a universe different from his own, and they take it down together. After Riku’s debut, I chose to binge all of Ultraman Geed before watching Ultraman Z episode 7. There are a few differences between Geed and Z that I think colored my opinion. For starters, Ultraman Geed‘s antagonists push the plot forward through the use of kaiju. In Ultraman Z, the antagonist is quite secondary to everything else happening while the main focus is whatever random kaiju of the week STORAGE has to deal with. Additionally, Riku doesn’t start out being part of an anti-kaiju organization like many protagonists of the past.
Geed is a story about Riku growing into the Ultra he was always destined to be, saving the world and coming to terms with his evil father at the same time. Ultraman Z is a series of episodic adventures exploring the rich cast of characters. While I always have fun watching Ultraman Z, I didn’t ever feel particularly compelled to watch the next episode except in the case of occasional two-parters. Geed, by contrast, is much more story-driven, and I felt like I got more out of Riku’s introduction in Ultraman Z after watching Geed. Riku’s interaction with Juggler also makes a lot more sense after seeing them meet in Ultraman Geed The Movie.
The real payoff for Riku’s inclusion in Ultraman Z comes in episode 7 when Zero escapes the wormhole and makes it to Earth. After using a Devil Splinter combined with the Belial Factor in Riku, Kaburagi creates a Belial Ultra Medal and uses it to challenge all three Ultras. In Geed, Ultraman Zero is basically the Ultra series equivalent of a secondary Kamen Rider, so seeing Geed and Zero fight the power of Riku’s dad alongside Haruki and Z was pretty powerful.
After this two-parter, there’s really no plot progression until episode 12. Here, we learn about Haruki’s father as Haruki questions whether it’s right to kill kaiju that are just doing what instinct tells them like protecting an egg. It’s enough to prevent Haruki from being capable of fighting as Ultraman Z, and it really had my attention. I thought this would be where the plot picks up. The only other actual plot progression up until this point was either Haruki getting new Ultra Medals or STORAGE creating a new robot for no real plot-related reason reason outside of “we can’t beat this kaiju for X reason.” Nothing else seemed to carry narrative weight. But now, we were surely about halfway through, right? Surely this sudden moral dilemma would be the launching point for a more intense story, right?
No such luck.
The next plot development happens when a sort of extra-dimensional monster attacks, summoning Riku and Zero back to Earth. The result of this intense battle is Ultraman Z’s strongest form and not much else. Well… except Geed giving his Ultra Medals to Haruki since Ultraman Hikari fixed his Geed riser. Again, it’s great to see the characters from Geed, but Ultraman Z’s story doesn’t have any cohesive direction through the entire show. Although, we do see a parasitic lifeform called Celebro switch hosts a few times. This is actually the alien that’s been possessing Kaburagi all along, but the result of its switching isn’t shown until so much later that you’re almost guaranteed to have forgotten about it.
In the meanwhile, Juggler had only ever intervened to attack kaiju or Haruki for reasons that were never quite clear to me. It’s like he gets these random bursts of motivation to fight, and he only stops because he just doesn’t feel like doing anything else. There were only three times I ever understood what Juggler was doing:
When he first revealed himself to take Haruki’s Z Riser so he could make his own Dark Riser.
When he took Haruki to retrieve the Belial medal from Kaburagi so Z could take on his strongest form and the planet wouldn’t be destroyed.
When he tried to steal the final robot creation of STORAGE, Ultroid Zero, in the second-to-last episode because it’s an ultra-powerful weapon.
What did he want the Dark Riser for? What did he want Ultroid Zero for? I couldn’t tell you. Juggler is extremely inconsistent, and I’m left wondering if Ultraman Orb‘s story would fill in the gaps. Honestly, I don’t think it’s good writing if I have to watch a completely separate show just to understand what a character’s goals are in this one.
Lately, I haven’t been good about keeping up with weekly tokusatsu shows. Even if each episode of Ultraman Z had the looming two-week deadlines on YouTube, I found I was having trouble reminding myself to watch after a while. I just wasn’t ever excited enough to see what would happen next. Of course, I did want to finish watching. In fact, I always have fun while watching. It’s just that apart from loving the characters, the overarching story didn’t have me hooked. It really says something to me that I waited until the end of January to finally watch the last two episodes despite how intense the story got in episode 23.
That said, what kept me coming back? I just mentioned I have fun whenever I watch. Let’s talk about that.
Swallowing the Darkness, the Golden Parts
I just spent some majority of the last 1,703 words explaining my biggest issues with the show, but I’d be remiss not to analyze the parts of Ultraman Z that I enjoyed the most. As a whole, I do think it’s a good show that’s worth watching even if the initial setup never quite delivers on its seeming promise to focus on a story. So why watch? For the incredible action, the smart shots of that action, and the bond you form with the members of STORAGE.
