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Ultraman Tiga and Ultraman Dyna (subtitled The Warriors of the Lighting Star on the film although not on the packaging) is a briskly-paced and colorful package containing all the familiar Ultraman elements: aliens bent on conquest, city-smashing monsters, loads of gadgetry, a danger to Ultraman himself, and, of course, battles between our hero and the monster. The biggest drawback for casual American fans or Ultraman neophytes is that the film, being a spin-off of the Dyna and Tiga television shows, assumes the audience is already familiar with the lead characters. The plot is simple enough to follow, but with no time spent on establishing the characters or their relationships, American viewers are unlikely to feel emotionally invested in them, and may become impatient for the big effects sequences. (A reunion of Ultraman Tiga cast members at the end was probably a treat for Japanese fans, but is pretty pointless for Americans who haven't seen the series.)
Fortunately the film delivers where it counts the most: action. The quality of the special effects varies from passable to embarrassing, but the technical proficiency is secondary to the imaginative designs and the sheer energy put into the scenes. 2 The monster battles may rely primarily on traditional low-tech man-in-a-rubber-suit techniques, but they are dynamically staged and enhanced with abundant pyrotechnics and animation (for various beams, force-fields, etc.). Shusuke Kaneko's trio of popular Gamera films from the 1990's appear to have influenced these scenes to a degree (Queen Monera even looks like she may be a distant cousin of Legion from 1996's Gamera 2), but they still stay true to the spirit of the original Ultraman. Unlike Toho's typically slow-moving kaiju, Ultraman has always exhibited speed and fluid movement. The film showcases this style well, particularly when Dyna and Tiga team up for a coordinated attack on Queen Monera. Overall the monster scenes are good fun; even when some of the effects provoke an unintended chuckle now and then, one never loses a rooting interest in Ultraman.
Overall production values are modest but adequate; Tatemi Yano's exciting score helps to make the film feel bigger than it actually is. As for the actors, few are given an opportunity to shine, as the screenplay rarely pauses to give them much to do beyond react to the effects. As Asuka, Takeshi Tsuruno mugs shamelessly in his early comic scenes; after initially thinking that Asuka was the obligatory "comic relief" member of Super G.U.T.S., this reviewer was surprised when he turned out to be Ultraman Dyna. When Asuka loses his confidence in the wake of Deathfacer's defeat of Dyna, Tsurano shows more depth; he's not bad, but still never registers as a strong screen presence. He lacks the charm and appeal that Akira Kubo used to bring to similar callow-but-ultimately-heroic youth roles in 1960s kaiju eiga. Mio Takaki, reprising her Ultraman Tiga role of Captain Iruma, brings gravity and a touch of wistful sadness to her scenes. In key supporting roles, Ryo Kinomoto is appropriately stern as Super G.U.T.S. Captain Hibiki, and Aya Sugimoto is a standout as alien-possessed scientist Rui Kisaragi.
The weakest element of the film is the resurrection of Dyna and Tiga. As a stunned populace watches Dyna's apparent death from an underground bunker, a young boy named Susumu speaks up, saying that they all can "become the Light." Exactly what is meant by this is pretty vague - it appears to be a reference to part of the Ultraman Tiga mythos established in the TV series - but it seems to boil down to the collective will and spirit of the people rejuvenating Dyna and summoning the long-absent Tiga. Thematically, this ties in with an earlier scene in which Captain Hibiki tells a discouraged Asuka "You sound like you try to win all by yourself, and for that very reason you end up losing the game." Comparing heroes to baseball pitchers, Hibiki states that the pitcher's mound is not a lonely, isolated place, but rather the raised mound allows the rest of the team to look up to the pitcher as a figure of strength, and the pitcher to hear his teammates cheering him on. In other words, heroes like Ultraman function symbiotically with those they serve; the hero and the public give each other support and strength. It's an interesting idea, and one that seems very Japanese in its emphasis on the group over the individual. (Ultraman cannot win alone, he needs the support of Tiga, the Super G.U.T.S. team, and ultimately the Japanese people.) Unfortunately, the plot device of an innocent child who shows jaded adults how to restore their lost hope ("become the Light") is a tired cliché, and feels like a desperate deus ex machina to bring Ultraman Tiga into the story.
Ultraman Gaia: The Battle in Hyperspace is geared toward an even younger audience than its predecessor. Except for Gamu, all of the main characters are children, and much of the plot revolves around young Tsutoma's love of Ultraman. (Kaiju fans may be reminded of several of the original Gamera films, or 1969's Godzilla's Revenge.) Although longtime fans may be disappointed by the more juvenile focus and the resultant downplaying of some of the traditional Ultraman elements, children and new viewers will likely find the film more easily accessible since it does not demand the familiarity with the TV shows that Ultraman Tiga and Ultraman Dyna does.
