Shin Ultraman Director Shinji Higuchi On Reinventing The Iconic Superhero [Fantastic Fest Interview]

Shinji Higuchi is a storyboard artist, VFX artist, and director who has worked on plenty of iconic projects, from "Neon Genesis Evangelion," to "Gamera" and "Attack on Titan" (the live-action movies). He has often collaborated with Hideaki Anno, with the two co-directing the fantastic "Shin Godzilla," a reinvention of the iconic character.

Now, the two are teaming up again for another reinvention of a Japanese icon — Ultraman. With "Shin Ultraman," director Higuchi and writer Anno bring the '60s character to the modern era with a film that works as both an introduction to a decades-old franchise for newcomers, and also a fan-service fest for longtime fans of the silver hero. Like "Shin Godzilla," expect a focus on human characters and rapid-fire dialogue, but where that film had a bit of a cynic tone, "Shin Ultraman" is about pure, relentless optimism and hope. There are plenty of stunning kaiju fights, obtuse angles that make the action feel gargantuan, and plenty of silly jokes.

This movie is packed with a lot of content, storylines, characters, and jargon. There is rarely a second to breathe, let alone catch up if you're not slightly familiar with the character or the tokusatsu genre (think "Power Rangers"), but it works because of the sheer love for the character that Higuchi and Anno infuse the film.

/Film spoke with "Shin Ultraman" director Shinji Higuchi (through a translator) about reinventing the iconic character, making a movie for fans new and old, directing Hideaki Anno in a mo-cap suit, and more.

A movie for the fans

Because you and Anno have been such big fans of "Ultraman," how much do you want to make this movie accessible for people who have never seen it, versus cramming in a lot of references and cameos? 

Yes, obviously I wanted to aim this movie not just to the people who are fans of "Ultraman." Yes, I want to make them happy, but also with this movie, I'm hoping to make it enjoyable enough for people who might not have grown up with "Ultraman," who didn't even know who "Ultraman" is, but who would watch this movie and be like, "Oh, wait, there's TV shows. Oh, wait, how many different versions are there of 'Ultraman?'" There's a lot of different versions, and so it's a nice entry point into the fandom of "Ultraman." It's like watching maybe from the original series and looking at that and being like, "Wow, this is kind of cheap looking," but there's so many different options to go from there. So yes, I'm hoping that it was enjoyable enough to get people to do that.

What show would you recommend people watch if they want to see more but have never watched any "Ultraman?" Where should they start?

There's several ways of going about this. After watching "Shin Ultraman," if you're not familiar with the "Ultraman" world, one way is to look at all the different versions of "Ultraman" and looking at all the different character designs and be like, "Maybe I want to try that." But in my personal opinion, I think maybe going from the very beginning and watching the first series might be the best way for somebody who is not as familiar with "Ultraman" to go into, because yeah, there is a lot of different versions out there.

Acting out childhood fantasies

As a fan, how was working with Bin Furuya, who was the original "Ultraman" actor?

From a very young age, I have always been a big fan of "Ultraman." I watched [it] every day after school. So I pretty much kept asking for Furuya person to work with me, but I didn't think that it would be possible, but he said yes. And so I was very excited about it. But Furuya, the original Ultraman, he's an older dude right now, but the way that he's physically built is not like a typical Japanese person. His arms are actually extremely long. His fingers are very long, his neck is very long. And so Ultraman is... It can't be done by just any actor. The physicality of this original actor is so different that he is Ultraman, and so when he does the poses, he's got very long fingers, and he is Ultraman. And so I was very excited, and I didn't believe that he would really be able to work with him. And lo and behold, I was working with him on this project.

And from that, I know Hideaki Anno also put on the suit and did the motion capture. How was it for you to direct him doing this character who he's a big fan of as well?

It was kind of like a, "Yes, yes, please do it," sort of feel like ... Hideaki Anno did fan films when he was in college, and so when he wanted to do the suits, I was like, "Yes, please do it." When you see Ultraman coming out of the ocean and do his rise pose like that out of the water... Everyone has a little bit of Ultraman in them, and Hideaki Anno really wanted to do that. In Japan, we have these bathhouses, and the water is very deep in them. And so Hideaki Anno-san, naked, would often act out as Ultraman in the bathtub, as Ultraman coming out of the water. And so that's the person that he is. I was like, "Just do it. Be free to do what you like," because Anno-san is always like Ultraman.

And did you try a motion capture suit for Ultraman or one of the characters, or did you want to?

I would feel too embarrassed to put on the suit, because it's a very skintight suit.

Quite a few scenes in the movie feel like they were shot practically, with suits and miniatures, how was balancing that with the CGI?

For the most part it's CGI. So there's really not much in terms of the miniature in the film, and there was really three cuts in the film that have miniatures. The rest is mostly CGI.