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Invisible Man in Japan

The Invisible Man (1933, James Whale), based on a story by HG Wells, was one of the early horror films that helped establish Universal as the go-to studio for chilling fare. They were, at the time, locked in a battle with Paramount, which had produced a number of controversial horror classics during the early years of the 1930s, including: Island of Lost Souls, Murders in the Zoo, Supernatural, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, quite possibly the very final word on pre-Code horror perversity. While these Paramount films earned their places in horror history, none of them developed the iconic status as Universal’s big three: Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy; or the godfather of Universal horror, 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney.

Measured against those films, The Invisible Man was sort of a determined second stringer, though over the years it has remained in the canon of classic Universal horror, joined by second and third cycle films The Wolf Man (1941) and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (a latecomer in 1954). The Invisible Man and the subsequent (not always connected) films in the series, had the advantage of being, let’s say cheaper to make in terms of special effects, than your average Frankenstein or Wolfman movie. As long as you had the main guy in face bandages and a scene of a shirt dancing, you were good to go and didn’t have to spend hours with your star in a makeup chair.

It was a popular enough character that Japan decided to get in on the invisible man game, even though the character had been more or less abandoned in the United States by the time Japan decided to give it a go. The last film in the “Invisible Man” series had been 1944’s The Invisible Man’s Revenge, but Nobuo Adachi made Invisible Man Appears (Tômei ningen arawaru) for Daiei Studios in 1949, at a time when the heyday of all of the iconic Universal monsters was over, and the studio was pitting its classic creatures against Abbott and Costello (they would meet the Invisible Man in 1951). 

This Japanese entry into the sweepstakes might not have been an official part of the series, but it certainly holds its own against Universal’s films and is better than some of the official Invisible Man films (which included The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman, Invisible Agent, and The Invisible Man’s Revenge). Adachi’s Invisible Man Appears is, like most of the Universal movies, more of a crime drama than horror or science fiction, though there are enough beakers and scientists with wild Albert Einstein hair to give it a reasonable claim to the honor of being Japan’s first known science fiction film—though not its first horror film. Like everyone, the Japanese had been making horror films since the silent era. Plus, there’s not much horror in Invisible Man Appears, which looks for inspiration more toward Universal’s The Invisible Man’s Revenge, which is mostly a heist film.

Invisible, Man!

Invisible Man Appears is about friendly science rivals Segi (Daijirô Natsukawa) and Kurokawa (Kanji Koshiba), who are working on  away to turn things invisible. They are also romantic rivals for the affections of Machiko (Chizuru Kitagawa), the daughter of their employer, Dr. Nakazato (Ryûnosuke Tsukigata). Unbeknownst to his research assistants, Nakazato has already figured out how to turn things invisible and has tested his miraculous formula on a variety of animals. He has hesitated to test it on a human, however, since he’s yet to figure out how to turn invisible objects visible again—and because the formula tends to turn living subjects violent and irrational. Instead, showcasing a moment of bad judgment, the scientist reveals his discovery to shady businessman Kawabe (Shôsaku Sugiyama). Kawabe sees dollar signs, but Nakazato refuses to sell him the formula, fearing what could be done with it in the wrong hands, and also because of that whole “going insane” thing.

Kawabe, not one to be deterred by morality or prudent scientific caution, decides to kidnap the professor, steal the formula, and con some poor schmuck into being an unwitting test subject. After all, Kawabe has plans for the formula. Incredibly specific, focused, small-scale plans. There’s a diamond necklace he wants. Nothing else, just this one necklace, which is nationally famous and would be next to impossible to fence. Any other heist, the combined yields of which could be millions and millions of yen, never crosses Kawabe’s mind. While perhaps not the most visionary criminal mastermind, Kawabe is still no dummy. He’s not willing to test the invisibility formula on himself, nor is he willing to sacrifice one of his loyal henchmen, since they’re much handier as fodder for bullets. Instead, Kawabe devises the most complicated way to achieve what should be, even for an untalented amateur, a simple heist—especially for someone who counts an invisible man among their ranks.

