A lot of what I like about Ultraman is its weirdness, the way it depicts Earth as sitting in the middle of a vast, uncaring and strange universe under the protection of interstellar demigods who come down from the heavens, take human form and generally try to preserve order. And then there is Ultraman RB, which takes all of that and replaces it with a zaniness that escalates within eight episodes into the realisation that by the time you become powerful enough to become Ultraman, a lot of things can seem like a game.
It completely ignores the usual aspects of being granted the extreme responsibility of sharing your body with an alien demigod, the relationship between host and guest that Geed had, for example. Instead, the two heroes leap straight into their role as superheroes; they might be scared, they might be bad at their jobs, but they are unreservedly going to do those jobs. There’s a comedic energy to this that is a nice antidote to the mythological grandeur that some other series have; these superheroes are happy to have their photographs taken, go out and train as if being bigger than a house and being able to shoot lasers is just something you can devise a fitness routine to improve and generally just ride – for the most part – the enthusiasm of suddenly being powerful and capable of doing good. This serves two useful narrative purposes.
Firstly it makes the human drama – when they do admit fear, and reflect on their weaknesses – more powerful. How much of the superhero persona is a front to cover up fear? Similarly, as shown when they have to fight a monster that has trapped one of their friends, they are capable of setting the nonsense aside and showing responsibility. There is perhaps a misconception in some popular superhero media that for there to be meaningful characterisation and personal drama, the tone of a piece needs to be serious and grounded; “credible” stories are those that reject the genre’s over-the-top aesthetics and big personalities. Obviously – in the Western canon – things like Ant-Man or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 show that you can mix comedy and drama well, and that a funnyman can still have an emotional core, so this is not a total generalisation. But there is still, I would say, if one follows trends in pop cultural criticism the belief that comedy – or even just spectacle – cannot be also capable of the same emotional core as “grounded” media. RB quite handily disabuses the viewer, once again, of this; it does hit emotional beats that are sentimental but effective, and generally carries them off well, if predictably.
This makes it quite an un-Ultraman affair really. There is not the sense of loneliness in an arbitrary universe that makes Seven a relatively bleak episodic piece, or the grand-scale mysticism of Zero, Geed and Belial’s rivalries. There is not even the ecological comfiness of something like Tiga or Cosmos. Instead, RB is a personal story; the heroes are tracking down a missing mother, challenging a local villain who has capitalised – it is revealed – on the same event that gave them their superpowers. Instead of being part of a huge family of superheroes and villains with their past rivalries, the focus is on finding out the truth about the human family at the core of the story. And the individual episode stories run with this. There is not, in the traditional Ultraman sense, a secret society or special agency tracking down alien activity. There are not renegade aliens, or invading armies, or UFOs every week. There is one businessman, possessed by an evil alien, who wants to be a supervillain and wants to create superheroes to fight.
And that is the second reason why the comedy, the raw enthusiasm the series has for being a superhero, works. It is a story about a villain grooming two inexperienced superheroes to be suitable rivals to defeat, which is honestly a very interesting angle. Makoto Aizen, playboy industralist and apparent complete buffoon, with his PR stunts and words of wisdom and jetpack and comedy inventions, is in fact an evil Ultraman, possessed by the alien entity Cereza. It is all a clownish facade for someone who is completely obsessed with superheroes and wants to ensure that, as he is a theatrical villain, he has credible opposition. Episode 8 of RB has him finally unleash his true power – and take down the heroes completely, morally and physically. He patronisingly gives them “report cards” showing that their comedic, Starlord-esque antics are not doing heroism right. He then transforms, and insists they fight with the “honour” of superhero tropes – not interrupting his monologues or special moves, not repeating attacks. Even when he is handily destroying the heroes he is doing it with a boundless, malicious energy. Evil or rival Ultraman plots are not uncommon, and arguably Geed tried its hand at a genre-savvy villain in Fukuide Kei, archvillain stuck in the body of a science-fiction author. But the childishness of Aizen, his insistance that not only must he be the villain fighting the heroes it must all go exactly according to genre makes the showdown in episode 8 both comedic and chilling. Aizen has been presented all along as someone obsessed with his image, with making a big show – and he has been clearly shown to be the villain testing the heroes’ resolve and morals long before the reveal of Cereza and Orb Dark Noir Black Schwarz. Cereza/Aizen even uses the catchphrases and poses of other heroes, with apparent sincerity.
The idea that a villain could be someone simply obssessed – apparently – with testing his rivals and making sure that the rivalry goes as planned feels like it could go interesting metafictional places; similar plotlines exist in anime like Martian Successor Nadesico (where the simplistic morality of hero-and-villain cartoons is shown to be a poor, reductive way of running a society) and The Brave Express Might Gaine. Both of those series, notably, are similar kinds of enthusiastic comedies about lighthearted, positive heroes. The moment a piece of fiction includes a character who bases their ideals and behaviours on the fiction they inhabit’s tropes, I think that character becomes a kind of mirror for the audience; RB begins as quite an unusual, atypical Ultraman setup and by episode 8 the villain is so annoyed by the heroes atypicality he starts trying to force them to shape up. It is not an unreasonable leap to see this as a reference to the demanding type of fans who want formula rather than reinvention.