BANDAI S.H. FIGUARTS ULTRASERIES

 

Say whaaat?

11/12/17- I mainly collect 12"/30cm/1:6-scale Ultraseries figures, but these are lean times for hoping to stumble across the old and the new stuff that isn't sold out on the day that it's released. This gave me an excuse to satisfy my curiosity about the hyper-articulated, small-format Ultra-series figures that I'd mentioned in a few previous articles. Back then, Bandai seemed to be going strong with their 6" Ultra Act line. I wasn't very interested because most of their releases were the post-'60s Ultra hero characters, and very few of the old Ultraseries monsters and aliens. Medicom had started doing this with their 30cm RAH line, which is when I stopped buying.

Enter the Bandai Tamashii Nations Simple style Heroic action Figuarts Ultraseries Figure... After a long run, Bandai discontinued the Ultra Act line last year, and replaced it with the slightly smaller format S.H. Figuarts line. If I'd invested in the Ultra Act line, I'd be mightily pissed by this: Who wants their Ultra heroes displayed with the new undersized monsters and aliens? Why didn't they just keep them the same scale? The cynical conspiracy view is that the reboot will motivate some Ultra Act collectors to buy the newer, shorter version of the same figures again: More $$$ for Bandai.

The good news (for me) is that I didn't buy into the Ultra Act line. So far, the SH Figuarts Ultraseries lineup is a mix of heroes (Ultraman C, Ultraman A, Ultraman Zoffy, Ultraseven), monsters (Gomora, King Joe), and aliens (Baltan, Zetton, Mephiras, Dada, Zarabu, Metoron, Gatsu) originally from the vintage '60s shows. That's the stuff I'm interested in.

Fool Me Once... I've already got 30cm versions of these guys, but because the SF Figuarts line is relatively inexpensive, doesn't take up much space, and I like articulation, I'm willing to pay to play. I don't intend to get very invested in the SF Figuarts line (no exclusives for me) in part because I don't trust that they'll get very deep into the vintage lineup before they move on to the post-'60s Ultra heroes. And then maybe reboot the line...?

If this comes to pass, you can't blame them. They're in this to make money, and what they make is driven by what toy collectors buy. Variety keeps things fresh, but too much can be challenging for business: Considering how many Ultra heroes and monsters/aliens have appeared in 50 years of TV shows, it's understandable why they'd limit their scope to the heroes (which are always popular with collectors) and the most popular monsters/aliens. Since the shows serve as a marketing evangelist for toy-makers, it's probably not a coincidence that many newer shows regularly feature the return of popular iconic monsters/aliens from the original series.

I call these "hyper-articulated" to distinguish them from the simple, low-count articulation of the vinyl toys that dominate the toy kaiju landscape. A hyper-articulated toy has a high parts count and is considerably more difficult and expensive to design and produce than a vinyl toy with basic articulation. That may explain why Bandai has been able to produce an incredible variety of simple vinyl Ultra series figures for so long, and why X-Plus keeps chugging along.

X-Plus Will Roam The Earth Long After We're Gone... While X-Plus is like the Ferrari of kaiju toys, most of the appeal for fans is in the quality of the sculpts and their paint ops, not the articulation: They're not very complicated products and don't have very many parts, so design, tooling, and production costs probably aren't as high. As long as dedicated fans keep preordering and buying, they can keep digging deeper and deeper into the lineup without as much risk from producing an obscure monster/alien from a lackluster episode. Hell, the've even made Goldon from Ultraman! Hardcore fans snap that kind of stuff up. When Bandai decides to invest in production of a SH Figuarts product, they're not likely to choose a monster that will appeal only to the most hardcore fan. Medicom's RAH Ultraseries line appears to have gone down this path... and the company has since moved on to greener pastures.

Ultraman Arrives! I ordered the barebones Ultraman figure instead of the deluxe version with buildings and other accessories. Nevertheless, nice packaging: It's an attractive box with the familar clear plastic trays that probably appeals to the toy collector who keeps the boxes on a bookshelf. I don't care about the boxes and store the spare parts in baggies... but still feel obligated to keep the boxes in the attic.

Bandai SH Figuarts Ultraman The accessories: Extra hands in different poses (useful), a red color timer (doesn't look easy to swap), a clear plastic beam with hand for simulating his oft-used monster-smiting Specium beam, and a printed clear acetate sheet with stand for simulating his beam-blocking shield. The stylistic representations of beams, shields and explosions are meant for frozen-in-the-moment diorama-ish displays. They must be a fairly popular feature because they're standard accessories in many of the Ultra Act and SH Figuarts products. Personally, I think they look kinda cheesy and are just one more thing to store, but respect that they're a signature part of this genre of product, similar to clear stands and other gimmicks that simulate levitation and flying.