Soon, an invisible man, complete with Claude Raines style bandages and sunglasses, starts popping up at the jewelry store where the necklace’ owner had tried to sell it. Demonstrating his frightful power to not be seen (and some pretty good special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, who would go on a couple of years later to cement his place in cinema history with his work on Gojira), the invisible man, who claims to be Professor Nakazato, in a ruse so transparent (ha) that it’s surprising anyone falls for it, demands the location of the necklace. Despite his powers of invisibility, the invisible man is shockingly inept as a thief, failing time and again to acquire the necklace and never giving up on it in favor of chasing some other type of loot. 

The script by Nobuo Adachi, based on a story by Akimitsu Takagi, is something of a threadbare affair, most of its shortcomings manifesting in the fact that this gang of criminals has an invisible man at their disposal and can’t think of anything to use him for other than trying to steal that one necklace—a heist which, even though they focus on it exclusively, they can’t pull off. One can’t help but enumerate the ways in which the invisible man could have lifted the diamonds without breaking so much as invisible sweat. There’s also the fact that this invisible man undermines his one skill—being invisible—by walking into a room and loudly laughing and announcing that he has arrived. Had he just hung out over by the curtains and kept quiet, he could have stolen the necklace on his first outing. But that’s not as much fun, one supposes, as laughing loudly and doing the dramatic “undress to reveal I am not here” routine that all invisible men love so dearly.

Its obvious foibles are easily dismissed, however, because Invisible Man Appears is an entertaining cops ‘n’ robbers picture with the addition of a few science fiction elements. Director Nobuo Adachi has a bag of tricks that keep things interesting, from silent film-style dissolves and wipes to the use of handheld and point-of-view cameras to, of course, a bunch of “invisible guy” special effects. There’s little mystery behind the mystery (the true identity of the invisible man is revealed about halfway through the film and is exactly who you expect him to be), but it’s still fun thanks to spry direction and a good cast.

Particularly interesting is Takiko Mizunoe, who has a supporting role as Kurokawa’s sister, Ryûko. Although a limited role, hers is substantially more memorable than that of leading lady Chizuru Kitagawa. Mizunoe towers over her co-stars and spends the film clad in a stunning array of outfits and looking like someone on her way to a party with Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. In her off-screen life, Takiko cut her hair short and almost always wore tailored men’s suits and formal attire. She began her career on stage, often playing male roles. Later, as she transitioned from stage to screen, she maintained a cool, modern, and controversial crossdressing chic that grew out of Weimar Berlin and was honed to perfection by Dietrich.  She cut a sophisticated image, challenging convention of feminine attitude and style in the same way as many actresses of the 1920s and early 1930s. She was also a labor organizer (rallying stage performers to protest for better wages and working conditions, for which she was arrested), a lifelong bachelorette, and an outspoken feminist at a time when such flagrance was unheard of.

Takiko Mizunoe’s career as a film actress was brief, but her involvement in the industry far outlasted her screen roles. There’s a reason why, despite her relatively small (if pivotal) role in Invisible Man Returns, most of the articles about the movie end up being mostly about Takiko Mizunoe. She became the first female film producer in Japan, finding a niche for herself at Nikkatsu when it reopened. Nikkatsu was Japan’s oldest film studio but had been shuttered during the war, surviving on its chain of theaters while its film production business and equipment was subsumed in a deal brokered, much to Nikkatsu’s displeasure, by Daiei. When Nikkatsu decided to get back into the game in 1954, they found a willing stable of experienced filmmakers ready to jump ship from Daiei and Shikoku. Nikkatsu promised them more creative freedom and a better chance for advancement. Takiko Mizunoe was among the people who took the offer. Her first two films as a producer were Hatsukoi kanariya musume (1955) and Midori harukani (1955), directed by Inoue Umetsugu, who went on to acclaim directing candy-colored musicals and spy films at both Nikkatsu and the Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong. Midori harukani starred Ruriko Asaoka in her screen debut. Asaoka would go on to become the biggest female star at Nikkatsu during its golden years. 

