A rare gem, Japan’s earliest preserved science fiction film The Invisible Man Appears is more inspired by Universal’s Invisible Man films than H.G. Wells’ novel. This 1949 crime mystery drama meets tokusatsu film boasts the special effects of the great Eiji Tsuburaya and some good performances. 5/10
Tômei ningen arawaru. 1949, Japan. Directed by Nobuo Adachi. Written by Akimitsu Takagi & Nobuo Adachi. Starring: Chizuguru Kitagawa, Takiko Mizunoe, Daijirô Natsukawa, Mitsusaburô Ramon, Ryûnosuke Tsukigata, Shôsaku Sugiyama, Kanji Koshiba. Produced by Hisahi Okuda. IMDb rating: 6.2/10. Rotten Tomatoes N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
This one here is a hard-to-find rarity outside of Japan, Tômei ningen arawaru (透明人間現わる or The Invisible Man Appears), made in 1949. Some while ago I managed to track down an online copy with English subtitles, but it seems to have since been removed for copyright reasons. And while I have seen the film itself, the information I’ve been able to dig up about it is scarce, and that which I’ve found I’ve had to Google translate from Japanese, resulting in almost intelligible English. Please let me know in the comments below if I’ve misunderstood something or if you have any additional information on the film!
Gojira (1954, review) often gets credit for being the first Japanese science fiction film, but this is incorrect. Whether or not Tômei ningen arawaru should get that honour is a matter of some debate, but it is at least the oldest preserved science fiction film. Two Japanese King Kong films were (presumably) produced in the thirties, but they are now thought to be lost films, and they are – like the original King Kong (1933, review) considered more as fantasy than as science fiction. While Toho is the studio that is most often connected with Japanese the science fiction and tokusatsu (special effects) films of the golden age, they did have some stiff competition from Daiei, and it was Daiei who produced this first sci-fi film for Japan.
Tômei ningen arawaru is Japan’s own take on H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man (1897). While enough cues are present in the story to link it to the classic novel, the framework is very different, and Wells got no credit as an inspiration, probably because the studio didn’t want to pay for the rights to the book (or couldn’t acquire them). And to be fair, the inspiration comes more from James Whale’s 1932 film (review) than from the literary source.
The story concerns two young scientists, Kyôsuke Segi (Daijirô Natsukawa) and Shunji Kurokawa (Kanji Koshiba), who are both working as assistants to the genius Dr. Kenzô Nakazato (Ryûnosuke Tsukigata). Both are working on a way to turn objects and humans invisible. Segi is working on a paint that is so black that it lets no light bounce off it, the logic being that everything we see is actually light bouncing off something. Thus, if something is black enough, it will absorb all light and become invisible (err, good luck with that theory, Dr. Segi …). Kurokawa, on the other hand, works on something more mad scientist style – a potion. Both young bucks are in love with Dr. Nakazato’s daughter Machiko (Chizuru Kitagawa), and Dr. Nakazato jokingly says that whoever comes up with a solution first, gets Machiko’s hand in marriage.
Unbeknownst to the young scientists, Dr. Nakazato is working on an invisibility potion himself – as he tells his old friend, the businessman Ichirô Kawabe (Shôsaku Sugiyama). In fact, he has already developed one – but there are two problems. First, he has no antidote – once you’re invisible, you stay invisible. And second, the potion turns the drinker into a violent psychopath. Therefore, Nakazato is not ready to go public with his findings. However, the evil smile on Kawabe’s face tells us that he has no such qualms …
The last important pieces of the puzzle are Dr. Kurokawa’s sister Ryûko Mizuki (Takiko Mizunoe), who is a dancer at an opera in Kobe (where the film takes place) and a valuable diamond necklace called The Tears of Amour. Even with the subtitles it didn’t become clear to me who actually owns the diamonds, but at some point in the movie we see Machiko wearing them, and Mizuki for some reason takes it as her duty to protect them.
