One of the most difficult tasks facing an animated movie released in 2024 is to find one sort of distinction, any sort of distinction, from the efforts that have preceded it. Ultraman: Rising finds multiple points of distinction. It’s not only the animation style, with its sleek designs built off the bones of anime. It’s also the subject matter, which brings together superheroes and kaiju and, improbably, the sport of baseball. The result is something that feels like a game changer, even if some of the more traditional aspects of the story structure recall things we’ve seen before.


The new Netflix film is based on Tsuburaya Productions’ Ultraman franchise, a big hit in Japan but possibly unknown to western audiences. Perhaps we should know it, given that Wikipedia lists Shannon Tindle’s film as the 44th film in the Ultraman franchise. Better late than never, I suppose.

The concept is that Ken Sato (voice of Christopher Sean) has been destined since birth to inherit from his father the title of Ultraman, a superhero who looks like a mixture of Ant-Man and Iron Man but with a sort of fish-like helmet that makes him seem ocean born. The men in the Ultraman lineage can transform from normal human size to the size of genuinely ocean-born beasts, the kaiju, who often find their way off Kaiju Island and end up stomping Japanese cities, unwittingly or otherwise. Ultraman’s role is to protect citizens from these beasts, and it’s a demanding one.

And it hasn’t been Ken’s role, or not yet anyway. Ken has been playing baseball in the U.S., a phenom not unlike real Japanese player Shohei Ohtani. (Sato had most recently played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and so does Ohtani, though the latter only signed a contract with the team less than a year ago.) As his father is ageing out of the job and has gotten injured, Sato is compelled to return home to moonlight as Ultraman, while playing for the Yomiuri Giants of the Nippon Professional Baseball League – even though that’s the archenemy of the team his mother loved, the Hanshin Tigers. She’s no longer with us.

Ken’s already complicated life becomes all the more so when he defeats a kaiju in battle – with no small assistance from a mysterious, malevolent, mechanised behemoth with no shortage of firepower, which is seeking out a mechanical pod the creature is carrying. The pod comes into Ken’s possession, and he realises it is carrying the kaiju’s offspring, just now being born – and first laying eyes on a parental figure of Ken in Ultraman form. He’s got an instinct to protect this youngling, even though he’s supposed to fight off her kind – and it turns out there’s a lot of unwitting damage that can be done by a baby kaiju with no idea how to control the bursts of destructive light emitted from her mouth.


Ultraman: Rising deftly has a foot in two different animated worlds: the aspirational world of adult-oriented animation, involving superheroes and sea battles and explosions, and the cute world of baby kaiju spitting up bodily fluids that drench the normal-sized people with innocuous goo. The emphasis might be more on the former than the latter, but the good news is that the latter is not a disqualifier for the film’s older viewers. You can find yourself enthralled by the explosions and still delighted by the smartly realised infantile shenanigans of the baby kaiju.

And then there’s the baseball, which is more a backdrop. The concept that a person with super powers could pass himself off as an superlative athlete is an interesting one, but the film doesn’t belabour it. We don’t totally know what turned Ken from a wide-eyed child who loved Ultraman – not realising at the time that this was the alter ego of his father – into a spoilt athlete with a lot more talent that gratitude, though we assume the death of his mother was a factor. Then again, the pleasures of Ultraman do not lie in the arcs of the characters.


They do lie in the animation – bright, vigorous, intentional, glistening. This film looks phenomenal. The character designs, the monster designs, the cityscapes, the rainy oceans where most of the battles take place, it’s all a feast for the eyes that is not directly indebted to any one particular film you’ve seen before. There’s sort of a postmodern aspect to Ultraman himself, as he feels like a throwback to the more innocent times when both the original superheroes in our culture, and creatures like Godzilla in Japanese culture, were first invented. However, he looks sleek and of the moment, as Ultraman: Rising pays homage to multiple cultural influences simultaneously, denigrating none of them.


If there really were 43 previous films in the Ultraman franchise, It doesn’t seem like any could be as striking as this one. Numbers 45 and beyond could build off what we’ve gotten here if Rising is a hit.


Ultraman: Rising is currently streaming on Netflix.

8 / 10