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Re-VIEW: ‘Ultraman: Rising’ - A Balance of Heart and Mind

Shannon Tindle’s new 3DCG feature combines breathtaking visual design with a heartfelt story that explores themes of family and identity through the journey of a young athlete, Ken Sato, struggling to balance his life as a baseball star and a giant superhero when suddenly faced with raising a baby kaiju.

In the Netflix animated feature Ultraman: Rising, directed by Shannon Tindle with co-director John Aoshima, young athlete Ken Sato (Christopher Sean) leads a double life. The public knows him as a baseball superstar. But secretly, he has the power to transform into Ultraman, a gigantic superhero charged with protecting the Japanese city of Tokyo from kaiju attacks. When fate delivers a new responsibility to his door, Ken learns deep truths about the importance of family and undergoes his greatest transformation yet.

Ken’s odyssey is a modern take on Joseph Campbell’s classic hero’s journey. As the film begins, we see Ken as a young boy in a loving family, a son who looks up to his father Professor Sato (Gedde Watanabe), also known as Ultraman. Known as Kenji, he moves to the U.S. with his mother, leaving his father to battle on in Japan. After growing up in America, the adult Ken becomes a self-centered sports star, the quintessential masculine jock whose primary concern is his own success and public image.

With his mother now missing and his father injured, Ken returns to Japan to take up the mantle of Ultraman while trying to maintain his status as a baseball superstar. However, when he finds himself caring for a newly-hatched baby kaiju, Ken discovers he is ill-equipped for what he describes as “the toughest job.” Only by embracing his maternal side does Ken get back in touch with his own emotions and learns the skills he needs to grow as a human being.

Ken’s journey is a search for identity. He spent his youth as an immigrant in a country where “kids make fun of how you talk, how you look, what you eat.” Yet his homecoming prompts the Japanese media to question why he bothered to come back. So where does he belong? When the challenges of balancing his baseball career with the unique demands of being Ultraman leave him exhausted, Ken realizes he is failing in all departments. Only by discovering the true value of family does he eventually achieve the balance that has eluded him for so long.

This tension – and the film’s central theme of family that underpins it – is established early on. An establishing sequence shows Ultraman repelling a kaiju attack. The larger-than-life action is followed immediately by an intimate domestic scene in which Ken’s family prepares curry in the kitchen. The camera lingers on two key objects – an Ultraman toy and a baseball, masterfully setting up the central dilemma faced by Ken. When Ken’s father explicitly asks which his son would choose – Ultraman or baseball – the boy’s mother comes to his rescue. “That’s a big question for such a small boy,” she says.

A big question indeed. Yet, as with so many other moments in Ultraman: Rising, the filmmakers use warm humor to balance the profound with the mundane. Professor Sato recounts an anecdote that one time they were making curry, and he told his wife he may not return from this latest dangerous mission. Ken’s mother remarked wryly that she would mourn him deeply if he died but that she wouldn’t let the curry go to waste. 

The theme of family permeates the entire film. Ken’s complex relationship with his father is well-developed and filled with more of the film’s trademark humor. Thrown together after 20 years apart, they find themselves stuck in the same old rut, yet ultimately, they are able to heal their relationship. Professor Sato learns that Ken’s desire for success comes from a need to gain his father’s attention. Meanwhile Ken discovers that his father, far from rejecting him, has followed his whole baseball career with avid affection.

As for motherhood, Ken learns about this by being thrown into the deep end. Having rescued a vulnerable kaiju egg from the Kaiju Defense Force (KDA), Ken is present at the birth of Emi, an adorable baby kaiju who immediately imprints on the astonished baseball player. Thus, Ken enters the most important phase of his journey, in which he develops a powerful bond of love for his new “baby girl.”

Ken has two guides on his journey. The first is Mina, a supercomputer who functions not only as Ken’s practical helper, but also his conscience… and it is no coincidence that this mechanical Jiminy Cricket appears to have been programmed to speak with his mother’s voice. At the end of the film, as a stricken Mina impart her final words of advice to Ken, it is clear that all along she has seen him for who he truly is – a young man with traits inherited from his mother and father, but who nevertheless walks his own unique path.

The second guide is Ami Wakita (Julia Harriman), a journalist who asks Ken penetrating questions in an effort to reveal the real person behind the superstar persona. Initially resistant to Ami’s probing, Ken finally opens up when he seeks parenting advice from this young woman who, just like him, is a single parent trying to keep her life in balance. Strong, intelligent and capable, Ami teaches Ken one of the most important lessons any parent can learn: “Our children are trying to discover who they are and what they want, and the only support they have is us. Imperfect us. Messed up us. I’m learning as much from my daughter as she is from me.”

