THE INVISIBLE MAN APPEARS (1949) • THE INVISIBLE MAN vs. THE HUMAN FLY (1957)
Two unique Japanese riffs on H.G Wells’ classic character, also indebted to Universal’s iconic film series...
The Invisible Man, published in 1897, was H.G Wells’ now iconic tale of power without impunity as a scientist perfects invisibility and tests it on himself. Able to do anything without witnesses quickly sends him into a megalomaniac spiral. In 1993, James Whale directed a loose adaptation for Universal Pictures which cemented the character in both literature and cinema. As a fan of burgeoning motion pictures, Wells may well have written his stories in mind for movies as he was right there with Whale during production. Passing in 1946, Wells never got to see how far-reaching his ideas got, as Daiei Film produced their own Invisible Man tales in 1949 and 1957. Two films from the early days of tokusatsu (VFX-heavy films) never released outside Japan until Arrow Video’s Blu-ray restoration.
Jewel thieves become interested in an invisibility formula invented by Professor Nakazato and want to use his invention to acquire a diamond necklace…
“There is no good or evil in science, but it can be used for good or evil purposes”, opens The Invisible Man Appears. Words that set the stage for another lesson in scientific advancement without clear conscience, and yet while familiar, it hits differently to James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933) or Frankenstein (1931) when told from a Japanese perspective. Both this film and the sequel mention their involvement in World War II, which sets apart Wells’ cautionary visions of the future with a sombre reflection of recent history post-atomic Japan is still living. As an early tokusatsu, there are clear trends of ensemble casts in constant boardroom meetings discussing the advancements, as well as newspaper headlines and talking heads stressing the consequences across the entire community.
Two young scientists, Segi (Daijirô Natsukawa) and Kurokawa (Kanji Koshiba), are each developing a method of invisibility, for not only their teacher Dr Nakazato’s (Ryûnosuke Tsukigata) prestige but his daughter Machiko’s (Chizuru Kitagawa) hand in marriage. When Segi offers a truly dumb idea of simply making a really black paint, the confident Kurokawa points out there would still be shadows cast before hatching a formula for genuine invisibility. I initially thought the belittled Segi would become the jealousy-ridden Invisible Man. Appears pleasantly shocked me in how twisting and turning its mystery was, even if the satisfying conclusion is built on an unexpectedly complicated narrative. Whereas Whale directed a murderous psychopath to fit among Universal’s monsters, Appears is an expansive crime caper where anybody could be the culprit.
Akimitsu Takagi writes an impressive story with few red herrings as everything eventually comes into play. Dr Nakazato disappears after creating the invisible formula, poor Kurokawa does too while investigating, the scheming drug company president Kawabe (Shôsaku Sugiyama) wants both the formula and the Tears of Amour—a diamond necklace owned by stage performer Ryûko (Takiko Mizunoe), sister of Kurokawa, who uses her position to find him—and then there’s the Invisible Man in his bandages holding people at gunpoint when he could just use his invisibility! And while co-writer Nobuo Adachi includes all the tokusatsu staples (every film from this era needs a full song-and-dance number) there’s enough interesting dialogue to keep you invested throughout the malaise of confusion.
All my compliments are equally shared by directors Shinsei Adachi and Shigehiro Fukushima, who infuse a strong sense of style in the cinematography that reinvigorates the expected torrent of sat-down dialogue sequences. There’s a heavy noir atmosphere as actors deliver lines with slashes of light across their eyes, while simple actions such as the Invisible Man smashing glasses and pots on the floor are caught with whipping camera movements and canted angles. Cliches of the age, sure, but the darker ambiance adds a much appreciated dramatic flair to accentuate the emotional beats.
But all this talk of story and characters, what do we see of the Invisible Man himself? Well, truthfully he’s not in it that much. This is arguably the first tokusatsu and so Japan wasn’t yet confident with films brimming with VFX like Mothra (1961), Warning From Space (1956), or The H-Man (1958), and what effects we do have from Japanese superstar Eiji Tsuburaya are pretty obvious even when compared to John Fulton’s work for Universal 16 years prior. When an animal is tested on, the fade between the hand holding it and holding nothing is slightly off, and the sketchy outlines around the Invisible Man unclothing lessen the intended impact. For the history buffs, seeing Tsuburaya’s handiwork pre-Godzilla (1954) is still a fun novelty.
