Why is it that in seemingly every depiction of an invisible man in the movies, the ability to turn invisible makes the man a criminal? They seem to always be using their invisibility powers to rob a bank, commit murder, or sneak into the girl’s locker room. Where are the depictions of nice, introverted guys who use the ability to turn invisible to just sit in the corner, unnoticed while reading a book?
I guess that would make for a pretty boring film.
In 1897, H.G. Wells wrote The Invisible Man and while there have been plenty of films that feature invisibility that aren’t adaptations of that book (Harry Potter and Fantastic Four come immediately to mind – both of which have their characters using that power for good now that I think about it), it is fair to say that Wells’s book had an indelible mark on cinema. It is James Whale’s 1933 adaptation starring Claude Rains that cemented the character, some might say archetype, in the minds of moviegoers forever. That film spawned numerous official sequels, became a central part of the classic Universal Horror cycle, and influenced countless subsequent adaptations, parodies, and homages in the nearly 80 years since it first flickered across movie screens.
In 1949, about the time the Universal Monster movies had lost most of its popularity, the Japanese studio Daiek released The Invisible Man Appears. Eight years later, they produced a sequel of sorts, the brilliantly named and disappointingly watched The Invisible Man vs. The Human Fly. For decades, these films have only been officially available in Japan, but now Arrow Video is releasing both films in one set for English-speaking markets.
The Invisible Man Appears was not only Japan’s first attempt at an invisible man movie it is often considered the first of what the Japanese call tokusatsu (which roughly translates as special-effects laden genre film), a type of film that would come to dominate the Japanese cinematic landscape in a few years after Godzilla (1954) became a smash hit. Eiji Tsuburaya created the (really rather effective) special effects for both films.
One of the interesting aspects of The Invisible Man Appears is that the actual invisible man in that film is not so much evil himself but rather a patsy being forced into criminal acts by a gang of thieves. The film begins with two scientists, Kyosuke Segi (Daijirô Natsukawa) and Shunji Kurokawa (Kanji Koshiba), trying to invent invisibility. The two have a friendly rivalry going on which extends to Machiko (Chizuru Kitagawa) who becomes something of a prize to whomever is first successful in creating invisibility. What the two do not know at first is that their mentor Dr. Kenzo Nakazato (Ryûnosuke Tsukigata) has already perfected an invisibility potion, but has kept it a secret as he has yet to invent an antidote that would make the invisible reappear. Also, invisibility seems to cause the test subjects (so far just animals, no humans) to become aggressive and violent.
The professor makes the mistake of showing his potion to Ichirô Kawabe (Shôsaku Sugiyama), a potential investor who turns out to be a criminal mastermind obsessed with a diamond necklace called the Tears of Amour. Kawabe kidnaps Dr. Nakazato and the invisibility potion. He then tricks Kurokawa into using the potion. Once he does, Kawabe forces Kurokawa into stealing the diamond necklace by saying that’s the only way he’ll ever get the reappearing potion. Kurokawa bungles the job a time or two and is thwarted by the much smarter owners of the necklace. Along the way, he does a little murdering as the potion increases his aggressiveness. Which does cause the character to be a lot less sympathetic than the film seems to want him to be.
The film spends more time on the crime elements and relationship drama than it does with the sci-fil invisible man stuff. As such, it kind of drags in parts. When it actually engages with the Invisible Man, it’s a lot of fun. The special effects are pretty good all things considered. A lot of those scenes and the effects that go with them are ripped directly from the original The Invisible Man, including a scene in which he unwraps his head bandages revealing a suit with no head. There are plenty of other “invisible” moments that are good fun. The world’s clumsiest invisible cat bumps into every vase, picture frame, and mirror in the house, and jumps on the piano for good measure. The Invisible Man sits in plenty of chairs (where the cushion smooshes down indicating his presence) and even smokes a cigarette. The effects are dated but effective.
Though made nearly a decade later, The Invisible Man vs The Human Fly’s effects have not improved much. They use the same gags for the invisible men and the human fly is really a man who simply shrinks to the size of a bug and has the ability to fly. It focuses its attention on the crime elements even more than The Invisible Man Appears, much to its own detriment.
Someone is murdering a lot of people with a knife in impossible situations. A man is killed on a plane, yet there are no witnesses. Another is killed in a room that is locked from the inside. A woman falls down dead while walking in a park; witnesses saw no one but heard a strange buzzing sound. The police hunt for clues and find none. One cop suggests the crimes must have been committed by someone turned into a killer fly. He’s continually laughed out of the office because that would be impossible.
Reader, not only is that not impossible, but that’s exactly what happened.
Eventually, the police figure this out and a certain cop decides to get blasted with the invisibility ray in order to catch the madman. Oh yes, in this film one gains invisibility by being hit with a ray gun, not ingesting a liquid like the first film. In fact, The Invisible Man vs The Human Fly isn’t much of a sequel at all, but just another film with an invisible man.
The invisibility effects are very similar to that of the first film. Since it comes on via a ray gun, we do get a nifty-looking 1950s-era science lab filled with flashing lights and beakers and things. There is a greater reliance on various objects moving by strings to indicate the invisible man has knocked them around. The Human Fly effects will be familiar to anyone who has seen The Incredible Shrinking Man or any similar such thing. Sadly, the film never shows us things from his perspective so there aren’t any scenes with the actor running around with giant set-pieces.
Neither of these films will really wow its viewers, even those of us willing to accept small budgets and dated effects. There is a certain charm to them, but there is nothing more going on here than you’ll find in any of the Universal Invisible Man pictures. What makes this package more than worthwhile is its historical importance. As the first existing tokusatsu, The Invisible Man Appears is massively important to Japanese history. Without this film, you may not have Godzilla, Gamera, or the entire kaiju industry.
Disappointingly, the Arrow Video package is lacking. The video on both films is rough. There is a consistent wobble, plenty of scratches, and other damages to the print. Arrow is well aware of this as they add in a disclaimer to the beginning of the film. That in itself is forgivable considering the likely state of the existing print. What is less than forgivable is the lack of extras. All they are giving us is a 20-minute discussion with film critic Kim Newman who talks about the entire history of the invisible man genre plus some trailers, stills, and the usual booklet with an essay about the films. Considering the importance of these films and the fact that they’ve not appeared in the American market before, I really wished they’d provided more extras about them. I suspect part of this is due to the various COVID restrictions which makes it understandable but still disappointing.