A Trippy Trip into the Early Days of Japanese Science Fiction

In 1949, the scars of World War II were still open wounds. The conflict which ended on August 15, 1945 after atomic bombs were dropped on two Japanese cities began a period of rebuilding overseen by American forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. Reconstruction ignited a schism in the Japanese psyche that still manifests today. There was the inevitable resentment of the conquered toward the conqueror, which is always exasperated by occupying soldiers behaving badly. And yet, America was investing heavily in Japan—rebuilding infrastructure, financing businesses, and generally leaving ownership in the hands of the Japanese. Under MacArthur there were draconian laws regulating art and culture, not to mention politics. On the fourth hand, the pop culture vacuum created by the absence of a thriving domestic industry was filled by American pop culture, which meant that many young Japanese grew up identifying with, or at least surrounded by, American movies.

Japanese popular film and music production returned after the war, but artists still operated under strict guidelines. Many pre-war films were banned for fear they would rile up nationalistic spirit. Samurai films, the very heart at the center of Japanese storytelling, were regarded by overseers and extremely suspicious. Japanese filmmakers taking those early first steps back into production had to tread carefully. This, along with the influx of American entertainment, resulted in many films that strove to look as western as possible. Nijiotoko (Rainbow Man, 1949), an early foray into science fiction, so diligently seeks to appear western that it eschews even the most basic and innocent of Japanese traits.

No one takes their shoes off indoors, for example, and there’s nary a kimono to be seen, even at bedtime. The house in which the story unfolds is distinctly American in style, and since the film sticks almost entirely to the house and its remote surroundings, there’s barely even a glimpse of a city or village with recognizably Japanese characteristics. The movie hews to the tropes of the “old dark house” movie, a well-worn genre in the United States even in 1949, and the classic parlor room whodunit. At the same time, it boasts a distinctive weirdness that would become a hallmark of Japanese horror and science fiction and rarely manifested in American films, just as a unique atmosphere and dreamlike quality would become the defining aspect of European horror, as opposed to the more “rational” American and British films.

It’s also an early example of a drug movie, even proto-psychedelic. It includes a credit for “Mescaline Hallucination Envisioned By,” so you know you’re in for…well, something. Indeed the film’s plot reads like someone took some mescaline to come up with it. Dogged young reporter Mimi (singer Teruko Akatsuki) is put onto a strange story by her former school friend, Yurie (Katsuko Wakasugi, who had a storied career in Japanese genre cinema), who has become a suspect in a murder-arson case. A remote cottage burned down, and the body of a murder victim was discovered within. Yurie has the misfortune of being nearby with no one to vouch for her. The shack is on the property of the oddball Maya family, and they provide no shortage of suspicious characters themselves, including mad scientist Ryuzo (Bontarô Miake), his twitchy beatnik-artist artist son Katsuto (Kenjirô Uemura), his “vanished for five years and just returned” other son Toyohiko (Jun’nosuke Miyazaki), and his moody cat-loving wife Shimako (Kiyoko Hirai).

Professor Maya is obsessed with rainbows, and specifically with creating artificial rainbows, whatever those may be. He spends most of his time holed up in his lab studying them, even though I think that by 1949 science had them pretty much figured out. But Professor Maya seems to think they hold the key to unlocking the mysteries of…the expanding cosmos? Because color spectrum? I’m sure it’s based on some scientific theory I’m too stupid to know about, although it also sounds like a bunch of new age hippie mumbo jumbo— there’s a lot about this film that clues modern viewers into the reality that there was a lot more freaky counter-culture stuff in the 1940s and ’50s than people may realize. Drug movies were common in the Us during the 1920s and pre-Code 1930s, but it was mostly been marijuana and cocaine panic films. I’m not sure when the first “psychedelic” drug movie was, but Rainbow Man has to be an early contender. Maya’s obsession has a cause though, other than a love of pretty sky colors.

It seems the Maya family has been plagued for years by a sinister supernatural entity known as the Rainbow Man. The Rainbow Man appears from time to time to menace someone, and then that someone inevitably ties a terrible death while screaming about rainbows. The professor insists it is this strange being that killed the man in the cabin. The police tend to favor Yurie as a suspect, the weapon being not a rainbow but a knife or a bludgeon of some kind combined with fire. However, when the red herrings start getting offed while hollering about rainbows—attacks the movie realizes by suddenly shifting to an abstract barrage of psychedelic colors—it seems there might actually be something to the professor’s crackpot theory. Mimi ain’t buying it, though, and she launches a parallel investigation to uncover the sinister secret at the heart of the Maya family.

Rainbow Man doesn’t serve up much in the way of scares, and while the brief forays into psychotropic phantasmagoria lend the film moments of freakiness (courtesy of up-and-coming effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya), it is otherwise clinically, competently shot. Nothing in the way of weird angles or other tricks. The score is by Akira Ifukube, who would later become the go-to composer for Godzilla movies and a massive bulk of Japanese science fiction and samurai cinema. The variations in his themes are sometimes, let’s say subtle. Which means that, in retrospect and given how integral Ifukube’s sound is to later science fiction films, the score for Rainbow Man is very Godzilla-esque (or Akira Kurosawa-esque, if you prefer). That said, Ifukube’s variation on his soon-to-become usual themes works quite well within the context of an old dark house thriller.

Director Kiyohiko Ushihara was very experienced, but most of that experience was during the pre-war silent era, when the bulky nature of equipment kept one from getting too out of hand. Instead, it relies on its characters to do the heavy lifting. Mimi is tough and competent, and far from being dismissed because she is a woman, she commands the respect and attention of both journalist colleagues and the police, who are ready to close the case but stick around because they put stock in Mimi’s opinion. Her professional rival/love interest, Akashi (Keiju Kobayashi), also treats Mimi with respect, teasing her as all rivals should but never once dismissing theories out of hand. She would be an excellent Kolchak. The other most interesting character is poor, whacked-out Katsuto.

Although a strong, determined sleuth is the core of any good whodunit, the festive decor is always the cast of shifty suspects. Rainbow Man really nails this aspect of the format. What a bunch of weirdos, with their mad science and their creepy artwork, their love of cats and obsession with/fear of rainbows. If the ultimate resolution of the mystery is a bit of a let-down (I mean, I reckon we all knew the killer wasn’t really going to be a vindictive, hateful rainbow, but still), the kooky, twisty journey to it remains a good deal of fun. At about 81 minutes, it’s longer by a bit than the average Japanese thriller of the day, and perhaps they could trim a bit here and there to end up with a tighter, faster-paced film.

But then, it’s also fun to simply hang out at the Maya house while everyone skulks, sneaks, and stares at each other from the tops of staircases and around shadowy corners. It’s been great to see the slow, welcome reemergence of formerly obscure Japanese genre films from the 1940s and ’50s. Along with Tômei ningen arawaru (The Invisible Man Appears, also made by Daiei and released in 1949), Rainbow Man represents Japan’s first steps into the world of science fiction, a genre they would come to embrace with gusto just a few years later, with the release of Gojira. It may not be a sci-fi spectacular, but if you enjoy offbeat whodunits with dogged reporters and sinister culprits hollering about rainbows, Rainbow Man is an enjoyable mescaline trip of a movie.