The following year, Mizunoe changed the face of Nikkatsu and Japanese cinema when she produced Season of the Sun (Taiyo no kisetsu), the first of the taiyozoku or “Sun Tribe” movies about and aimed at Japan’s post-war youth. Based on a 1955 novel by future Tokyo mayor and political lightning rod Shintarô Ishihara, Season of the Sun was controversial for its depiction of jaded, self-indulgent Japanese youths idling away their lives at beaches, in bars, on the dance floor, and at local boxing gyms along Japan’s coast. The old guard was indignant over this depiction of new Japanese culture, so indolent and disrespectful…so international in its flavor. Predictably, when the old are outraged, the young are enthusiastic. This was the first time Japanese cinema had offered something besides movies for adults or children, the first time someone had looked toward teens and twenty-somethings and tapped into the sense of alienation, ambivalence, and independence that had arisen among them in the post-war years. 

Season of the Sun became more than a film. It became a sensation, a touchstone that reoriented Japanese culture (or at least a portion of it) toward youth, in much the same way as was happening in the United States and, a few years later, Swinging London. It spawned an entire (though short-lived) genre, and the hand at the tiller was the “cross-dressed fair lady,” Takiko Mizunoe. She went on to produce several more defining films for Nikkatsu, including Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu, 1956), another Sun Tribe film which was built around a minor player in Season of the Sun, Shintarô Ishihara’s lanky younger brother, Yujiro. Although his role in Season of the Sun was tiny, his appearance was enough to turn heads—especially the heads of women. 

Yujiro Ishihara rocketed to stardom, becoming Nikkatsu’s most bankable superstar and modern Japan’s first teen idol. Around Ishihara’s fame, and out of the ashes of the Sun Tribe films (which, like Icarus, flew too close to the sun), developed Nikkatsu’s signature “borderless action” style, modeled after American noir and “youth gone wild” movies and French crime films. Mizunoe, architect of the Sun Tribe films, was again at the center of a craze that swept Japan. She produced several of Nikkatsu’s best and most successful borderless action films, including I Am Waiting (1957), Red Pier (1958, a remake of the French crime classic Pepe Le Moko), and Rusty Knife (1958), all starring Yujiro Ishihara and another of Nikkatsu’s young female superstars, Mie Kitahara (also in Crazed Fruit and one of Ishihara’s most frequent co-stars). Mizunoe also produced I Hate But Love in 1962, a pairing of Ishihara and Ruriko Asaoka directed by one of the great mavericks of Japanese cinema, Koreyoshi Kurahara. Her last film at Nikkatsu, produced in 1967, was Seijun Suzuki’s mad, career-making/career-ending masterpiece, Branded to Kill.

The other interesting name associated with Invisible Man Appears is effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya. Invisible Man Appears was one of Japan’s first science fiction films, and it’s fitting that Eiji Tsuburaya was there the day Japanese science fiction was born. His name would become synonymous with Japanese special effects films. The company he founded, Tsuburaya Productions, remains active to this day. Compared to what he would accomplish a few years laters on Gojira, Invisible Man Appears is a showcase of modest but inventive effects. The wonders of an invisible man film were well-established by this time. Audiences expected to see the invisible man undress, revealing nothing underneath his layers of clothes. They expected to see object move around, doors open and close, things like that. The invisible man almost always has to drive a vehicle and smoke a cigarette, and there better be a dancing shirt. Tsuburaya delivered all of the above and then some. His “undressing” and “floating objects” scenes are substantially better than the scenes in which actors are pantomiming fights with the invisible man, which mostly involve the actors clutching at their own lapels. 