Unfortunately, this is pretty much the only improvement Gaia offers. The central plot device - a wish-fulfilling machine whose power is abused - seems borrowed from the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, and both the story and the theme are poorly developed. Numerous questions are left unanswered. A new student in Tsutoma's class looks just like the mysterious girl in his dream, and she does turn out to be some sort of personification of the red ball. Why does the ball appear as a young girl? Just to relate to Tsutoma? If so, why does Gamu also dream of the girl? In the dreams she appears amidst ruins; is she the image of someone killed by the ball on some other world? After Gamu turns into Gaia for the first time in the "real" world, he is puzzled as to why his energy drained so quickly, but this is never explained or even mentioned again. Why is Gamu drawn back to his universe? In that world, he disappeared by the Bermuda Triangle. Does this have anything to do with his appearance or disappearance, or does the ball control everything?
Perhaps most confusing is the ball's influence, or lack of influence, on the bullies. We are told that the ball merely reflects the inner desires of whoever uses it, but when the bully grabs it and uses it to create and control a monster, his voice becomes distorted, as if he is possessed. When the ball is wrested from him, he regains control of himself and is horrified by his own actions. One of his friends picks it up and - presto! - he begins speaking with a distorted voice and acting evil too. This definitely makes it appear that the ball possesses, or corrupts, the user, rather than merely brings out inner desires. Furthermore, although the theme of the film is that selfish greed is destructive, the bullies' wishes don't come across as greedy, just pointless and stupid. We never see them wish for money, or candy, or video games, or anything else a child might want; no, they just wish for a monster to destroy the world, for no reason at all other than the fact that the movie needs to have monsters for Ultraman to fight.
The numerous script weaknesses are unlikely to bother young viewers, who will no doubt enjoy the film's colorful (and plentiful) action. The effects are roughly on par with those found in the Tiga and Dyna film, with even more explosions and ray beams to dazzle the eye. The designs of the monsters are a little more cartoonish than in the earlier film, perhaps to reflect that they are supposed to be coming from the imaginations of the young bullies - or maybe to make them less scary to small children in the audience. The climax, in which Tiga and Dyna appear to help Gaia defeat the monsters, feels a little rushed, and comes across as an obvious and unsuccessful attempt to "top" the previous effort. (One can imagine Tsuburaya executives thinking, "We had two Ultramen in the last film, so in this one well have three!") 3
As Gamu, Takeshi Yoshioka makes a better impression than Takeshi Tsuruno as Asuka. His scenes with Tsutomu are well-played, with Yoshioka conveying a sincere sympathy for the boy that doesn't turn maudlin. He's also effective in an amusing sequence in which Gamu, having just arrived in the "real" world is startled to find himself surrounded by children who not only know who he is, but know his secret identity as Ultraman Gaia as well. Fleeing from the mob of excited kids, he ducks into a store - only to find that it packed floor-to-ceiling with Ultraman merchandizing! As Tsutomu, Gaku Hamada is forced to carry much of the film. His performance is unexceptional, but he keeps the character likeable without being overly cute, like many Hollywood kid actors. The other child cast members are adequate in severely underwritten parts. Aside from Yoshioka, the other regulars of the Gaia television show are relegated to brief cameos.
Ultraman Tiga and Ultraman Dyna and Ultraman Dyna: The Battle in Hyperspace were never intended to be anything other than inexpensive, brightly-colored confections for children. As such, they succeed, and are certainly more entertaining than Toho's recent attempts at juvenile kaiju eiga, the dull, Spielbergized Mothra trilogy of the 1990's. Both films are recommended for Ultraman fans, die-hard kaiju buffs and monster-loving kids; no one else need bother. Hopefully, these two releases will prove successful enough to prompt Image to import more of the Ultraman features and perhaps, someday, the classic original series that started it all.
Image Entertainment has done a fine job bringing the two Ultraman features to DVD. The 16x9 transfers are crisp, bright and colorful, and the brief running times ensure a healthy bit-rate. Japanese and dubbed English audio tracks are available in both 5.1 Dolby Digital and stereo, with Japanese 5.1 with (removable) English subtitles the default setting. The dubbing on the English track is extremely poor. The dialogue recording has a dry, "studio" feel to it, children are dubbed by adults, and the audio distortion used in both films to indicate possession by alien forces has not been recreated. Avoid the English dubs unless you have kids too young to read the subtitles.
The only extras on the discs are isolated score tracks and three trailers: Japanese trailers for both titles, plus an English-language trailer for Ultraman Tiga and Ultraman Dyna. The Japanese trailers play upon the popularity of Ultraman in Japan; the English trailer, apparently designed to sell Tiga and Dyna to international markets, emphasizes the effects and sci-fi gadgetry.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Ultraman may also soon be returning to American
TV: Fox will reportedly begin airing a dubbed version of Ultraman Tiga in the fall.
2. If Ultraman Dyna appears to change color during some of the fight scenes,
don't worry, you don't need to adjust your set or get an eye exam. Dyna has three different
"modes" - "flash type", "strong type" and "miracle type" - and the colors on his suit changes
as he shifts modes during battle. Perhaps this was done to add a bit of visual variety, but one
can't help but suspect it was a gimmick to get Japanese kids to buy three Dyna toys
instead of just one.
3. The next Ultraman feature film, Ultraman Tiga: Final Odyssey,
featured four Ultramen: Ultraman Tiga and a trio of evil Ultras.
4. Acknowledgements: Steve Ryfle's Japan's Favorite Mon-Star (1998, ECW Press) and the
Absolute Ultraman! website provided
valuable information on the history of Ultraman and the various series.