One of the very first things I ever wrote for Unwinnable was a rambling review of Toho’s so-called “Bloodthirsty Trilogy” of vampire flicks when they were released onto Blu-ray by Arrow Video. So, it’s something of a homecoming to be tackling The Invisible Man Appears and The Invisible Man vs. the Human Fly on Arrow Video Blu here. While they predate Toho’s “Bloodthirsty Trilogy” by more than a decade, as early Japanese cinematic takes on largely Western monsters by major studios, they serve as nice complements to one-another, and Arrow has lavishly worked to bring them to Western audiences in grand style.
“There is no good or evil in science, but it can be used for good or evil purposes.” – The Invisible Man Appears (1949)
More recently, I wrote about Warning from Space (1956), another Daiei production that has the distinction of being the first Japanese science fiction film released in color. The Invisible Man Appears may be black-and-white, but it’s also probably the earliest extant tokusatsu film (a Japanese genre of usually science fictional movies that rely heavily on special effects), beating Warning from Space off the mark by nearly a decade.
As Keith Allison writes in the extensive and informative booklet that accompanies the Blu, “it’s fitting that Eiji Tsuburaya was there the day Japanese science fiction was born.” Here, Tsuburaya provides the requisite invisibility effects for the film, before jumping ship to Toho in a few years’ time and helping to create probably the most famous product of Japan’s tokusatsu tradition, Godzilla.
In spite of this and a bombastic title card about science being used for either good or evil purposes, which I’ve reproduced in full above, there’s surprisingly little science (mad or otherwise) in The Invisible Man Appears, which is, instead, primarily a sort of cops-and-robbers flick about some jewel thieves who want to use the invisible formula (badly) that our requisite scientist leads have discovered in order to steal one particular necklace with which they are obsessed.
That this plan doesn’t really require – or, indeed, put to much use – an invisible man seems largely inconsequential to a picture that is at least as interested in the working out of the criminals’ unduly-complicated plan as in the eponymous invisible man. For me, I just want to see the rest of the musical that we see only in clips as we’re introduced to one character’s stage-star sister, played by Takiko Mizunoe.
Despite her relatively brief screen time, Mizunoe steals the film, and also justifiably steals a lion’s share of the aforementioned essay by Allison. Not merely because she is striking in the movie, and her character has a surprising amount of involvement in the plot, something which would be echoed to a lesser extent in the follow-up, but because she plays an integral part in the history of Japanese cinema, having moved on from acting to become Japan’s first female film producer.
I’ll spare you the full run-down – which I, admittedly, only learned from Allison’s essay – since it is, at most, tangential to the film, which is a fun flick in that “seeing another country aping Universal’s early films in their own style” kind of way. Its ending is also unexpectedly grim, with that note about good and evil in science being reprised in a way that can’t help but ring a little extra when we remember that the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, at this time, just four years distant, and Japan was still under U.S. occupation, a topic that is (at least partly) the subject of the second essay in the booklet that accompanies the Arrow Blu.
“The Human Fly is the ultimate evil and is trying to kill you!” – The Invisible Man vs. the Human Fly (1957)
Nearly a full decade after The Invisible Man Appears – a decade during which Toho had taken their own stab at the subject, sadly not included in this set, though extensively covered in Allison’s essay – Daiei came back to the well for the much more flamboyant Invisible Man vs. the Human Fly, which shares nothing with its predecessor save for an “idea by” credit.
Tokusatsu pictures had changed considerably in the intervening years, as evidenced by the massive backyard spaceship laboratory that replaces the old-fashioned home lab seen in The Invisible Man Appears. This time around, invisibility is not achieved through the drinking of a potion, but through bombardment by a “bizarre” light wave that was discovered accidentally while investigating cosmic rays. (“The transparency ray is merely tangential,” the scientist tells our protagonist.)
In spite of his billing in the title, the eponymous invisible man is also largely tangential to the plot, perhaps even more so than the last time around. Instead, the film is extremely interested in its human fly, a vicious murderer who is knocking people off in seemingly impossible circumstances by shrinking himself to the size of a fly and drifting around on air currents, an explanation that the movie assures us is highly plausible, and one that causes a buzzing sound, like a housefly, for no reason that makes any sense.
In fact, very little of this movie makes any sense, but that’s fine. As an elaborate procedural that mostly involves watching the police beat their heads against a seemingly insoluble case, while the public demands swift action (as represented mostly by bombastic newspaper headlines), it’s a lot of fun to watch, which is all we really need. The human fly effects may be less convincing than the last film’s invisible man effects, but even they are more MacGuffin than actual focus.
By the film’s final reel, when we’ve got not one but two human flies and two (and a half) invisible people running around, not to mention an antagonist who has gone into full-on super villain mode, blowing up model trains and holding the city in his miniscule grip of terror, we are all having a blast.
As such, the themes of the film are more obscured by the fun than they were last time around, even if The Invisible Man vs. the Human Fly also wears them even more on its sleeve. “Science is steadily making man’s dreams and desires a reality,” the professor tells his daughter, to which she replies, “Then why did we invent the atomic and hydrogen bombs for destruction?”