Ultraman Season 1: Anime Review

From Left - Ultra Seven, Ultraman, and Ultraman Ace from Season 1 of Ultraman

This past year or so we had a fair number of anime series paying tribute to classic Tokusatsu series from Tsuburya Productions. The most high profile of these was S.S.S.S. Gridman, with Netflix’s Ultraman Season 1 (adapting the manga) coming out earlier, and flying under the radar. There are a few reasons for that – Gridman had Trigger’s rep going for it, instead of being a totally CG anime series, and was released in English in a more conventional manner instead of the Netflix binge model. As far as how much each of those contributed – well, I can’t get into specifics without delving into Steiner Math (which I flunked in college). That said, the show is still fun, and worth your time.

Ultraman Season 1 is pretty much a straight adaptation of the first few arcs of the manga, going from Shinjiro Hayata’s origin to the Alien Serial Killer Arc, before finally moving into the introduction of this series’ version of Ultraman Ace – a little further than I am in the manga right now. The adaptation itself is pretty straightforward, and what the anime cuts – of the material I’ve read, feels like a fairly neat fit. The anime version of the Ultraman Ace arc feels rushed, but as I haven’t read all of that arc yet, I can’t say if that’s an issue with the source material, or if that arc got gutted to fit it into the last third of the anime.

The animation is otherwise fine – the animators lean more heavily into the “Ultraman as Iron Man” concept that the manga uses for its own visual designs. For example, we get more reaction shots from Shinjiro inside the helmet, using the Iron Man helmet interface shot. Additionally, the all-CG animation style fits well with the general design esthetics of all the show’s costumes – since if these characters were going to be done in live-action, the armor would be CG anyway, using CG for these characters doesn’t have a sense of cognitive dissonance.

Where the quality of the animation gets a little loose is with the movement of human characters. It’s generally okay, but it’s got some awkward moments of stiltedness. Now, that’s often present in 2D animation as well, but because in 2D animation you have a sense of visual stylization present that makes your character distant from the real world, that doesn’t bounce you out as hard.

Similarly, when you’re using CG to animate the dance movements of an idol group in an anime, that isn’t as much of an issue for me because idol group dance moves have a degree of stilted contrivance to them that isn’t necessarily present in, for example, western pop groups and performers – for example:

There are still movements in both that are artifice, as both are choreographed dance numbers, but there is a sense of… for lack of a better term, requisite dance movements that are involved in AKB48’s choreography that isn’t present in Janet’s. That’s not necessarily a knock against AKB48 either (competition figure skating has requisite moves that you have to work into the routine, and that still takes skill to both execute the moves and fit them in). However, it would feel more jarring to me to see a Janet Jackson style dance routine done in CG than an AKB48 style dance routine.

A conversation sequence takes one step beyond that Janet Jackson conversation sequence, as there are more things you need to animate to get points across – a greater degree of plasticity. The animation in Ultraman Season 1 does it some of the time, but there are still plenty of places where it doesn’t quite land the same way it would with 2D. It’s not terrible by any means, but when you have two characters try to sit down and have a romantic conversation, the animation can stumble.

Still, I’m glad I watched Ultraman Season 1, and when season 2 comes out I’ll definitely give it a watch – and hopefully, I’ll be a little further ahead in the manga by then. This has not received a DVD or Blu-Ray release yet, so if you want to watch this, you’ll have to subscribe to Netflix.

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