Series Review: Ultraman GEED

Ultraman GEED was the first series in the franchise I had watched to completion, and it proved consistently impressive – not least because of the enthusiasm and love the cast seemed to have for it, which came across very clearly in the performances. It was a series that managed to make something quite continuity-heavy accessible; by this point there is a fairly established Ultraman mythos, so to speak, and the relationships between the various heroes and villains are quite central to the main plot of GEED. Nevertheless, it used various different angles to make itself accessible to its family audience – if anything, Ultraman is interesting in the long-running superhero franchises because it is very focused on referencing and maintaining its canon, but at the same time doing so in a way that attracts, rather than puts off, new fans.

The main way in which the early parts of GEED achieve this is through the character of Fukuide Kei, a science-fiction author who becomes the host of the series’ villain, Belial. Kei uses his position as an author of science-fiction to try and paint Belial as a misunderstood figure and Zero, his arch-rival, as a villain. This is, in my opinion, a very nice plot device; it uses the Ultraman series staple of the disconnect – or partnership – between the hero and their physical body to good effect, with Kei’s career as an alien disguised as a human furthering Belial’s ends as a godlike villain, and also allows the series to allude to past adventures without simply expositing. Indeed, it is the process of realising exactly what Kei’s books allude to that drives the early tension between the heroes and villains – and this culminates in a particularly good confrontation at a lecture by Kei in which Zero is exposed and defeated. As the series progresses, and Kei’s plans do not work out, his disguise is cast off and later in the story he is abandoned by his master – creating new complications as Belial finds a new human to exploit the knowledge Kei has and ultimately complete his plans.

The core relationships make the interplay between Geed, Zero and Belial interesting, and drive the series forward; the creation of a villain is fighting for good against his creator, mentored (in a fashion) by the hero who has, in the past, defeated that villain. It almost sounds more like a Kamen Rider kind of story – even to the point of Geed’s first powers combining those of Belial with another hero (using the abilities of the enemy, as their creation, to fight them). I would not say it is particularly a redemption story – Geed does not need redeeming despite being arguably a creation of evil, because he is consistently on the right side – but the series does touch on past rivalries and how, to an outsider, Geed seems less trustworthy because of his outward resemblance to a villain.

While the A-plot is particularly epic in scale, with escalation of power until embodiments of gods are fighting each episode, this would not work without a solid grounding of personal stakes, and there are numerous very personal plots going on; unlike other Ultraman series, GEED does not have a full fancy science team with custom aircraft and tanks, a massive Tracy Island style base and so on; it has Moa, Zena and the AIB (portrayed more as a Men In Black style alien regulation body), and it has the Nebula House, a hidden spaceship where the heroes hide out, but for part of the series these do not co-operate, and their coming together at the end for the final battle is the payoff of the story. What exactly does this mean for the stakes of the story? In Ultraseven, where the science team are arguably the core characters and Seven remains hidden from them, the tone of the conflicts is often impersonal and almost portrayed as a warning against scientific hubris. Mankind is all but alone in a dangerous and densely populated universe, causing unmeasurable offence in its arrogance by sending spaceships out to apparently spy on its neighbours, firing missiles at planets without adequately checking if they are unpopulated and generally just existing with a technology level too low to be a major galactic player. There is a real uncanny bleakness to Ultraseven; episodes pass with the whole moral generally being we shouldn’t have done this or aliens hate us. Humanity is not blameless, but it portrays the whole world as mostly hopeless and antagonistic.

By contrast, GEED is personal at every level; Zero hates Belial. Geed rejects his creator. Laiha hates Fukuide Kei. Zero’s human host has a loving family he is fighting for. Zena and Moa form pleasant comic relief in their role as the science team, but Moa has a personal affection for “Rikkun” from childhood. Without the authority structures and stylish technology to ground a fixed team with roles – radioman, pilot, commander etcetera, without the military (even in series where the focus is on capture and research like Cosmos) trappings, there is something haphazard and personal about GEED. Even if the exact nature of the Land of Light’s godlike denizens is offputtingly continuity-heavy, the fact that Zero’s host Leito has to balance family life and being an extremely self-important superhero, and that bad things are happening to good people is universal. The early arc, involving looking for “little stars” (the source of Geed’s power), drives this home with a series of quite personal issues centred around giant alien attacks, and then this is eventually replaced with a run of character-focused plots (like alien AIB agent Zena’s reunion with some extremists of his species) and finally a final battle that is both apocalyptic in scale but a personal slugfest between a hero and the villain who keeps getting away.

This makes the scene in episode 24, where Leito’s wife reveals she knows his identity as a hero, feel earned. It is the buildup to the final battle, and there is a stock, but nicely executed, escalation of emotional stakes to set it up on a level beyond a giant monster in orbit trying to destroy the earth. His double identity – the smug and powerful Zero and the ordinary family man – has painted him quite differently throughout the series to the amiable singleton who serves as Geed’s host, both irresponsible mentor and friend. Thus it feels particularly good that the first salvo of the final battle against Belial is another rematch between Zero and Belial, to set up the plan which lets everyone shine. There is another escalation of the stakes because of this; Kei, still loyal to Belial despite being rejected as host, attacks Leito’s family, which Belial perceives as Zero’s “weakness.” In a series like GEED there absolutely needs to be a personal motivation for the giant fights, because it is the natural extension of the double-life motif that defines Ultraman as a franchise. If the godlike beings are having a family spat, then reflecting this in the human-level drama is a natural extension of the theme.  The exact details of the continuity become less important than the thematic ones.

GEED is not without some problems; you could reasonably argue the escalation of power and new abilities for its main hero suffers in the need for new merchandising (but it is always worth reminding oneself that these are still family shows that sell vast amounts of merchandise), and I personally think the Royal Mega Master form looks like a gold-and-blue Burger King (which is a visual downgrade). Furthermore, not everyone will like the fact that in a 25-episode series with a very strong plot and villain there are quite so many incidental stories (as good as some of them, like the 10 o’clock monster, are). But as, effectively, my entry point into the Ultraman franchise (although I had seen some episodes of past series previously it was the first I completed) it works well as entertaining television and a good example of what the franchise is all about. Admittedly, this recapitulation of what it is about comes – I have realised now – from what it does differently, but it is nevertheless thematically fitting.

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