Coming from so many years watching Super Sentai, I was most skeptical about how a show with effectively only megazord-style fights would hook me into the action. Luckily, my concerns were very misplaced. Lessons learned from over fifty years of making tokusatsu kaiju productions shine brilliantly in this show.
Ultraman Z gets around Sentai‘s usual shortcomings by relying heavily on how nimble an actor can be in the Ultraman suits. They’re not held back by large mechanical pieces the way a Sentai robo suit actor is which gives them free rein to jump, roll, and wail on whatever kaiju they’re up against. This was clear to me even without explicitly looking for it. The use of CGI is really smart, normally being reserved for complicated shots of city-wide battles including multiple Ultras when it’s not being used for singular energy attacks. When fight scenes composite in extra shots of the humans at ground level to give a true sense of scale, everything comes together in a wonderfully thrilling way.
Just when you might be getting tired of giant monster battles, the show even introduces the concept of Z transforming at ground level for about a minute at a time just to spice things up. The focus is always on the battles between giants, but it’s exciting to see some Kamen Rider-style action mixed in, and Ultraman Z isn’t the only one you see fight like that. STORAGE gets involved on ground-level plenty, and sometimes Juggler even stops by to deliver a beatdown to kaiju and aliens. Needless to explain further, what this show lacks in story, it more than makes up for in action.
If you haven’t seen Kiyotaka Taguchi’s talents as head director of Ultraman Z, you can clearly see them on display in Mashin Sentai Kiramager episodes 32 and 33. There, his talents in directing giant monster action bring a new flavor to a Super Sentai robo fight for the first time. Of course, if you’re not here for the action as much as you are for story… Well, I might’ve lost you already. If you’re still reading, I’d like to propose an alternative for you: Rather than watching Ultraman Z for an overarching story, try watching it for the characters specifically.
Haruki is kind of stupid a lot of the time, but his heart is pure. He’s a bit of a musclehead who’s always working out and sparring in his spare time to become a stronger member of the team. He’s the kind of person who desperately wants to save people, but he doesn’t have the strength to do it alone. The nuance of his character comes through for the first time when he discovers the two enemy Red Kings are trying to defend their eggs. He questions whether it’s morally acceptable to destroy creatures that are trying to protect their helpless offspring. While writing this review, I was trying to pinpoint just what I find so appealing about Haruki, but I think his pure will to protect is the key.
While the entire team has things they want to protect, Haruki is the force guiding them in the right direction. Hebikura’s goal as captain of the team (rather than as Juggler) is to minimize damage and fatalities by destroying kaiju. Yuka’s goal apart from helping her team defend the city is to research kaiju to such an obsessive extent that she’d likely ask to dissect any alien she meets. Similar to the captain, Yoko has a very one-track mind. She has a mission, and she’s focused on accomplishing it: To protect civilians from dangerous kaiju.
None of this is to say that Haruki doesn’t want to protect the city and its citizens. Rather, Haruki doesn’t lose focus on the little things (like the dog I mentioned in episode 1) in service of the main goal (stopping the kaiju). Seeing Haruki overcome the things holding him back and fight for the things he wants to protect through the power of his will is mainly where his appeal shines. Even if the entire world is in danger, even if Yoko is trapped inside the biggest most dangerous monster yet, even if he can’t transform into Ultraman Z, and even if transforming would sacrifice his life, Haruki will do whatever it takes to save everyone and everything he cares about for the sake of peace and happiness.
I already mentioned that I don’t really understand Juggler, but watching him interact with everyone as Hebikura is incredibly entertaining. He’s really a big dork. Speaking of dorks, Yuka may be obsessive about kaiju in a way other characters find unsettling, but her pure passion is really endearing. I think Yuka is a character that longtime tokusatsu fans can really see themselves in, and there’s a good reason for it. Her actress, Hikari Kuroki, is known to have been a big fan of the Ultra series prior to appearing in it, and Kuroki’s passion definitely comes through in her performance.
Finally, there’s Yoko. I roll my eyes a bit whenever she gets all flustered by Ultraman Z. She’s said early on to be attracted to “older men” which is hinted to be the reason she’s so head-over-heels for an Ultra hundreds of years older than her, and that part’s honestly way more unsettling than Yuka’s obsessions… but there’s more to Yoko when you look deeper. When Haruki confronts her about the Red Kings, she claims she’ll carry the burden of those deaths even as she does what she must to protect humanity. Her drive is intense. Her skills are real. Her bonds with her team run deep, but she’s also very ambitious. Yoko is the type who wants to be the best at what she does. She wants to pilot the best robots. She wants to stop the kaiju with her own power.
In the end, Yoko reveals the reason she always arm wrestles people is to see if they’re strong enough to marry her. She decided only the man who can prove he’s stronger than her is worthy of her hand in matrimony. On the surface, it’s a bit disappointing that a defining character trait of this strong female protagonist turns out to be based on her finding a man to marry, but thinking on it now, maybe that’s not correct. The drive I described that Yoko has is real, and you feel it when she pushes herself even in increasingly dangerous situations. It might be simply that her arm wrestling habit is just a standard she set for herself.
Either way, the reveal of Yoko’s backstory holds heavy meaning when you’ve been watching all along up until that point. She spends the whole show challenging Haruki to arm wrestle over and over and over. Why would she keep arm wrestling him when she wins every time? If Haruki were the one asking her to, it might be one thing, but it’s usually Yoko asking him to arm wrestle. It’s almost like she wanted him to beat her all along. Is this an official ship that sets sail in the end? I suppose that’s for the fans to decide, but that’s how I took it. This is the one overarching plot element that actually felt like it had weight.
Actually, I take that last part back. I’ve been trying to convince you of how great the STORAGE squad is because the entire final arc only holds weight because of how the audience bonds with them by the end. The final arc features the squad being broken up as Sevenger is retired. Celebro, who has now infiltrated the new organization in charge of fighting kaiju (SAAG), aims to use Ultroid Zero to destroy the world. The only way to save Yoko, who is now trapped inside Ultroid Zero, is for STORAGE to form back up and launch an attack to save her.
Obviously, this arc holds the weight of pitting Haruki and Z against the most dangerous kaiju yet (one that holds a destructive beam capable of breaking through dimensions), but the true weight comes from seeing STORAGE pushed into its most precarious situation where the members of the team must come together, and I feel like the weight behind this arc helps it stick the landing. At this point, the audience has built a bond with the group. We need Haruki to save Yoko because she’s so important to everyone, especially Haruki, and even more so because we finally saw Haruki beat her in arm wrestling. We need to see Haruki and Yoko get their happy ending, whatever that looks like. Meanwhile, we’re scared for Haruki because we think he won’t make it… until he does. I don’t really understand why transforming was suddenly safe, but I’m all for the happy uplifting endings even if the Chekhov’s Gun was never fired. Although, I do wish the solution to that problem were explained.
One other part worth mentioning is a special episode featuring Ultraman Ace. Ace is one of the original six Ultra brothers and reveals that he’s the one that named Ultraman Z. During a Yapool-related attack (monsters Ace dealt with in his show), Ace teaches Z how to use a new attack. When Ace departs, his flight path crosses the Z-shaped trail Ultraman Z usually leaves while flying off. It forms an “A” for “Ace,” and I really appreciated the tribute as a whole. It wasn’t clear to me why it was included, but it’s still really fun.
That’s really what Ultraman Z is, altogether- fun character shenanigans and cool action with a few deep cuts for longtime fans.
A Fun Time, This Show’s Pretty ‘Kay!
The full picture isn’t as cohesive as a more story-driven show like Ultraman Geed. Those of you coming from watching Super Sentai and especially Kamen Rider might find Geed‘s approach is closer to what you’re looking for, but the moment-to-moment in Ultraman Z is fun enough that watching an episode or two each week is well worth it. If most Ultra series shows are as episodic as this one like my friends are leading me to believe, it’ll be interesting to watch another show as a binge to see if the episodic nature still rubs me the wrong way. Since most shows are half the length of a Toei production, it shouldn’t be too difficult.
That said, Ultraman Z is definitely a good show. For those who are new to the series and want to see what a traditional Ultra series setup is like, I’d recommend this one for sure. Just make sure you don’t go in expecting a lot of plot advancement or you’ll be disappointed like I was.
All in all, maybe the plot doesn’t pick up until the very end. Maybe the promise of a more involved villain from the beginning with Kaburagi never delivers, and maybe that’s disappointing. Even so, we still got a great character-driven monster-of-the-week show where we gradually bond with the main cast. Seeing that cast struggle in the end carries significant narrative weight thanks to that bond. Ultraman Z is a fantastically directed action show that gets my blood pumping almost every fight.
I think I’ll always look back fondly on my time with the members of STORAGE. An arm wrestle will always poke at my heart thanks to Yoko. Yuka will continue to inspire me to unapologetically wear my passions on my sleeve.
If this show affected me on even that level, then I think it’s plenty good and worth the time spent watching it. With that said…
One more time, ‘kay?
Please, chant his name!