The plot is quite convoluted, but I don’t think I’m giving away too much by revealing that at some point in the early proceedings both Dr. Nakazato and the young Dr. Kurokawa disappear, and Kobe suddenly becomes pestered by a crazy invisible man, who is out to steal the diamond necklace. When visible, he covers his face with bandages, a fedora and sunglasses, much like Claude Rains in the 1932 film, although this invisible man actually has a closer resemblance to the Jon Hall version in The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944, review). As fear grips the city, a slew of copycats turn up with bandaged heads (much like the bizarre clown epidemic in the US in 2016), and nobody seems to know the identity of the real invisible man. It all gets even more convoluted when we get a set of fake diamonds. Both Nakazato and Kurokawa are suspected in their absence, and we get fist fights with invisible opponents, mopeds driving by themselves, the classic undressing to reveal an invisible man, the iconic shot of a cigarette hanging in mid-air, and a confusing whodunnit-plot, which all climaxes in a mansion with a dungeon, henchmen and a small army of police officers – the real hero of the piece turns out to be the dancer Mizuki – who is a badass ex tempore cat-burglar and crime fighter!
The moral of the story is partly mirrored in the original film – the qualms about man’s reach exceeding his grasp in terms of scientific research. The first movie had the familiar thirties trope that ”man shouldn’t meddle in the affairs of god”. This, however, was an unpopular stance with the American occupation forces that were still controlling Japan in 1949, since it could be seen as a criticism of the atom bomb, which, for obvious reasons, was a touchy subject. Therefore, the film tacks on a message in both the beginning and the end of the film: science isn’t good or evil, what matters is how you use it. Even this seems like a good enough reason for the American censors to take affront, and it is a small wonder that the film got released.
Stylistically the film is less a gothic mystery in the German expressionist style than it is modelled on American film noir and mob films. The movie also quickly escalates into a something that resembles the Hollywood crime serials of the forties, with almost episodic jumps from one action sequence to the next, and long chases and badly directed fight scenes dominate the latter half of the movie with very little context. This is no surprise once you know that the original story treatment was written by Akimitsu Takagi, an up-and-coming author who later became one of Japan’s most popular writers of crime mystery. The actual screenplay was written by the film’s director Nobuo Adachi, who never seems to have advanced very far in his movie career: his IMDb page gapes rather empty, and he has no page on Japanese Wikipedia. However, the movie has a rather slick and clean style, as opposed to the murky Toho cash-in follow-up Tômei ningen (1954, review).
The invisibility effects are also more prominent and better handled than in the latter movie. The ”blue screen” effects (probably black velvet) are very well done – which would come as no great surprise, as they are handled by Eiji Tsuburaya, known as the father of tokusatsu, and who was immortalised with his work for Toho on Gojira and almost all of the studio’s later science fiction movies. At the time of the American occupation Tsuburaya was blacklisted by the studios because of his work in propaganda movies during WWII. He was able to circumvent this blacklisting by working through his own company, so the studios didn’t have to hire him directly, which is how he came to work for Daiei on this movie – according to some sources more because he thought it was a fun challenge than for the money, which he was paid very little.
Tsuburaya also does well with things like rigged piano keys, falling vases, footsteps appearing from out of nowhere, and all sorts of wirework that makes things float in the air.
But the non-special effects work where the invisible man is supposed to be in frame is rather appalling, especially in the fight scenes, where the actors are pantomiming fist fights with an invisible opponent. In one scene one actor actually picks himself up by his own suit collar – hilarious! The scenes kind of remind me of the one where Edward Norton is beating up himself in his boss’ office in Fight Club (1999).
The script falls short on many levels, not least in the logic department. The culprit becomes invisible in order to get the diamonds, but then fails to take advantage of his invisibility even once. One could, for example, sneak into a room, wait for the person holding the diamonds to dial the code on the safe, memorise it, wait until she is gone and then simply open the safe and take the diamonds. Or perhaps sneak up and snatch her purse while she isn’t looking. Or something. One could use the invisibility to get past guards or spy on conversations. But no – instead the invisible man clearly announces himself whenever he is present (because how else would the audience know of his presence?), and seems to prefer to resolve matters by fisticuffs and threatening people with guns – which requires no invisibility. Why chase after someone on a moped, when you can simply wait for them to get home? The way the would-be-invisible-man is tricked into becoming the invisible man is also so extremely contrived that your brain almost falls out of your head when you watch it. I’m not going to reveal too much here, but when you watch the scene in question, your only thought is that nobody in this wide world is so stupid that he would fall for such an obvious ruse.
