"There is so much writing in English on Japanese cinema that can't be accepted at face value — not because the writers are careless, but because the differences in culture and language are just too intricate. When I see August Ragone's name on a piece of writing, it gives me permission to place my faith in it completely. Among Japanese fantasy film historians, he's the best working in English." —Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog

Saturday, June 14, 2008

「美女と液体人間」THE H-MAN (1958)

Shirakawa's Beauty is threatened by Tsuburaya's Beast.


Bijo to Ekitai Ningen, Toho, 1958, 87 minutes
Director ISHIRO HONDA • Visual Effects Director EIJI TSUBURAYA

Often woefully mistaken for a rip-off of Irving S. Yeaworth Jr.’s THE BLOB (1958), "The Beauty and the Liquefied Man" (the film’s Japanese title) was in production long before the infamous creature feature ever hit American screens. According to official records, a former Shochiku Studios actor who was hired by Toho, under his new stage name, Hideo Unagami, submitted the story treatment that became THE H-MAN (the film’s U.S. title). His story caught the eye of producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, and was pushed through for development under the supervision of genre specialists, Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya — thus launching Toho's "Mutant Series," incorporating Honda's THE HUMAN VAPOR (1960) and MATANGO (1963).

As with the original GODZILLA (1954), the premise of THE H-MAN was based on the real-life "Lucky Dragon" incident, where a Japanese fishing trawler wandered into the waters of the H-Bomb test site at Bikini Atoll. The crew and their catch became radioactive, and death came to several of the crewmembers as a result of poisoning from radioactive fallout. In November 1957, Tanaka, Honda and Tsuburaya finalized the story with writer Takeshi Kimura, who penned the screenplays for RODAN (1956) and THE MYSTERIANS (1957). The pessimistic Kimura was put in charge of fleshing out Unagami’s treatment, and created a world where the law is only a thin veil that differentiates the police from organized crime.

This mixture of detective story and science fiction was not new to the Japanese; "Tantei Shosetsu Henkaku" (or Irregular Detective Fiction) took root in the 1920s with the rise in popularity of such pulp magazines such as Shinseinen (New Youth) and Kagaku Gaho (Science Pictorial), where this sub-genre originated. The first movies in this vein were Daiei Studio's THE RAINBOW MAN and ENTER THE INVISIBLE MAN (both 1949), the latter with inspired effects work created by Tsuburaya. While Toei made Rampo Edogawa’s juvenile stories, Boys Detective Gang, into a series of films between 1954-1958, THE H-MAN was far more adult; with its mixture of seedy nightclubs, lurid characters and drug smuggling — akin to similar "Anokokugai" (Underworld) pictures pouring out of post-war Japanese studios, such as Seijun Suzuki's UNDERWORLD BEAUTY (1958).

Honda paired Kenji Sahara and Yumi Shirakawa for the third, and last, time in THE H-MAN. Playing the young theoretical scientist, Sahara would continue to appear in many films for Honda, as well as star in Tsuburaya's classic television series ULTRA Q (1966). Shirakawa plays a Cabaret Chanteuse, and shortly thereafter was cast in such films as Yasujiro Ozu's EARLY AUTUMN (1961). She only made a handful of fantasy films after THE H-MAN, Jun Fukuda’s THE SECRET OF THE TELEGIAN (1960), Shuei Matsubayashi’s THE LAST WAR (1961) and Honda’s GORATH (1962), and then married Nikkatsu Studios star Hideaki Nitani (TOKYO DRIFTER). Cutting an imposing figure as the vile "Uchida," Makoto Sato was launched into a long career as heavies and heroes alike, despite his brutish features, and recently appeared in Takayoshi Watanabe’s DEAR HINAGON (2005).

Although there are no colossal beasts in THE H-MAN, Tsuburaya managed to conjure up some very special effects for this picture; especially eerie is the hydrogen ooze that dissolves the human victims — and when the shapeless mutants manifest into humanoid forms (most notably, during the flashback set aboard the "haunted" fishing trawler). Another remarkable visual effect is the death of Detective Sakata (Yoshifumi Tajima), when the liquefied creatures dissolve him in the cabaret. While these effects were considered somewhat shocking in 1958, even more shocking were the scantily-clad cabaret dancers, who were a little racier than allowed in mainstream American cinemas at the time. (While Columbia Pictures' trims for the U.S. release resulted in more than five minutes of footage hitting the cutting room floor, most was comprised of police exposition, the aforementioned saucy bits, and some of the shots in the sewers featuring Shirakawa in nothing more than a slip.)

To achieve the effect of the dissolving human beings, Tsuburaya had life-sized latex dummies of the actors made, and dressed them up as their flesh-and-blood counterparts. Shooting with high speed cameras, Tsuburaya’s crew literally let the air out of these dummies, and when combined with optical effects in post-production, they appear to be dissolved by the gelatinous monsters. Then, there’s the creeping ooze itself (cooked up from a special silicon compound), which was manipulated on special sets constructed to roll 60%, thus allowing the deadly miasma to threaten the cast. Tsuburaya also created some atmospheric miniature photography of the ghost ship for the title sequence and the creepy flashback, as well as the spooky lattice of sewers under Tokyo — transformed into a raging inferno, as they are engulfed in the conflagration created to incinerate the H-Men in the fiery climax.


Starring KENJI SAHARA (Dr. Masada) AKIHIKO HIRATA (Detective Tominaga) YUMI SHIRAKAWA (Chikako Arai) EITARO OZAWA (Chief Detective Miyashita) MAKOTO SATO (Uchida) YOSHIO TSUCHIYA (Detective Taguchi) YOSHIFUMI TAJIMA (Detective Sakata) TETSU NAKAMURA (Chen) NIDAO KIRINO (Shimazaki) AYUMI SONODA (Emi) NAOMI SHIRAISHI (Mineko) MACHIKO KITAGAWA (Hanae) TADAO NAKAMARU (Detective Seki) HISAYA ITO (Masaki) and KOREYA SENDA (Professor Maki)


Lee Merritt said...

I hope this film is released on R1 DVD. I loved the effects used to render the old derelict ship and the "melting" victims. The nightclub scenes were very cool as well, especially watching Nadao Kirino scurrying around as a waiter. Thanks August for blogging about this classic!

August Ragone said...

Thanks, Lee! It seems that the more time goes forward, the further back I look at movies... and despite the revival of Japanese Cinema, I keep going back to the post-war period — Japan's "Golden Age of Cinema." As Outside Observers, we've barely just begun to scratch the surface of this incredible and prolific era.

Likewise, despite the appreciation of their monster movies, Toho;s THE H-MAN has been largely overlooked in the last decade-and-a-half (especially due to its conspicuous absence on R1 DVD). It's about time that more people discovered this gem, and I hope that Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will issue both the original and U.S. versions (along with BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE and MOTHRA) in their rumored "Icons" DVD box set for 2009.

Mr. Karswell said...

I love this film too, and that's a tremendous still you used for this story.

xenorama said...

all three of those deserve some deluxe treatment, and here's hoping you can be involved with them, somehow. gotta preserve both versions, right?

great right up on this overlooked and underrated gem.


Dr. Theda said...

A friend downloaded this classic for my computer ...the movie was one that I first saw late one Saturday night as a child.....the green slimy monsters were a thing of nightmares... a very well written review ...the Doctor

Mr.Electric40 said...

This is one of my all time favorite Toho films... I remember seeing it on Chiller Diller Matinee on KTVU..... Glad they released it on dvd a few yearsback....