Chizuru Kitagawa and Daijirô Natsukawa are wooden as the pair of lovers caught up in this crazy plot. Kitagawa in particular is saddled with a hapless role that demands she alternate between meekly agreeing to a “marriage-off” competition between her two suitors and being a helpless damsel in distress. Luckily, Takiko Mizunoe and Shôsaku Sugiyama are on hand to liven things up. As the transparently (ha) villainous Kawabe, Sugiyama gets to devour scenery. And given her off-screen style and history, it’s no surprise that Takiko Mizunoe turns in a far less “damsel in distress” performance. Mizunoe’s Ryûko, besides looking fabulous, gets into the thick of things, laying traps for the invisible man and, during the film’s finale, mounting her own rescue operation at Kawabe’s serial villain seaside retreat/dungeon. 

Despite being a fun blend of light science fiction and heist film, Invisible Man Appears didn’t inspire Daiei to launch an invisible man franchise. They didn’t entirely abandon science fiction, however. In the wake of Gojira’s success, Daiei came up with their own kaiju series: Gamera. If never the measure of Godzilla, Gamera certainly proved a lucrative and iconic series in its own right. Daiei also concentrated on the long-running Zatoichi series, starring Shintaro Katsu; and in a bid for a second giant monster series, it produced three Majin films about a giant stone god that comes to life and stomps on medieval villages. But while Daiei might have been finished with the invisible man, Japan wasn’t. Like Eiji Tsuburaya, the invisible man soon appeared at a new home: Toho.

Send in the Invisible Clowns

By the middle of the 1950s, the cycle of Universal monsters had expired. The brief revival in The Creature from the Black Lagoon was extinguished by that film’s hackneyed sequels. Horror was out of fashion, and science fiction was interested in giant tarantulas and scorpions and other Godzilla-inspired giant horrors of the atomic age. In Japan, however, there was still mileage to be wrung out of the venerable invisible man. In 1954, some five years or so after the release of Daiei’s Invisible Man Appears, director Motoyoshi Oda made The Invisible Man (Tomei ningen). Oda trained under Kajiro Yamamoto and alongside Akira Kurosawa and Ishirō Honda. During the war, he became a go-to director for competently, quickly-made filler that could keep the industry afloat during the years of conflict. He never achieved the acclaim of fellow apprentices Honda and Kurosawa, but he also never hurt for work. In 1954 and ’55, he made his two highest-profile films: Invisible Man and Godzilla Raids Again (aka Gigantis the Fire Monster or Gojira no gyakushû), Toho’s cheap, rushed (but not unentertaining) sequel to Gojira

Invisible Man is just as cheap and rushed, but it is unentertaining, consisting mostly of padding, dull conversations, and characters who only qualify as characters because, what else are you going to call them? Things start off promising as a car collides with something no one can see. As the crowd tries to puzzle out what just happened, one of them notices blood appearing on the asphalt followed by, amazingly, a naked dead man. In a note clutched in his hand, the man explains that he can’t take being invisible anymore and is committing suicide. He also warns that society should be wary; there is another invisible man out there. And that’s pretty much all of the invisible man action for the next forty-five minutes, as the film settles into a monotonous story about mobster Yajima (Minoru Takada), who runs a cabaret and, in his spare time, dabbles in drug smuggling. Middling thug Ken (Kenjirô Uemura) wants to use one of the club’s singers, Michiyo (Miki Sanjô) as a mule, but she’s not enthusiastic about the idea. Just as Ken is finding his sleazy thug groove by slapping Michiyo around, in walks a sad clown. Somehow, that’s a metaphor for this entire film.

The clown is Takamitsu Nanjô (Seizaburô Kawazu). He’s also the other invisible man. Or rather, he would be the invisible man, except he spends the entire film in his Pagliaccio costume, which no one seems to think is weird. Part of the time, it theoretically makes sense, as his modest employment is as the cabaret’s sign-wielding ballyhoo man, because, what person wouldn’t see a sighing, melancholy clown holding a sign and think, “That place looks sexy!” But Nanjô remains in the clown costume even when he’s off the clock, sulking around his apartment and not as thankful as he should be that he lives in a building full of people who don’t think he’s a creep for wearing a clown costume 24/7. Of course, the viewer knows it’s because he’s invisible under the make-up (though this movie forgets about the mouth and eyes, which is why previous invisible men always covered their mouths and wore sunglasses; a depressed clown in sunglasses was too much even for this film), but one who isn’t privy to that information could be forgiven for not wanting to associate with this sad sack who slumps around gussied up in full clown make-up all the time and whose only friend in the world is the little blind girl who lives next door.

