Shin Ultraman’s Shinji Higuchi on the Enduring Legend of One of Japan’s Greatest Heroes

Shin Ultraman’s Shinji Higuchi on the Enduring Legend of One of Japan’s Greatest Heroes

Ultraman has been a defining figure of Japanese pop culture for over half a century — but now more than ever, it feels like the giant hero is on the cusp of truly global adoration. New Ultraman shows stream for free around the world, he’s had global success in anime, manga, and movies. And now it’s nearly time for his biggest challenge yet: the film festival circuit.

Shin Ultraman, the second “Shin” tokusatsu collaboration between Shinji Higuchi and Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno after 2016’s Shin Godzilla, released in Japan earlier this year, after the covid-19 pandemic delayed its release several times. Now slowly touring the international film circuit ahead of wider global release plans, somewhere like last week’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, might be a peculiar place for a silver-and-red alien warrior who grows to building-towering sizes to shoot laser beams at giant monsters. Especially one that has been the staple of Japanese children’s television for so long, rather than the adult star of the silver screen.

And yet, Shin Ultraman shined as one of Fantastic Fest’s highlights — not quite as subversive of the genre as its predecessor Shin Godzilla, but balancing its creators’ love of Ultraman as a concept with presenting the reality of giant beings battling giant monsters in contemporary Japan. To learn more about the movie, Higuchi’s influences, and what he wants to see for Ultraman and tokusatsu at large, Gizmodo recently sat down with the director (via a translator) over Zoom. Check out our full interview below!

io9: You’ve been on the film festival circuit internationally with Shin Ultraman for a while now. What’s surprised you most about the international response to the movie?

Shinji Higuchi: The best part about it is that because covid happened, I was not able to go out anymore. Everything with the pandemic, everything was shut down. But now [I’ve been able to] go from country to country and see so many people. That’s been the happiest [part of] releasing the film at festivals internationally.

io9: Hideaki Anno has long made clear his love for Ultraman and its influence on its work. What was your personal relationship to the series like before you began working on Shin Ultraman?

Higuchi: From the time I was born, Ultraman was there. As far back as I can even remember, and even before I can remember, Ultraman was there. When I was five, I would watch the show and my fandom began so many years ago. So to grow up and have this be a part of my life, from the time I was a young baby to the time that I met Hideaki Anno, it’s always been a close relationship in my life. From the time that I first saw Ultraman, it’s like I didn’t really see him as a hero per se, because his body was very, like, noodle-ish and it was kind of one of those things where it’s not a hero in the traditional sense.

io9: Godzilla as a series has always waxed and waned between treating its titular monster as a hero or a villain — Ultraman, meanwhile, has always been about these explicitly heroic figures. What was most challenging to you about continuing the legacy you and Anno-san started in Shin Godzilla and approaching a heroic character like Ultraman?

Higuchi: In the world when people are looking at a hero, they have already in their head a sense of what a hero is and what a hero does. You have characters like Spider-Man and Superman, and they have it in their heart that they have to do good. With Ultraman, it’s kind of like having two people inside of Ultraman, and to make it into a situation where he is easily identifiable as a hero is the biggest challenge that he has.

io9: Shin Godzilla focused a lot on the Japanese government’s direct response to Godzilla, while Ultraman of course already has the SSSP as its vision of bureaucracy. How did you go about approaching them differently to the way we saw the government response portrayed in Shin Godzilla?

Higuchi: So when Shin Godzilla came out, it was a situation in that universe where that was their first time experiencing a kaiju. And so the government response to the kaiju of Shin Godzilla is their first instance of dealing with that situation. By the time the movie Shin Ultraman comes out, it has evolved; their departments have evolved to regularly deal with kaiju that have been attacking Japan. And so in the process, the SSSP department was developed and [in Shin Ultraman you see] basically the evolution of this department.

io9: You’ve worked in and out of the movie effects industry and animation for decades now. What lessons did you ultimately take from directing a film like Shin Ultraman?

Higuchi: This is a very hard question to answer because at first I was like, “I really didn’t learn anything.” And then it turned into, “I just did a bad thing by saying [that I really didn’t learn anything].” [Laughs] But yeah, it is a learning process.

As far as my long career is concerned, there are [times] where you run into [problems], where, like, “How do we figure this situation out?” And it’s like, “Oh, we do it this way.” And so that type of troubleshooting of the things that could go wrong on set, that happen regularly, [is something that I’m used to]. But when you have a legacy of pre-existing content that you have to honour, while also coming up with something that is a new and unique sort of perspective on something that is long-standing, that has been around for many years–that was a challenge when tackling a project such as Shin Ultrama. But in of itself, in the process of filmmaking, there is no one thing that stands out [that I learned while making the film]. It’s all part of the process.

io9: Anno-san has gone on to direct Shin Kamen Rider now. Do you see a future for yourself in doing more of these contemporary spins on tokusatsu legends — if not by yourself, is there another series you’d love to see get the “Shin” treatment?

Higuchi: I don’t have much of an interest in doing a revival of an older, legendary kaiju as a Shin title. I’m actually more interested in doing something that is original. That is my dream, to come up with something original myself.

io9: The tokusatsu genre, Ultraman included, still has a huge ongoing legacy on Japanese TV. What do you think tokusatsu needs to do to thrive in the world of cinema in this age of superhero blockbusters we find ourselves in?

Higuchi: When the movies, the original tokusatsu were coming out, the studios like Toei and Toho were mainly crewed by young staffers. At the time they were coming out with content that was unique and that nobody had ever seen before. Those creators, obviously over the past few years, are now older and basically the ingenuity of young minds is what’s necessary for new creations to come about. I’m 57 years old now, so for me, you know, there needs to be younger minds to join the crew to come up with new ideas — like, why is it on me? [Laughs]

io9: Ultraman feels like a series that’s finally really starting to cultivate a truly global fanbase. Why do you think Ultraman has not only endured in his homeland, but finally found appraisal across the world now more than ever before?

Higuchi: When you’re watching Ultraman, it’s not like he’s a superhero just because he’s physically strong like Superman. With Ultraman, it’s a little bit different. Yes, he is strong. But there are moments during the TV series where he would lose all of his energy; he’d be fighting, grabbing the tail of a kaiju, and he’d get thrown down and then he wouldn’t be able to get up because he ran out of energy. It has been drained from him. So seeing Ultraman having to get up made my heart beat faster. It makes you want to cheer: “Ultraman, get up, get up!” And that is the thing about Ultraman and the tokusatsu genre, that emotional connection where it’s not about “Oh, he’s a superhero because he’s strong, or he’s always good.” He’s not perfect. He has that weakness about him. And that’s what keeps the audience so connected to the heart of that character.

Shin Ultraman is expected to hit U.S. theatres in the near future, but no release date has been currently confirmed.

Want more Gizmodo news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.

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