Freed from its packaging, the most obvious but unsurprising observation is how tiny and light it is. It's close to 6"/15cm tall, but because the way scaling works, it's much, much smaller and lighter than a 12"/30cm version.

I have to admit that the weight of the figure did contribute to my initial impression that it's just a cheap little figure... despite my ranting that for 1/6th scale it's a misguided perception (A heavy figure needs good joints or a stand, and the weight doesn't indicate "quality").

Once I got past that, I appreciated that it's nicely sculpted, detailed, and painted (although mine had scuff marks around the color timer)... and it's a nifty bit of small scale engineering! It's far more complex and designed with tighter tolerances than the 6" Bandai vinyls and the old articulated 3-3/4" GI Joe figures. It's impressive that they've scaled the articulation of a typical 1/6th scale figure down to such a small size, even doing toe articulation... without compromising proportions. Simply, they've done a nice balance of articulation and cosmetics.

A lot of the articulation is ball-socket articulation, which feels different than the way the same part feels on a 1/6th scale figure, if that makes sense. I think some of the feel difference may be due to the difference in materials (like the knee hinges being made of PVC), but maybe also because of the physical effects of scaling: A small ball-joint socket is going to have a thinner wall to retain the ball, and thinner plastic is more pliable. It's not a problem in this case because small, light parts don't demand as much from a ball-socket joint. The hip joints are relatively floppy, but that's not as big a liability as it would be for a 1/6 scale figure because the figure's so light.

Seams are the price of articulation, but the tight design tolerances minimize the distraction of articulation seams (there are no gaping openings) without impeding the articulation too much. Of course, that's dependent on the pose and view: From the front, a crouching Ultraman helps hide the hips-legs seams that are pretty obvious and distracting when he's standing up straight. Same for the elbows.

I'm biased and can't help but compare this to the 12"/30cm Medicom rubber-suited versions. The little guy is better for posing because he's not wearing a rubber suit, but obviously less faithful to the 1:1 scale costume because of it.

The small size can be seen as a plus, because you can collect and display more if you don't have a lot of space. However, diorama display accessories at that scale are harder to come by, offer less detailing and variety, and are relatively expensive for what you get. Compare the Bandai buildings to model railroad N-scale buildings. If you aren't too fussy about the scale, the SH Figuarts figures look pretty good in photos with N-scale buildings.

Then there's the price-value. A comparison is tricky because the price of toys has been rapidly ratcheting up, plus there's a lot of price distortion in aftermarket sales. I can't help but think of how much I paid for the Medicom figures back then (which I thought were overpriced), and the price of the SH Figurarts figures now (which seem affordable). When I think about that price difference, I'd gladly pay that difference to get the larger format figure-- they have a much more impressive "presence"... but that's just my bias towards the stuff that I've been collecting. In either case, it's much more expensive when you're late to the party! Realistically, if I were starting a collection now, I'd go with the SH Figuarts line because they're much easier to find and buy, and they look really good.

Bandai SH Figuarts Baltan Seijin

Baltan Seijin: After unboxing, the first thing I noticed was how impressive the paint ops were, and how good the figure looked. This wasn't as noticeable with the Ultraman figure because of his simpler costume design. Baltan Seijin's costume design is a good showcase for this, with lots of detail, colors, patterns, and gradients. There's one curious flaw, which seems to be baked into the production: The serrated teeth pattern mask starts tilting at the top of the right leg and continues into the crotch. I don't think that this is a case of carefully modeling a flaw in the original costume, unless it's modeled after a screen suit that I'm unaware of (which is always possible).

There aren't any accessories-- just the figure. This is a little surprising after unboxing Ultraman, but there aren't any appropriate accessories that I can imagine them including: It doesn't need replacement hands, although I guess they could have included some sort of beam thing. For me, it means that there are no extra parts to stow.

This one has the same amount of articulation as Ultraman, but less poseability. Poseability depends on the design of the costume, and the limitations it imposes. In the shows, the suit actor didn't assume aggressive attack stances and the memorable poses are mainly about the positioning of the huge claws. The same limitations apply to the little figure (although you could twist its torso around 180 degrees, why would you?).

The costume design lends itself to hiding most of the articulation seams; again, the most obvious ones are at the legs/hips, and can be made less obvious with a crouching pose (although that's not an iconic Baltan Seijin pose).

Despite the top-heavy costume design (when its claws are pointed upwards, a common pose), the figure stands well because it's so light and has long feet.

Bandai SH Figuarts Zetton, Ultraman & Baltan Seijin

Zetton: This isn't my favorite monster suit design, but it has grown on me. Bandai did a great job with the sculpting and paint ops, so it looks just like a miniature version of the screen costume. It comes with two double-handed beam effects (replace the hands with the single piece hands+beam effect).