When news of the invisible man spreads across town, scumbag Yajima hatches a scheme to capitalize on the fear. He dresses his gang up in the iconic Claude Raines trench coat and face bandages and has them rob banks and race tracks while they boisterously claim to be invisible men. The logic of this ruse is…well, there is no logic. Again, being an invisible man has one advantage when it comes to pulling a bank job, and that’s being an invisible man. If you bust in fully clothed and clearly visible, merely shouting that you are an invisible man, it sort of undercuts the edge being invisible would give you. Not to mention that someone might call your bluff. It’s like yelling that you have the strength of Superman while doing curls with a five-pound dumbbell. Luckily for the completely visible invisible men, Tokyo seems to be in a forgiving mood and just accepts that they’re invisible while clearly seeing them. It must be that famous Japanese politeness. 

The only guy who harbors any inquisitiveness is news reporter Komatsu (Yoshio Tsuchiya). He investigates the invisible man case and before too long is on the trail of Nanjô the sad clown. When the gang kills the blind girl’s grandfather during some typical “down at the docks” gangland shenanigans, Nanjô finally gets angry enough to remove his clown make-up and fuzzy ball hat and get down to some serious invisible manning. This means the film delivers only its second invisibility effect at the 45 minute mark, when it’s more than halfway over and with nothing in between but a glum clown walking around with a sign. How Nanjô’s became an invisible man is explained in a couple of lines of dialogue, depriving viewers of the previously de rigueur scene of a guy drinking a formula from a test tube. Motoyoshi Oda tries to pad things out with cabaret numbers, but other than the high-energy opening song and slinky dance, most of the numbers are as boring as everything else that drags this film out to a feature-length runtime that feels longer than its 70 minutes. 

Eiji Tsuburaya is once again on hand to do the special effects, but they are few and far between. This film has fewer special effects than Invisible Man Appears but tries to make up for it by including more bikini-clad dancing girls, as well as a little bit of pulp magazine cover style light bondage. We eventually get the requisite undressing scene and some floating objects and, of course, the invisible man playing a few keys of a piano and having his footprints appear in sand, but that’s about it. There is a scene of the invisible man riding a moped, but that effect is undone by the training wheels and tow cable. The rest is just people talking to a nonexistent actor or pantomiming getting punched by an invisible clown. The lack of effects probably has to do with the fact that the film was a B-picture made on a tight schedule and with a tiny budget, but it also probably has to do with the fact that Tsuburaya was pulling double duty, working on the (scant) special effects for Invisible Man while also serving as the film’s cinematographer. Tsuburaya the cinematographer fares better than Tsuburaya the effects pioneer. In fact, the one thing to recommend in Invisible Man is Tsuburaya’s photography. It’s not particularly inventive, but he does capture a lot of mid-century Tokyo. Much of the film was shot on the streets of the Ginza neighborhood, so as a window into the daily bustle of Tokyo at that time, it’s interesting. 

For die-hard fans of Japanese cinema, it’s interesting to see so many Toho bit players in lead roles. Unfortunately, the script gives most of them little to do. Seizaburô Kawazu is a non-entity as Nanjô, the invisible man who spends most of the film as a clown with a hangdog expression. It’s possible that the film was attempting to make a point about the state of Japan and Japanese veterans in particular, given what is revealed about how Nanjô becomes invisible, by having Nanjô drift through modern post-war Japan as either an invisible man or a clown. All nations have a tendency to demand their young go to war, laud them while the war is on, then abandon them when they return, regarding them as broken, dangerous, or crazy, refusing to provide mental healthcare, avoiding them as employees, and all the while thanking them for their service. But intending something is not the same as achieving it. 

