The 2019 Ultraman anime is a funny thing, seeing as it is an easter-egg laden labor of love that is clearly made with reverence for the legendary Ultraman franchise…that also tosses out a lot of the classic elements that have made the series so popular over the years in the first place. The bright-eyed Saturday morning heroics were replaced with attempts at edgy, “grounded” storytelling, and to very mixed results. Instead of the traditional (and fabulous) live-action tokusatsu effects, our Ultra heroes went around cursing and mutilating their enemies in shoddy looking CG animation. Worst of all, there wasn’t a single embiggening to be found across the whole series. Now, I’m admittedly still an Ultraman newbie—I’ve only just recently begun working my way through the recent Shout! Factory/Mill Creek Blu-Rays of the first few seasons—but I don’t think I’m crazy for suggesting that an Ultraman property ought to have its guys get all big and wrestle with some chonky monsters at least once, right?
That said, if you were willing to roll with an anime that is a very loose adaptation of the Ultraman mythos—to the point where it sometimes feels more like a sci-fi tinged Garo than anything else—I think the Netflix Ultraman made for a tolerable first season…on paper. Honestly, all of the self-seriousness and inconsistent writing would have been a whole lot easier to swallow if the animation wasn’t such a pain to look at. The lifeless mannequin characters and cheap-looking backgrounds were bad enough, but then Production I.G and Sola Digital Arts had to go and ruin it even more with the nausea-inducing framerate drops. So while I didn’t actually mind Ultraman too terribly much as a story, it was not at all fun to watch. That’s not a good problem for a cartoon to have.
Enter “Season 2” of Ultraman, a full three years later. I use quotation marks here because, at a meager six episodes, the show is continuing the very annoying trend of Netflix chopping a traditional episode order straight down the middle and calling both parts “seasons”, like we won’t all still feel ripped off at having to wait twice as long for half the amount of material. The biggest problem with this entire season is easily it’s lightning-speed pacing; it’s one of those cases where you might literally miss major plot points if you so much as sneeze at the wrong moment.
That said, paradoxically enough, the drastically reduced episode count has also resulted in a season that is an improvement over the first in nearly every way, at least so far as fun factor is concerned. There is not an ounce of fat on this thing, which is not something you could say about Ultraman Season 1, and it means that the show has to double down on the snappy banter and action scenes to keep the plot moving. When you combine the breezy pace with the extra-campy alien invasion plot, you get an anime that actually feels a lot more in spirit with the original Ultraman. Hell, one of the only “tragic” deaths we get is undercut by what I am pretty sure is a gag that frames the whole scene as a goofy joke. This is pure Saturday Morning cartoon fare, and even though it only lasts a couple of hours, they’re a very fun couple of hours indeed.
It helps that the whole season essentially functions as an origin story for Kotaro Higashi, aka Ultraman Taro, who makes for a much better perspective character than Shinjiro ever was. Sure, his “gung-ho reporter with a heart of gold” shtick is ripped straight out of 60s era American comics, but that’s the kind of cheesy flavor that Netflix‘s Ultraman needed more of, in my opinion. Roger Craig Smith does an admirable job of selling the character in the English dub, too. Josh Hutcherson has been doing his best as Shinjiro, to be fair, but his performance feels a bit too removed from the more classic “anime dub” style voices of his co-stars. Smith, on the other hand, fits right in, and Kotaro’s more traditional delivery makes it easier to go along with the character’s willingness to dive headfirst into insanely dangerous situations.
Speaking of dangerous situations, another area in which this second season excels is its action sequences. While the show’s 3D animation can still look very plastic-y and fake, especially whenever characters aren’t wearing cool metal masks that hide their uncanny doll faces, the choreography is as good as ever, and Taro’s flame powers bring some interesting mechanics to the battle scenes. More importantly, they finally stopped screwing around with the framerate. It is difficult to overstate how much that one simple adjustment improves the whole viewing experience.
Obviously, Ultraman Season 2 is far from perfect, and some of the decisions it makes could very well alienate (haha) fans of the first season. The whole plot feels more like a prequel for Season 3 than its own, complete story, and the focus on Kotaro means that the rest of the Ultramen, including our would-be protagonist Shinjiro, get relegated to the background for much of the time. It’s far from being a great anime, but I’d argue that it is a much more entertaining anime than its predecessor. For that reason alone, I’d say that this next chapter of the Ultraman story is worth checking out.