My observations about articulation and poseability apply here as well. While it has the same amount of articulation as the other figures, it's even less poseable because of the costume design; the biggest limitation is that its legs can only do a wide or wider spread stance. In this case, the rigid plastic thighs and crotch can't compress to narrow the stance, whereas the screen actor's rubber suit could. This in turn limits the utility of the knee and feet articulation. The most useful poseable articulation is the arms, which have adequate shoulder articulation and excellent ganged hinge elbows. Because of the costume's detailing, the articulation seams are barely noticeable.

Bandai SH Figuarts Zetton

Bandai SH Figuarts Gomora & Ultraman

Gomora: If the box size is any indication, this is a more ambitious product, and therefore was the most expensive of the four... but you get quite a bit more. Firstly, it's a hefty reptilian monster with a fat, long tail. That's unique for a hyper-articulated Ultraseries product. Medicom didn't do a single one in their 12"/30cm RAH line and the only one that I know of in that scale is Medicom's old Combat Joe Godzilla. This is a hopeful sign, since many of the kaiju-of-the-week in the original Ultraman series were big reptilian monsters with tails. Red King would be an obvious choice (already done in the Ultra Act line), and I hope they produce some of the Baragon-derived daikaiju.

This required a fresh approach to the articulation design since it's not a humanoid template figure. The tail has 10 ball-socket articulated segments, the arms have 4 each plus the hands, the legs have 5 each plus the feet, the neck has 2 plus the head (with articulated jaw), and the hips/torso has 3. That's a lot of articulation! Even better, it's mostly useful articulation that can reproduce a wide variety of iconic poses. The costume's many wrinkles and folds help make the seams less noticeable.

The set comes with a pair of spare hands, plus a tail and front horn stump to recreate Gomora's battle-damaged appearance in part 2 of the show. Most collectors will probably prefer to display the undamaged form and store the battle-damaged parts, but they're a nice inclusion because Gomora was tailless for half of the show. I think it's also a reminder of how brutal (and memorable) the old shows could be, compared to the forgettable, kid-friendly way that modern incarnations of the show dispatch kaiju.

Bandai SH Figuarts Gomora

Ultraseven: There isn't much to say that hasn't been mentioned already; this one comes with lots of extra hands, 2 beam effects and a spare "Eye Slugger" (the slicer crest that detaches atop his head). The suit design makes it very poseable, and this one (my copy at least) has tight hip joints.

Bandai SH Figuarts Ultraseven

Bandai SH Figuarts Ultraseven & Metoron Seijin

Bandai SH Figuarts Metoron Seijin

Metoron Seijin: This is another one where the costume design limits the poseability, and in this case, pretty severely at the arms/shoulder. The arms can't be posed parallel to the body, and the lack of a rotation swivel at the elbow hinge (it's only at the shoulder) is sorely missed. The legs have much better poseability than Zetton's, but in mine, there's a tendency for the leg pieces to become unplugged (which disassembles the leg) if you push it to the limits (which is easy to do). It's a minor pain-in-the-ass to reassemble. The easy pop-off-ability of the joints can either be a blessing or a curse.

Final Words: These are certainly a big step-up from the old ubiquitous Bandai 6" vinyls that started my adult journey into collecting Ultraseries stuff. Because the SH Figuarts hyper-articulated Ultraseries figures are relatively new, we don't know how deep into the lineup that Bandai will take it. If they stop short and if you don't mind the scale mismatch and quality difference, you could display these and the vinyls together, using the vinyls to fill gaps and build the collection. That's what I've done with my 12"/30cm collection, using Billiken and CCP vinyl models/figures for the reptilian daikaiju and others that Medicom didn't make.

Bandai SH Figuarts Ultraseries with Bandai King Joe and Marmit Pitto Seijin and Shapuray figures
Old Bandai King Joe, Marmit Pitto Seijin & Shapuray fit the size format; many were oversized or looked ultra-funky.

I've noticed that "scale" is rarely if ever mentioned in Ultraseries product descriptions. They're often referred to as a "non-scale" item, and identified by a general height measurement for the line. And there are many, many lines, of many different sizes. Ideally, within a manufacturer's line, the products are properly scaled to each other...but that's often not true.

Bandai SH Figuarts Ultraman and Bandai Geronimon
Bandai Geronimon, about the same size as SH Figuarts Gomora.

So far, one of the good things about this series is that the monsters, aliens, and heroes appear to be scaled to each other: Ultraman doesn't tower over any of the antagonists, and Gomora is beefy enough to believably kick Ultraman's ass. For me, the "tell" is that the shoulders are all about the same height. Aliens and monsters with big or tall heads should tower over Ultraman, because that's the way that the costumes were constructed. (Of course people are different sizes so there are exceptions to this, like using smaller female suit actors for smaller aliens.)

Bandai SH Figuarts Ultraman with Medicom 30cm/1:6 scale Ultraman

 

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