The actor who fares best is Yoshio Tsuchiya as the reporter. His is the only role that is well-written (the gangsters don’t appear often enough, but they’re fine when they do), and it’s nice to see him in something approaching a lead. A man who studied to be a doctor and whose father instilled in him a love of Shakespeare, Tsuchiya never showed much interest in entering the picture business but was persuaded to go for an audition by none other than Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa loved him, though never enough to cast him as a lead. Although never a star, he was one of Toho’s hardest working players, and you’d be hard pressed to watch one of their samurai or science fiction films and not catch at least a glimpse of him. After appearing as the farmer Rikichi in Seven Samurai, Tsuchiya shows up in nearly every Kurosawa film during the 1950s and ’60s. He was also a mainstay of Toho’s science fiction films, beginning with Invisible Man, the studio’s second science fiction outing. Starting with 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again, he appeared in five Godzilla films, his last one being 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah.

The other thing that might make Invisible Man of interest to fans and historians is that not only does it star the leader of Godzilla’s Planet X (Tsuchiya), and not only was its director of photography Eiji Tsuburaya; but the actor who plays the invisible man who commits suicide during the film’s opening is Haruo Nakajima. He might not be a familiar face, but that’s because he’s famous for what he did with his face obscured. Starting with the original and reprising the role throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Nakajima was the man inside the Godzilla costume.

Alas, other than a chance to see the background and bit players of Toho get a movie all to themselves, and perhaps get a glimpse at some nice street scenes, there’s little reason to watch Invisible Man. In every way, it’s a step backward from its fun, effects-filled Invisible Man Appears. Motoyoshi Oda does his best to cobble together a passable film with little money and little time but just doesn’t pull it off. Given how little interest Toho seemed to have in the invisible man, in their invisible man film, called Invisible Man, one would think that this movie got it out of their system, especially since they were about to go on one of the greatest winning streaks in the history of science fiction cinema. With success after success in the Godzilla franchise, other kaiju movies, and their space invasion films, why bother revisiting a “monster” whose best days were in the past? Something must have kept someone at Toho interested in the concept though, because they had one more invisible man type film in them, The Human Vapor (Gasu ningen dai 1 gō, 1960).

The human vapor might have only been sort of an invisible man, but there was one more straightforward invisible man film to be made before that. In 1957, the ball was served back to Daiei. They decided to give the invisible man another go with a bigger budget, a more authentic science fiction feel (including theremin music), and a title as enticing as what American International Pictures was dreaming up in the States.

A Fly in the Ointment

It seemed by 1957, the only people who might be interested in the invisible man were producers of nudie cutie movies, who couldn’t get enough of movies in which a horny scientist turns invisible and watches women take their clothes off. Well, nudie cutie producers and Japan. Eight years after Invisible Man Appears, Daiei decided to give him another go. The studio had been relatively inactive in science fiction, but they were one of the preeminent houses for “respectable” fare, starting with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and including Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell and Kenzi Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu. They made several ghost stories between 1949 and 1957, but their only science fiction film during that period was the strange, apocalyptic Warning from Space (1956).

The itch must have been growing to get back into the science fiction game, though. Toho was on a tear, the success of Gojira having paved the way. Although never the measure of Toho’s science fiction and kaiju empire, Daiei’s Gamera yielded six films between 1965 and 1971 and was resurrected in the 1990s. In the years before Gamera, however, Daiei was still searching, and although Warning from Space was a bizarre, compelling film, it wasn’t the sort of thing one could turn into a series. But the invisible man? He was proven franchise material, albeit a franchise from another country and a couple decades earlier. The question was how to go about it without just repeating what they’d done in 1949. Once again, Universal provided the template. When creativity and budgets were flagging, Universal propped up their classic monsters by pitting them against one another in nutty free-for-alls that might have been short on the polish, chills, and artistry of the originals but tried to make up for it with novelty, action, and the sheer fun of seeing the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s smash up Dracula’s castle as they fought one another.