Even the film’s villain, the sinister Dr. Onda (Keone Young), is driven by his love for his family. Since the death of his wife and daughter, he has channeled his grief into a single mission – eradicating the kaiju. He believes that in doing so he will create a world without fear. However, what Dr. Onda fails to recognize is that the kaiju are not monsters but merely part of the natural world, and that Ultraman’s mission is the true one – to repel the kaiju without harm, thus keeping the forces of nature in balance.

At a primal level, Ultraman: Rising draws on world culture’s rich history of fables about the relationships between people and animals. By bridging the gap between humans and kaiju, Emi encourages Ken – and the audience – to embrace the “other.” If we open our eyes, we will see that there are no monsters. By devoting himself to Emi’s care, Ken elevates himself. In doing so, he becomes more human. By the end of the film, he has literally attained the impossible, by finding the lost island where the kaiju roam free. He does all this through acceptance and love.

Ultraman: Rising juggles these complex themes with an impressively light touch. Humor is everywhere, not least in the entertaining montages showing Ken’s clumsy attempts to raise the giant infant Emi. If nothing else, these gag-filled sequences prove that superpowers do not work on a vomiting baby.

At every turn, the themes are reinforced by beautiful production design and memorable visual cues. At the moment of Emi’s first appearance, apocalyptic clouds part like theater curtains to reveal a beautiful starry night with a crescent moon. Later, Emi slithers down Ken’s belly to land between his splayed legs – visually, Ken literally delivers her into the world. The character design exquisitely contrasts their appearance – Ken is gawky and angular, while Emi is soft, round and as adorable as could be.

The visual splendor continues with the film’s breathtaking depiction of Tokyo as a neon-lit wonderland. The shot design plays with scale and texture, with the city’s vibrancy complemented by the gigantic figure of Ultraman, the monstrous kaiju, the sleek ships of the KDA, and the super-cute baby Emi. Dr. Onda’s attempts to kill Emi’s mother, Gigantron, trigger a massive explosion with the same terrible beauty as the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the trauma of which inspired Toho’s 1954 film “Gojira,” the original kaiju movie.

Character design plays a vital role. Ken’s Ultraman is as gawky as his human counterpart, while Professor Sato’s Ultraman appears elderly and stooped, with a helmet shape that cleverly mimics his characteristic bushy mustache. Dr. Onda’s appearance is dominated by a pair of highly reflective sunglasses, which he wears as a shield against the world that has caused him so much pain. At one point, we see the lenses reflecting the fighter jets of the KDA as they streak through the sky on their mission to destroy the kaiju – a literal mirroring of the ruthless obsession Onda holds in his grieving heart. Only occasionally do we see Dr Onda without his glasses – at the beginning of the film, before the initial kaiju attack that sets the story in motion, then later when he sinks into a memory of his lost family, and finally at the end, just before he sacrifices himself in pursuit of his ultimate goal.

Exciting and well-choreographed, the battle sequences are a triumph, successfully presenting complex action with clarity and intent. The lighting throughout is crisp and rich. The filmmakers even find time to explore different visual styles, notably in a sequence showing Ken the baseball star at bat. This is rendered in the stark black-and-white of a comic book and looks like super-cool storyboards.

Ultraman: Rising is packed with references not only to Ultraman lore, but also to other movies, including some of the director’s previous projects. There are numerous nods to Nebula M78, home to the Residents of the Land of Light, also known as Ultras. When Mina is dying, her degenerating voice is reminiscent of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A press conference scene features a journalist named after the title character in Kubo and the Two Strings, which was co-written by Tindle. Meanwhile the soft toy loved by young Ken is instantly recognizable as the lovable rabbit from Lost Ollie, created by Tindle and based on the novel by William Joyce. In her turn, Emi adopts Ollie as a talismanic object of affection – in effect, the toy becomes her baby.

An extraordinary score by composer Scot Stafford ensures that all parts of this breathtaking film work together like a symphony. The music is indeed our guide, steering us through a story that puts family at the center of everything. In his final interview with Ami, Ken attributes all the changes he has experienced to his family. In her closing remarks, Ken mother shares her hopes for her son – above all, she wants him to find balance. This equates ultimately to hope for humanity itself – a grand dream that begins with every individual connecting with their own family and community, just as Ken does in Ultraman: Rising.


Dr. Maria Elena Gutierrez is the CEO and executive director of VIEW Conference, Italy’s premiere annual digital media conference. She holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University and a BA from the University of California, Santa Cruz. VIEW Conference is committed to bringing a diversity of voices to the forefront in animation, visual effects, and games. For more information about the VIEW Conference, visit the official website:

Dr. Maria Elena Gutierrez's picture
Dr. Maria Elena Gutierrez is the CEO and executive director of VIEW Conference, Italy’s premiere annual digital media conference: