Movie Review: Ultraman Saga (dir. Hideki Oka, 2012)

As you may know, there seem to be two major branches in US tokusatsu fandom: those that watch because of Godzilla, and those that watch because of Power Rangers (yeah, there are lots of J-horror fans, but they’re not organized). The people who got into tokusatsu through Godzilla tend to watch kaiju movies and only kaiju movies, and they usually wait for official US releases of anything that doesn’t have Godzilla or Gamera in it. People who got into tokusatsu through Power Rangers tend to watch Super Sentai and Kamen Rider through digital fansubs, and while the more adventurous of them will branch out into shows like Garo, but they rarely stray too far from Toei’s Super Hero Time. This leaves the Ultraman franchise, despite being better than Sentai or (arguably) the Godzilla series, as a neglected middle child, homeless on the fringes of both fandoms.

I bring up this point (a) to whine about there not being fansubs for Ultra Q yet, and (b) to explain why the copy of Ultraman Saga that I watched for this review was imported from Malaysia. The English subtitles on the Malay DVD are more intelligible than a lot of Asian imports, but still sub-par for professional product, and I’d recommend avoiding the poorly-mixed, monotone, thickly-accented English dub unless you’re feeling particularly masochistic. But, you take what you can get, since Ultraman stuff never gets licensed in the US (except through Chaiyo), and fansubbers just don’t care about Ultraman. I remember hearing that a few fansub groups planned on doing subs of Ultraman Saga, and passed because they didn’t think it was any good… I’d like to know what movie they were watching, because this film is bloody excellent.

I’ll start with the things that could have been insufferable. First, this movie has a more comedic tone than the last few cinematic outings, but it’s never grating; instead I found plot points like Ultraman Zero (being the abrasive jerk that he is) arguing with his human host to be clever and innovative for the series. The second possible source of ire is that the focus here is on Ultraman Dyna (a popular Ultra from a series whose only English translation aired on Californian TV without further distribution), with a guest appearance by Ultraman Cosmos (the annoyingly pacifist Ultra). But on this point also, you don’t have to be familiar with Dyna’s series to understand the movie, and Cosmos’s no-kill policy when dealing with monsters actually works better when he’s in an ensemble cast than in his own series. The last point of caution was this movie’s EDF stand-in: a ragtag group of children made mostly of AKB48 singers. While none of them are particularly memorable, they also avoid falling into the trap of being annoying; they come across as reasonable kids who also have pretty cool outfits and some nifty power armor suits.

Now, for what was good: effects, design, and choreography. After glutting on Super Sentai, it’s nice to see decent miniature work for once, and Saga integrated miniatures in ways that were jaw-droppingly seamless. Shots of cityscape were often done from inside miniature buildings, in grand Tsuburaya tradition, and may be some of the best modeling since Gamera: Guardian of the Universe. That’s right, the monster battling takes place in a city again, for the first time since 2007’s Ultraseven X, and it’s glorious. (Also, the modern cityscape doesn’t break continuity from the futuristic setting of Ultra Galaxy, because this is a parallel universe. They thought of everything!) Matters of scale are played with liberally here, with Ultramen tackling monsters that are many times their height, a tradition of the last few Ultraman films, but in this case multiple suit actors are composited together to show, e.g., a miniature Ultraman Zero wrestling with Gomess, and to much surprise, it actually looks convincing. For a budget of under $2 million, that’s mind-blowing.

There are a handful of familiar monsters that pop up throughout the movie, but the climax, involving a two-stage transforming Hyper Zetton, is the most ambitious. From the start, with Zero, Dyna, and Cosmos battling an overwhelmingly huge hulk of a creature, to the agile, teleporting second Zetton stage that confronts the titular Ultraman Saga (a fusion of the main three Ultras of this movie. Wait, they can do that?), the colorful clash feels like something out of Dragonball Z. I really dig the updated Zetton design here, much more than the Ultra Galaxy one, and the prismatic-haloed Ultraman Saga also has a distinct look that’s to be remembered.

In my opinion, there hasn’t been an Ultraman project that’s been anything short of stellar since 2002 or so. We’re overdue for something mediocre, and despite popular opinion, Ultraman Saga is not that. It may be the best tokusatsu feature from 2012 that I’ve seen yet. If nothing else, it’s a lot more deserving of attention than Super Hero Taisen.

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