The invisible man hadn’t been a part of those monster team-ups (or had he been???), his sole venture into such a realm pitting him against Abbott and Costello. Daiei had no history of werewolf, vampire, or mummy movies, though it might have been cool to watch the invisible man square off against a traditional Japanese spirit or yokai the likes of which had been appearing in the studio’s ghost films. But in the end, it was obvious that the only fitting opponent for an invisible man is the invisible man’s natural enemy: a tiny flying hitman. Thus was born Invisible Man vs. the Human Fly.

The film opens with an impossible murder aboard an airplane. A man walks into the bathroom alone and is discovered, moments later, dead from stab wounds. No one saw anyone enter the bathroom with the victim nor leave it. This murder is just the opening salvo in a killing spree, all of the dastardly deeds committed under similarly impossible circumstances. Assigned to the case is Tokyo police inspector Wakabayashi (Yoshirô Kitahara), who jokes that the only solution he can see involves the murderer being invisible. This offhand joke is taken seriously by Dr. Tsukioka (Ryûji Shinagawa), who has been working on a cosmic ray with a local mad scientist and discovered one of the byproducts of their research is a ray that can render objects invisible. Tsukioka’s lab partner, Sugimoto (Jôji Tsurumi), thinks the invisibility ray could aid the police in their investigations, but Tsukioka is quick to caution that they’ve not perfected a way to reverse the invisibility without riddling the subject with cancer. This doesn’t stop Sugimoto from trying the ray out on himself, though he protects his head and hands so that the movie can show us some scenes of just his head floating around, eating a banana.

Meanwhile, the murders continue, and it doesn’t seem like invisibility is the explanation. Instead, tininess is the explanation. The murderer, we learn, possesses the ability to shrink down to the size of a fly, allowing him ingress to all sorts of seemingly inaccessible locations, where he can grow back to normal size, commit his heinous act, then shrink back down to make his escape unseen by anyone around him who didn’t notice a full-sized guy throwing down a test tube full of smoking vapor moments before then inhaling it and shrinking down to the size of an insect. 

As the corpses pile up, Wakabayashi struggles to solve the crimes, grasping at ever more outlandish scenarios until he hits upon “perhaps it’s a very tiny murderer who can also fly.” Once he’s drawn this astounding conclusion, he decides the only way an honest cop could possibly catch a murderous human the size of a fly is to use the invisibility ray, cancer be damned. Exactly how being invisible gives you an advantage over a little flying murderer is of no real concern. Citing the whole “you will be invisible forever or die of instant cancer” side effect, Tsukioka regretfully refuses to let the inspector use the ray. However, when word of the ray leaks out, the sinister forces behind the human fly decide they want it as well, forcing Tsukioka to consider using the ray on himself in order to combat this diminutive menace.

Invisible Man vs. the Human Fly predates the American horror classic The Fly by several months, and the fly in Daiei’s film is nothing like the one in the 20th Century Fox film. Daiei’s inspiration was actually The Incredible Shrinking Man, which was released in Japan just before this film went into production and proved a reasonable enough hit that one can assume it was the primary inspiration for pitting an invisible man against a wee contract killer. Screenwriter Hajime Takaiwa realizes an invisible man doesn’t have the greatest screen presence, and that in a battle between a fly-size hitman and an invisible guy, the fly-sized hitman provides more potential in terms of story and special effects. As a result, this film hardly seems interested in any of its invisible people. The idiot lab assistant who renders himself partially invisible is a one-off gag who plays no role in the film other than to eat that banana. When Tsukioka decides to render himself invisible, it happens when more than half the movie is over. Even then, he has limited screen time. There’s not even an undressing or “unraveling the head bandages” scene, since this particular method of making someone invisible does the same for their clothes, baggy suit, fedora, and all.

