Review: 'Ultraman: Rising'

Being a parent is knowing that your life will be filled with equal parts of joy and sadness. You'll embrace the small victories and concentrate on the days when things go just perfectly. Then there are the days when your child is overwhelmed or moody over some problem you can't decipher. You learn patience and force yourself to not cling too tightly to your child. You try and explain what you're going through to friends and family who just can't seem to grasp the situation. You live each day as fully as you can. But you never forget that tomorrow may bring some challenge you won't even see coming.

There's no report card for being a father. But if you're trying to be a good parent, you do the best you can and learn to live with the fact that you aren't going to be perfect. All you can do is hope that the good decisions and the support outweighs the mistakes. But that tension between success and disaster is always in the back of the mind of every dad.

Shannon Tindle seems drawn to stories that deal with loss and the tension that is the core of every father/son relationship. His most recent work was Lost Ollie, which used a young boy's loss of a favorite toy as the framework to examine the complicated dynamics between a father and son who are unable to connect with each other after the death of their wife/mother.

At first glance, that approach might sound like a strange fit for the Ultraman legend. The character is much less known in the United States than in Asia, but there is a long string of Ultraman projects and canon that have been successful worldwide. But that relative success can also complicate anyone's efforts to surprise an audience. 

Ultraman: Rising turns out to be nuanced balance of legend and reinvention, as Tindle uses the film to both provide the Kaiju-smashing action Ultraman fans are looking for while building out the story in a way that injects a very human experience into the mythology.

The film opens with the young baseball great Ken Sato unexpectedly walking away from a potential championship title with the LA Dodgers to return to his home country of Japan to play for the Yomuri Giants. It's a move that surprises everyone, because they don't know his motivation. His father is Ultraman, and a recent injury means that Ken feels obligated to step in and take his father's place.

And Ken is not in a good place emotionally. He's recently lost his beloved mother and still harbors intense anger towards his estranged father, who he feels always put Ultraman and his mission ahead of his family. He's an arrogant blowhole of a baseball player and his anger prevents him from being an effective Ultraman.

All of that changes when he discovers a baby kaiju egg and it hatches inside his base. It bonds with him and despite his best efforts, he begins to bond with his unlikely "child."

Becoming a father - even a surrogate father to a baby kaiju - changes Ken, as he slowly opens his heart to a creature who is completely dependent on him for its survival. It forces him to think outside of his circle of self-absorption and that makes him a better man. The rest of the film tracks that evolution, as Ken struggles to turn around his baseball career,  and keep his baby safe while better fulfilling his duties as Ultraman.

I won't talk much more about the details, other than to say that with each project I see from Tindle, the more impressed I am with his ability to bring heart to his work. I don't know that I would have predicted that an Ultraman movie would have the emotional resonance of films such as E.T., but here we are.

There are some Easter eggs in the film, including a nod back to Lost Ollie. And am I supposed to make something out of the fact that Tamlyn Tomita voices both Mina and Ken's mother Emiko Sato? But don't worry,  this is a film that doesn't require any prior knowledge of Ultraman or anything else in the kaiju-related universe. It stands on its own and does so in a way that is breathtakingly fresh and original.

And btw, stick around in the credits for a bonus scene, which nicely teases what might happen in Ultraman: Rising II. Or is it Ultraman: Rising Again? Ultraman: Rising Electric Boogaloo? Well, whatever they call it, I hope it gets made soon. 

Ultraman: Rising premieres in limited theaters and globally on Netflix on Friday, June 14th, 2024.