As someone who grew up on a heavy staple of Universal Monster Movies from all eras, following the various monsters as they leaped across studios in a perfect storm of remakes, reboots, and reinterpretations. While The Invisible Man was certainly the least ‘frightening’ of the monsters to me as a kid, the character and the story that started with H.G. Wells’ incredible novel is one that has oddly aged as some of the best in theme and concept. For further proof of that, feel free to read our very positive review of Leigh Whannell’s latest version of the character from last year’s The Invisible Man. Thus, it’s a character that can have almost an infinite number of new interpretations that allows it a lot of flexibility to reflect the time period and the culture crafting the interpretation.
Color me very excited to check out the two wild (and mostly forgotten) Japanese versions of the character and concept in Arrow Video’s latest dual feature release of The Invisible Man Appears and The Invisible Man Vs the Human Fly.
Newly restored to the best possible shape, these two Daiei productions represent an entirely new perspective on the story from a cultural standpoint and from a time period standpoint. While the restorations are, in fact, a little rough around the edges - a point very well addressed at the beginning of the first film for the film collector’s ready to complain as if the context of these films even existing still wasn’t a Herculean feat, there is a lot to digest here from the vantage points of history and as a piece of entertainment.
THE INVISIBLE MAN APPEARS (1949)
Director: Shinsei Adachi, Shigehiro Fukushima
Notable Cast: Chizuru Kitagawa, Takiko Mizunoe, Daijiro Natukawa, Mitsusaburo Ramon, Ryunosuke Tsukigata, Shosaku Sugiyama
With a semi-humorous name in tow, the first film of this double feature is easily a piece of entertaining cinema that encapsulates some of the tone and escapism of cinema in this era of Japan. It’s also one that doesn’t deviate too far from much of its source material and can easily be compared to a few of the various sequels from the Universal line of Invisible Man films.
Telling the story of a scientist who develops an invisible serum (with some legitimate sounding science discussion about light that really doesn’t make sense, but sounds slick particularly to a late 40s crowd), The Invisible Man Appears quickly deviates from the mad scientist angle and towards a more traditional crime caper concept about a glistening jewel necklace, just with an invisible assailant at the center.
Combining the crime thriller with a science fiction angle isn’t new, but there is a sense of purpose and fun to the proceedings that makes it worth the watch. Some of the effects are rather impressive for a film of this stature, particularly around the initial “reveal” of the Invisible Man as he unwraps himself in frustration at the man who refuses to take him to a safe. There is even a fun scene with a cat who becomes invisible that uses the now classic editing and practical effects to sell the idea. If anything, the biggest hurdle for The Invisible Man Appears is the rather stock characters and mundane relationships in the first act that drive the narrative. In context, perhaps the characters are not yet stock, but the film doesn’t work a whole lot in driving their emotional stances or chemistry to create a foundation for the plot. When those characters and beats start to come to play in the third act, they work, but not nearly as well.
THE INVISIBLE MAN VS THE HUMAN FLY (1957)
Director: Mitsuo Murayama
Notable Cast: Ryuji Shinagawa, Yoshiro Kitahara, Junko Kano, Ikuko Mori, Joji Tsurumi, Yoshihiro Hamaguchi, Shozo Nanbu, Bontaro Miake, Ichiro Izawa, Shizuo Chujo
For the second film in this set, with the very provocatively odd title of The Invisible Man Vs the Human Fly, the set takes a sly twist on the classic invisible man formula. Instead of distinctively focusing on the person and the invisibility as the main hinge for the plot, it’s more or less a secondary plot device that allows a group of detectives and scientists to hunt down an assassin who has the ability to shrink down to the size of a fly, buzz around his victims, grow large, stab them, and shrink down again before anyone can see him. Oh, you thought this was going to be a mad scientist battle for the ages based on the Universal concepts of the Invisible Man and The Fly? Guess not.
That’s correct, The Invisible Man Vs the Human Fly is quite the opposite. It’s a film that’s a police procedural, following a series of assassinations that all link to a previous military element. If one were to take out the invisibility ray and the potions that allow the villain to size shift (seriously, think of Ant-Man in a weird way) and this is a classic whodunit murder mystery with the cops. And, oddly enough, it works. The mystery is fun, deciphering who is who and just how the two sides will use science fiction to their advantage is silly and entertaining, and there is a sense of style and pizzazz to the visuals that pop. Even the special effects, which are fairly similar to the ones indicated in the previous film, are still solid and work to achieve the fantastical nature of its plot. Specifically, it’s the performance of The Human Fly that really works to give the film a strange edge.
The biggest difference between this film and The Invisible Man Appears is the strength of characters. Granted, almost a decade goes by between the two, but this film seems to have a far more naturalistic relationship between all of the actors and the director ably uses that to ground the ridiculousness of the plot. By the time the final rolls about with twists and turns galore, the audience is still invested in it. That’s a neat trick.
All in all, both films work to reveal some intriguing and refreshing spins on the classic idea. Just as a guess, I’m sure there are far more layers to both that deal with the time period of their development, particularly in Appears as it is a film made so close to the end of World War II, that I just do not have the capacity to understand at this juncture. That gives the films a fascinating aura that lingers long after both have finished and any cinephile interested in any aspect of either film as a way in will want this set in their collection.