The bulk of the film is taken up by detective Wakabayashi and his team always being one step behind the human fly. Said human fly is initially represented in the film as nothing more than a mysterious buzzing before someone drops dead, but once the film reveals him for the first time, there’s no reticence about showing him again and again. The effect is achieved by simple superimposition, which means any time he’s on screen, the human fly is semi-transparent and only vaguely integrated into the scene around him. The best bit is when he lasciviously prowls around the bare midriff of busty cabaret dancer Meiko, played by B-movie bombshell Ikuko Môri. It also means that depending on the care put into any one scene, the human fly looks to be the size of anything between a fly and a bottle of beer. As to why he can fly, that’s explained away by a bit of well-researched hard science consisting of reasoning along the lines of, “A human who is small enough? Well, of course they’d be able to float.” But that’s neither here nor there, especially once the human fly escalates his reign of terror from knocking off a few people to holding the entire city hostage with a mad bomber scheme that sees the film go full “tiny kaiju,” complete with legions of soldiers and equipment deploying, panicked citizens running through the streets, and exploding miniatures.

Invisible Man vs. the Human Fly was the first film for director Mitsuo Murayama. He keeps it moving at a good pace with an able cast that never acknowledges how absurd the whole thing is. It follows the lead of Toho’s Invisible Man not just by making the invisible man a good guy but also by padding out its run time with saucy cabaret numbers. As these numbers are built around Ikuko Môri, they are welcome. Plus, as clumsy as the human fly effects might be, they are also charming, and they’re certainly plentiful.

1957 was a major year for Japanese cinema. The market was pivoting away from the two-party system of “stuff for grown ups and stuff for children” and beginning to pay attention to a new demographic of consumers that had arisen since the end of World War II: teenagers. In previous decades, youths would have probably been toiling away in the factories or on the farm (regardless of whether they were in the United States, Japan, or England) and either supporting a family of their own or contributing their wages to a familial pot to help make ends meet. That changed in the 1950s, and the youth market suddenly had some cash they wanted to spend. Thus the rise of the malt shop, rock and roll, hot rod culture, and the drive-in movie. Japan might not have had drive-in theaters, but they did have an emerging post-war youth culture that had grown up on American films and was looking, like their contemporaries in the US, to rebel against the generation that had led the world to war. 

This sort of youth culture film would find its spiritual home at Nikkatsu, but Daiei’s ridiculous Invisible Man vs the Human Fly is pure drive-in teen movie material, right down to the cheap titillation of its cabaret numbers and the endearingly ludicrous special effects. If you swapped out Mitsuo Murayama’s name for Roger Corman and released it to the drive-in circuit on  a double bill with Horrors of Spider Island, no one would bat an eye. To have this much strangeness grafted onto an otherwise straight-forward cops and criminals film makes for entertaining cinema. But not, alas, entertaining enough for Daiei to sink more money into more invisible man or human fly films — meaning, sadly, we never got Zatoichi Meets the Human Fly.

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Keith Allison

Keith Allison is a writer and pop culture historian living in New York. His interest in film and adventure started at an early age, when he was left to his own devices in the wee small hours and discovered the Universal monsters, Godzilla, and "Matinee at the Bijou." He has written for Alcohol Professor, The Cultural Gutter, Teleport City and the book Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head. He is also the author of Cocktails & Capers: Cult Film, Cocktails, Crime, and Cool.

One comment

  1. Once again, a thoughtfully informative and intriguing article by Keith Allison. I especially was entertained by the background cinematic history of actress turned producer Takiko Mizunoe. Stories about cinema horror icons always get my attention since they provided the basis for the assignment of outer manifestations for my childhood anxieties. A diabolical laugh coming from some invisible source neatly packaged in a gauze-wrapped person could explain a lot of my early childhood paranoia! All kidding aside, I really do like the different cultural interpretations of the classic Hollywood horror genre manifested. Perhaps the weakness of Adachi’s script came from his misstep of neglecting the core psychological fear that all horror films need; there is an uncontrollable part of everyone’s psyche that is overwhelmingly bent on self-destruction. Director Whale was genius at giving us that element in his productions from mad scientists to man-made monsters and more.
    Excellent reading Mr. Allison.

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