HCF REWIND NO.112. THE H-MAN AKA BIJO TO EKITAININGEN, THE BEAUTY AND THE LIQUID PEOPLE [Japan 1958]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 87 min/ 79 min [US version]
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In the outskirts of Tokyo, a drug smuggler named Misaki is mysteriously killed while trying to get away from a botched deal, leaving only his clothes behind. The police investigate by going to his apartment, only to find his girlfriend, Arai Chikako, who says he hasn’t returned for five days. They stake out the nightclub where she works and find a man in her room but he turns out to be Masada, a professor who has a strange theory about Misaki’s death. When a gangster threatening Arai dies in the same manner as Misaki, Masada takes her and the police to a hospital where there are two survivors of a six-crew ship who, several months ago, came across the ryujim maru 2, a ship which supposedly disappeared during a nuclear experiment, and encountered deadly creatures on board…..
The H-Man is an odd, not entirely successful but nonetheless interesting combination of film noir and science-fiction horror along the lines of The Blob. Though it seems to be remembered fondly by kids who were scared half to death by it back in 1958, it is, even more than the first two Godzillas and Rodan, a rather adult picture, which, whilst still quite subtle compared to many other films, is more frightening and gruesome than any other film to come from the great Ishiro Honda as well as being largely set in a rather sleazy and violent mileau. It’s a little awkward at times and suffers from too much footage of the police sitting around talking when they should be doing, but is still essential viewing if you think Toho was only good at large-scale destructive spectacles featuring oversized monsters and alien invaders. It is reputed to be the best of three films Toho made where men transform themselves into other matter, the other two being The Human Vapour [also directed by Honda] and The Secret Of The Telegian, two films which are so hard to find I have yet to see.
Prior to The H-Man, Honda and Toho had made the colourful, gaudy alien invasion picture The Mysterians and you can read my review from much earlier here: https://horrorcultfilms.co.uk/2012/03/the-mysterians-aka-chikyu-boeigun-1957-hfc-rewind/. That film showed signs of being aimed at a younger audience, so The H-Man seems to be a deliberate reaction against that. An actor named Hideo Unagami wrote the short story on which Takeshi Kimura’s screenplay was based. An inspiration may have been the same incident [where sailors on a Japanese tuna fishing boat was exposed to and contaminated by nuclear fallout from a US nuclear bomb test] which partly led to Godzilla, and it also shows the distinct influence of some American science-fiction films replete with a climax which recalls Them!, though it retains much that is Japanese too, making it an interesting hybrid. It was another hit for Toho and was picked up by Columbia for US release at a time where Toho films were at their peak of popularity and big studios got in on the act. The Mysterians had been released, to much success by MGM in 1957, and 1959 saw Columbia also handle Battle in Outer Space and Warner Bros do Gigantis The Fire Monster [aka Godzilla Raids Again]. The H-Man was treated very well for its US release, though losing the poetry of its original Japanese title.
Though we open with an off-screen ‘dissolving’, this film takes its time to bring in its fantasy element, instead choosing to concentrate on its police, gangsters and the beauty at the centre of this half of the story. With scantily clad dancers writhing around in the club where Arai sings, the constant threat of violence and even a scene where Arai is slapped around, we really are in slightly more lurid but also more realistic territory than normal, the downbeat feel enhanced by most of the action being set at night and often with rain pouring down outside. The atmosphere really is quite compelling and makes me wish Honda had made a ’proper’ gangster movie, but sadly the film almost grinds to a halt whenever it focuses on the police. It’s rather amusing how incompetent they are, even when shown virtual proof of what is going on, but even after we are shown the revelatory flashback the film keeps having scenes of the cops, usually in their office, trying to work things out, and as a result very little momentum is built up at a time when things should be getting more exciting.
Still, when the film does focus on its title creatures [there are more than one], it really is very effective. The flashback of the sailors on the ship is a great example of almost horrifying tension as the men explore the decayed vessel with their faces lit from below by their lanterns. Except for one instance of weak animation and superimposition, the slime is genuinely convincing as it crawls towards and up its victims, while the scenes of the dissolving humans are startling. They deflated human-shaped balloons in fast-motion, then ran the film again at normal speed, and it all looks very good. You even see one guy bend in half as he deflates. The liquid people look good too, quite creepy and at least partially convincing when you can make out some sort of breathing apparatus in their stomach. Here, they added water to organic glass, then inserted the glass between two bits of transparent glass, then repeatedly pulled the two bits of glass apart and back together again, resulting in a jelly-like substance. O, the ingenuity of pre-CGI special effects, and I haven’t yet mentioned the dissolving frog in the laboratory, the creature seemingly melting as bubbles form on top of it, a visual that is quite disturbing!
The film could have done with more explanation of the monsters. On the ship we see dissolved victims seemingly ‘become’ H-Men, but this idea is neither explained nor employed again, while most of the time we just see the slime, and why do they seem to target gangsters when on land? Rather than intentionally being ambiguous, it seems to be that writer Takeshi Kimura didn’t bother thinking things through. Honda shows his wonderful knack of framing characters in shots perfectly and employs some odd angles during a slow [because they couldn’t get permission to shut down enough roads] car chase, while Kazuji Taira’s editing is very skillful especially during a nightclub sequence where five events are happening simultaneously. While The H-Man has script and pacing problems, as a technical piece of filmmaking it is very accomplished. The human side of the story is led by the dumb detective Tominaga’s rivalry with Misaki which eventually blossoms into grudging respect. Kenji Sahara and Akihiko Hirata are clearly enjoying being on their way to becoming the two most prominent stars of these films and get in to their roles very well.
Not enough is done with Arai’s central character; she may be lovely when singing [albeit in a voice which sounds nothing like her own and sounds too American] 40’s style ballads as she slinks around the club in stunning dresses which subtly enhance some of her features, but Yumi Shirakawa is weak in the part and we never feel we know this lady who loses her boyfriend but almost immediately has two other men after her at all. A scene or two between her and Masada would have been nice. Masaro Sato’s score opens with a rather incrongruous up-tempo marching theme, but later on becomes very effective with its flourishes of jazz and an eerie ‘pinging’ effect which combines the sound of a piano string with woodwinds. Not everything in The H-Man works but it’s intriguing, well made and at times has a really vivid sense of horrific fantasy. There’s a shot about half way through where we see, at night, the luminous H-Men moving around the darkened ship from a distance. It’s one of the most evocative and creepy bits ever in a Toho film.
Aside from its misleading altered title [there’s more than one], they treated this movie quite well for its American release. Some scenes, mostly around the middle, were cut or shortened, with eight mins removed in total,tightening up the pace though and not really losing much, and that weak animation effect shortened. If it wasn’t for the dubbing, I would say that the American version works better.