After catapulting Japanese science fiction to new heights with his 1954 masterpiece Godzilla, film director Ishiro Honda continued to establish himself as one of the genre's finest craftsmen, turning out a slew of memorable special effects pictures throughout the remainder of the decade. One of those memorable films was The H-Man, which premiered in Japanese theaters on June 24, 1958, making this past Sunday its 60th anniversary.
A mix of horror film and yakuza melodrama, The H-Man is not one of Honda's greatest efforts; its uneven structure and dull characterization prevent it from reaching the same tier occupied by such classics as Godzilla (1954), Monster Zero (1965), and Matango (1963). However, as a visual tour de force and an exercise in genre-blending, this is one of the director's more unique '50s films and a must-see for anyone interested in exploring his sci-fi spectrum.
The first hour of The H-Man is the most enjoyable section of the entire picture, functioning primarily as a moody gangster piece with a few sci-fi elements tingling in the background. Honda and screenwriter Takeshi Kimura build a tantalizing mystery, starting off with a narcotics-dealing gangster mysteriously vanishing in a rainstorm, leaving behind only his clothes. The police start probing into the victim's background, zeroing in on his nightclub singer girlfriend, who claims to have no idea what happened to him.
From this spawns a chain of crime drama elements: police interrogations, death threats, homicides, exotic dance sequences — all while eerie disappearances continue to occur in Tokyo. Joining in on the mystery are the missing gangster's associates as well as a brash young scientist who suspects something inhuman (or maybe semi-human) is lurking in the city. It's eventually discovered Tokyo has been invaded by a race of liquid-based organisms. Humans touched by this sludge are quickly disintegrated, melted down until only their clothes remain.
In addition to constructing a riveting screen mystery, Honda and his staff use this setup to capture little facets of then-contemporary Japanese society. In one scene, the police question how a nightclub singer can afford something as luxurious as a television set (television was widely gaining popularity in Japan at the time, something Yasujiro Ozu would poke fun at in his comedy Good Morning the following year). In another interesting little moment, the cops interrogate a sangokujin (a derogatory term usually applied to third-world foreigners with ties to the black market), giving him a Chinese newspaper to read. The perpetually relevant social issue of drugs is lightly touched on here and there.
And then there's the H-Men. The titular humanoids draw obvious inspiration from the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident (one of the events that influenced the original Godzilla), in which a nuclear weapon tested in the Pacific showered radiation upon a Japanese fishing trawler and poisoned everyone onboard. In the film, the same thing happens —the stricken ship is even called the Dragon God No. 2. Except instead of coming down with radiation sickness, the crew in the film are transformed into liquid and essentially reborn as vile green monsters. And because these creatures still possess faint traces of their human psyches, they subsequently travel the ocean until they reach their place of origin: Japan.
In the film's most effective sequence, an H-Man makes its grand reveal attacking a nightclub while the police are cleaning out the building. Initially appearing as a mobile pool of sludge, the liquid scales walls and crawls through open windows, assuming a manlike shape upon reaching the floor, after which it lunges upon gangsters and policemen alike, dissolving them before crawling across the floor in search of its next victim.
Honda and his staff seamlessly bring the two plots together for maximum entertainment value and concoct some genuinely intense moments, such as when a singer becomes cornered in a phone booth, sludge seeping underneath the door toward her. This sequence is so riveting and so beautifully put together that the rest of the movie has an incredibly hard time living up to it.
As the third act approaches, the science fiction elements more or less take over the story and The H-Man starts losing stamina. With no more mystery to solve, the mostly paper-thin characters become relegated to chattering pseudo-science and carrying out a suspense-free extermination plan in the sewers, in which they attempt to burn the h-men alive with flamethrowers and gasoline. This admittedly pretty climax comes across as monotonous and slow-going and simply does not compare to the flavorful horror set piece which preceded it.
Despite some major script-oriented shortcomings, there are plenty of qualities which make The H-Man a worthwhile viewing for Ishiro Honda fans. Yumi Shirakawa — of Rodan (1956), The Mysterians (1957), and Gorath (1962) — is promoted to lead and makes the most of her part as the tormented nightclub singer. Kaiju eiga regulars Akihiko Hirata, Yoshifumi Tajima, and Yoshio Tsuchiya perform commendably as the detectives. Makoto Sato delivers an effective performance in the role of a one-note villain. Surprisingly, the least interesting performance comes from the usually dependable Kenji Sahara, uncharacteristically blank-faced — and thoroughly boring — as the scientist.
Returning to the positive side of the equation, The H-Man triumphs as one of the most pictorially sumptuous films in Ishiro Honda's sci-fi oeuvre—compliments of cinematographer Hajime Koizumi and esteemed lighting technician Tsuruzo Nishikawa. The sewer sequences, in particular, excel at capturing bare minimum detail: showing just enough of what we need to see while drenching the rest of the frame in shadow. Another impressive image: a shot of the sludge crawling out of a river while the reflection of neon signs plaster the water's surface. Images such as these, combined with the intricately detailed sets (some recycled from Akira Kurosawa's Drunken Angel), result in pure eye candy from start to finish.
Adding to the film's technical prowess are the marvelous special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya. As described in the recent biography Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, the sludge was created by chopping up a seaweed-based ingredient used in the making of cosmetic lotions and soaking it in water for long periods of time. For shots of the liquid crawling over obstacles, the camera was rigged in place on a rotatable partial set, which was then tilted to make the liquid appear to crawl up and across walls and furniture. Techniques similar to this have been used in other movies, such as Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding (1951); people being dragged up walls by supernatural forces in Poltergeist (1982) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); and more recently, the spinning hallway fight in Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010).
All in all, The H-Men is a heavily flawed film whose numerous good qualities nevertheless manage to overcome its weaknesses and provide an entertaining movie-going experience most of the way through. Fans of science fiction, fans of gangster pictures (and fans of both!) will not want to miss this one.