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Fantasia 2022: Shinji Higuchi On Directing Shin Ultraman, Japan's Biggest Summer 2022 Blockbuster - Exclusive Interview

"Shin Ultraman," a modern reboot of the classic "Ultraman" tokusatsu franchise, has become the most successful Japanese film of Summer 2022 at the box office. Like 2016's "Shin Godzilla," with which it shares its visual effects mastery and sharp sense of humor about Japanese political bureaucracy, "Shin Ultraman" is the product of a collaboration between Shinji Higuchi and Hideaki Anno. The two filmmakers, who previously worked together at the Gainax animation studio on such anime classics as "Neon Genesis Evangelion," co-directed "Shin Godzilla" together, whereas on "Shin Ultraman," Higuchi directed while Anno wrote the screenplay.

"Shin Ultraman" has yet to be licensed by a North American distributor, but it has screened at film festivals this summer, including Montreal's Fantasia International Film Festival and the New York Asian Film Festival. Hopefully, it gets picked up soon; while "Ultraman" might not be a household name in America like it is in Japan, anyone who enjoys the sight of a giant superhero pummeling monsters will get a kick out of this stylish, optimistic blockbuster. Looper got the chance to speak with Shinji Higuchi at the Fantasia International Film Festival about "Shin Ultraman," the recently announced "Shin Japan Heroes Universe" crossovers, and his work on "Evangelion" and the live-action "Attack on Titan" films.

Collaborating with Evangelion's Hideaki Anno

You and Hideaki Anno first worked together on tokusatsu parody fan films in the eighties. What are the biggest similarities and differences between what it was like working together back then and what it's like making big-budget tokusatsu films together today?

There hasn't been that many changes [or] differences. The only difference is that in terms of ideas, when we didn't have a lot of money to work with, we came up with ideas that can be done without a lot of money. We [now] have a lot more opportunities to come up with different ideas because we are allowed to by a bigger budget.

You were one of the storyboard artists and writers on Anno's anime series "Neon Genesis Evangelion." Did the original "Ultraman" influence your work on "Evangelion"?

I wasn't really thinking about "Ultraman" when I was working on "Evangelion."

I've read that Shinji Ikari [the protagonist of "Evangelion"] is named after you. Was the character inspired by you in any other ways?

Well, what do you think?

I haven't met you personally before, so I don't know.

In terms of the appearance, we have nothing to do with each other. Names can be used. Common names can be used for different characters, so it might not be necessarily that similar.

Shinji Higuchi's thoughts on Shin Ultraman's influences

"Shin Ultraman" feels a lot more stylistically bold than most of the blockbusters we see in America. What were your main stylistic influences for this film? Were there any movies or directors you looked at for inspiration as a director?

It has been a year since we've finished making that film. When it comes to influences and inspiration — influences, especially — it is mostly about the audience thinking that it has been influenced by something or somebody else in terms of directing. Because when we direct movies, we do not do it while thinking, "Oh, I am influenced by this and that director." It's something that the audience decides later on. Then I perhaps will realize [an influence] later on, but I haven't had that time and space to think about it. It's not something that I think about while making a movie.

The future of the Shin Japan Heroes Universe

Hideaki Anno is following up "Shin Ultraman" with "Shin Kamen Rider." I saw that you're working on a separate "Kamen Rider" series [visual designs for "Kamen Rider Black Sun"], but I can't find any information on if you're involved with "Shin Kamen Rider." Are you working on that production in any way?

I wasn't involved in "Shin Kamen Rider" because we were working on [the CG effects for] "Shin Ultraman."

"Evangelion," "Godzilla," "Ultraman," and "Kamen Rider" are now all part of the Shin Japan Heroes Universe. It seems like this is mostly a merchandising thing, but have you considered making any sort of crossover film between the different series in this universe?

For films? No, we don't have any plans for it. It's all we can do to make one movie for one character right now.

Hayao Miyazaki has repeatedly complained about "Ultraman" supposedly having a negative influence on a generation of kids in Japan. Of course, Miyazaki also regularly works with Anno, who seems to be the biggest "Ultraman" otaku there is. Have you had any interesting interactions with Miyazaki?

It is that true? Because I've never heard that before.

There's two different essays in his book, "Turning Point: 1997-2008," where he complains about "Ultraman." I'm not sure if he's just doing that to troll Anno or not.

It's the first I heard of it.

Attack on Titan and favorite Ultraman episodes

The "Attack on Titan" manga ended a little over a year ago. Your live-action "Attack on Titan" films had a different ending than the manga. If you were adapting "Attack on Titan" today, would you have done things differently, or would you have done things the same way you did them?

I'm not sure because I've never thought of it that way. I've never thought of that. Right now, I don't see a reason or justification for making that manga into a movie, so I can't really answer that.

What was it like working with Hidetoshi Nishijima?

It was good. He's a very clever actor.

Did he film "Shin Ultraman" before or after "Drive My Car"?

There's quite a bit of time between filming and completing the movie. It is possible that he, and the actors in general, can do other jobs after filming with me. That's not something that we communicate with actors about a lot after filming, in terms of preserving the integrity of the actor too. We don't necessarily talk about other things after filming.

[looks up information] "Shin Ultraman" was filmed in 2019, and he filmed "Drive My Car" in 2020 — so it is after.

Of all the dozens of different "Ultraman" series that have aired over the years, which one would you say is your favorite?

As a series, it's definitely the first "Ultraman." That's my favorite.

What's your favorite episode from the original series?

It's hard to say, [but my favorite is] "My Home Is Earth," where Jamila makes an appearance.

International release plans for "Shin Ultraman" have yet to be announced.

This interview was edited for clarity.