I didn’t find myself disappointed with the effects as Invisible Man Appears is a genuinely well-crafted mystery using the all important themes of Wells’ work, rather than the fantastical visuals. What the absence of appearance does to an identity is woven throughout every character’s story as they’re each given that opening choice on whether to do good or evil with their discovery.
JAPAN | 1949 | 87 MINUTES | 1.37:1 | BLACK & WHITE | JAPANESE
A ruthless serial killer with a peculiar method of stalking and killing his victims comes face to face with a police officer turned invisible by a scientific experiment.
Eight years later, we’re back with a locked room mystery that could only be committed with an invisible or tiny perpetrator. Skipping ahead of the initial discovery, the police led by Chief Wakabayashi (Yoshirô Kitahara) have been failing to solve numerous crimes committed by this impossible assailant. When theorising an invisible killer with the older scientist, his protege, and the doting daughter, they slowly uncover vengeance is being orchestrated as equally elaborate as before. I should acknowledge now that, as familiar as all this sounds with The Invisible Man Appears, this film has nothing to do with its predecessor. Despite filling the exact same character roles, that scientific trio have different names played by different actors. In fact, neither cast nor crew return and there’s an entirely new method of invisibility, making this a spiritual sequel at best.
Writer Hajime Takaiwa leans heavier on the police investigating in this story which largely works as the actors are interesting enough to follow, and director Mitsuo Murayama rolls with the times with some saucier dance routines and more explicitly bloody murders to heighten the thrills. But The Human Fly lacks what made the original enduring; with the meandering moments spread further throughout, and the stylistic noir flair absent in favour of the more rudimentary flat lighting and direction that people imagine when thinking classic schlock science-fiction. That isn’t to say these two do a bad job at all, but it comes across as far more perfunctory, which does the complicated plot no favours when I’m starting to zone off. With all the police talk about who could’ve committed these crimes, we only see the Human Fly around twenty minutes in and far longer for the Invisible Man himself to appear.
Invisible Man Appears felt like the Wells’ original story by minimising the science and focusing on people in the real world. Here, the scientists are working in a Star Trek set of silver walls and guard rails where every other wall is covered in spinning gizmos and flashing lights. It sounds fun to bring in an invisibility ray for more science-fiction, but it never comes across as impressive, especially to modern audiences, whereas an impressive story can still wow me. There’s little information on the VFX master Toru Matoba but they’ve perfected what Universal achieved all those years back, with far more seamless invisible compositing as well as the miniature people flying through the air. Again, no big wow factor but the effects blend far better into the film this time for audiences to accept them and focus on the story.
Like Appears, the third act illuminates a number of the mysteries and the story becomes almost compelling at times. The killer Ant-Man is an unpredictable psychotic in their scenes but their identity as well as the Invisible Man’s both being revealed in the middle of the movie severely weakens the pacing compared to the ramping escalation of Appears. Everything plays out in a similar manner to Appears but here they lack that crucial element on suspense; by the finale we know everything and are just waiting to see things play out, which seems so bizarre that the first film would achieve everything a good Invisible Man story can do better.
JAPAN | 1957 | 96 MINUTES | BLACK & WHITE | JAPANESE
directors: Shinsei Adachi & Shigehiro Fukushima (Appears) • Mitsuo Murayama (Fly)
writers: Nobua Adachi (story by Akimitsu Takagi) (Appears) • Hajime Takaiwa. (Fly)
starring: Chizuru Kitagawa, Takiko Mizunoe, Daijirô Natsukawa, Mitsusaburô Ramon, Shôsaku Sugiyama, Kanjil Koshiba, Kichijirô Ueda & Hiroshi Ueda (Appears) • Ryûji Shinagawa, Yoshirô Kitahara, Junko Kanô, Ikuko Môri, Jôji Tsurumi, Yoshihiro Hamaguchi & Shôzô Nanbu (Fly).