Shin Ultraman has become perhaps the biggest Ultraman feature film release of all time, a massive global phenomenon that has helped to bring the celebrated Giant of Light and his myriad television series to audiences around the planet, including the countless new and old fans who will be enjoying it this week as part of the Fathom Events presentation on January 11th and 12th.
However, what is often forgotten by fans and unknown to new viewers is that Shin Ultraman is not the first massive cinematic reinterpretation of the original Ultraman series. That, friends, is the 2004 film known as Ultraman: The Next.
Directed by Kazuya Konaka and written by longtime Ultra Series veteran Keiichi Hasegawa, The Next shifts the context away from a direct adaptation of the original story in favor of recontextualizing its elements. Shunichi Maki is a pilot, formerly the ace of the JSDF, who is retiring to focus on the care of his son, who is suffering from a potentially terminal blood disease.
On a final mission to investigate a mysterious bogey over the skies of Japan, Maki collides with a glowing sphere of burning energy, destroying his plane and imbuing him with the light of the mysterious giant within the orb. His miraculous survival nevertheless plunges him and his family into a world of subterfuge and danger, as he is forced to deal not only with another alien threatening the destruction of the world, but a government mired in distrust and prejudice.
While Shin Ultraman incorporates many storylines and foes from the classic series in its modern telling, The Next creates totally new entities, inspired by the first episode of the 1966 series, “Ultra Operation No. 1.” In comparison to the more political science-fiction of Shin, The Next focuses on visceral imagery underpinning more military reactions to the idea of Ultraman, with Maki facing persecution and danger because of his new bond with Ultraman.
In addition, rather than the usual symbiotic relationship between the Ultra and his human host, Maki cannot rely on the wisdom of the giant due to an incomplete merger. Even his first transformation, made under duress while threatened by the horrifying entity The One, is incomplete and undeveloped. Maki has little idea what he’s doing, and his fight is a desperate one, fueled by a love for his family and a desire to protect them.
Speaking of The One, this sinister creature is the sole foe that Ultraman faces in the movie and carries with it references to the original Ultraman’s first enemy Bemular. However, the danger it presents far exceeds the creature it is inspired by, being a Cronenbergian horror in the vein of The Thing, constantly consuming and assimilating other lifeforms into its increasingly deadly and monstrous form, growing in a twisted parallel to the still-developing Ultraman.
If you want to watch Ultraman: The Next, you can find it in a box set right now alongside the sequel show that followed it, 2005’s Ultraman Nexus, thanks to Mill Creek Entertainment. Nexus is a brooding, thoughtful deconstruction of the Ultraman franchise, continuing to examine the role of Ultraman in a world that is not fully prepared for him or the threats he fights on a societal and emotional level, and the weight and dangers of ignorance.
Before that, however, make sure that you have your tickets for Shin Ultraman on Wednesday, January 11th (Original Japanese with subtitles) and Thursday, January 12th (New English Dub). Seating is limited, so make sure that you don’t miss out on this massive cinematic event!