Tômei ningen arawaru was aimed at a juvenile audience, and that may be one of the reasons that its rather simple morals are spelled out in capital letters. But, as previously pointed out, it is a bit surprising that it got past the American censors at the time, because any way you choose to look at it, it is a thinly veiled criticism against the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and one might even interpret it as a demand for an apology from the US government.
The acting is uneven. First-billed Chizuru Kitagawa as the romantic interest manages to be stiff and overact at the same time. Kitagawa was a reasonably successful B-movie actress, best known for her work in Tomo Uchida’s Bloody Spear on Mount Fuji (1955). She also had a bit-part in Josef von Sternberg’s Anatahan (1953). Daijirô Natsukawa, playing Segi, is ok, but rather bland. Ryûnosuke Tsukigata, playing an Einsteinean scientist, is pleasant in the role, but a bit hammy. Shôsaku Sugiyama relishes in his role as the villain Kawabe, and proceeds to chew up the scenery like it was made out of crackers. A wonderfully overblown performance.
Takiko Mizunoe’s dancer is one of the strongest female portraits in science fiction films up to that point in movie history internationally. She plays a smart, scheming and independent, successful woman, who takes matters into her own hands when the police aren’t able to solve the mystery, and infiltrates the baddies’ mansion disguised as the invisible man, and proceeds to take on three henchmen in a fist-fight. A wonderfully acted role, especially the final scene where she tries to save the invisible man from his own madness is some heart-breaking display of acting.
Modern reviews of The Invisible Man Appears are mixed. One of the most positive ones I can find comes from our friend Mark Cole at Rivets on the Poster. Cole writes: “One of the more striking aspects of this one is how well it is filmed, despite the fact that the director had little success and never made many films: not only to we get some fairly well done P.O.V. shots of the invisible man, but the camera is fluid and the entire film looks crystal clear. It looks a lot like a classic Forties Hollywood Film Noir and far better than Toho’s later effort, despite Daiei studio’s notoriously low budgets.” Cole concedes that the movie is “far too convoluted”, has “too many sideplots”, that “some of the plot twists do seem a touch unlikely and the finale, when everyone shows up at the villain’s lair at the same time, threatens to become absurd”. Still, he concludes it is “a fun little film, reasonably well made and quite entertaining in its own modest way”.
Another one of our favourite bloggers, Mark David Welsh, calls the movie “a sober and sometimes thoughtful thriller” that “may not bring a whole lot of original ideas to the table but presents what it has in a cool, professional manner and provides a decent level of entertainment”. At Japanese Hokoku Ookame Diary, the titular critic writes that the human drama is “surprisingly good” and calls the special effects dated, but good for their time. Alec Pridgen at Mondo Bizarro Cinema calls the film “pretty run of the mill stuff, but solid”. Finally there is Hiroyuki Taniguchi at the Japanese Movie Blog, who is not impressed at all. According to Taniguchi “the human drama doesn’t hold much interest” and “the story is rather stale”, even if he recognises the movie’s place in history.
Despite its scriptual flaws, the occasionally hammy acting and the laughable fight scenes, I don’t think it is at all a bad movie. Coming from a country with no science fiction film history and very little experience in Hollywood-type visual effects, it stands out surprisingly well in comparison with its American counterparts of the era, and can certainly stand proudly alongside the lesser entries of Universal’s The Invisible Man franchise. The story moves swiftly along and it hasn’t got that studio-based claustrophobic feel that many Hollywood B movies have – instead it takes us out on the streets of Kobe, and to a number of different sets. The role of Mizuko is a breath of fresh air in a genre that provided rather stuffy portraits of women at the time – and would continue to do so for decades to come.
Although her list of film roles isn’t particularly long, Takiko Mizunoe was a very famous actress, singer and dancer in Japan, and went on to become a prominent player in the movie industry, championing women’s rights on stage and in film. Mizunoe was oft photographed and caused a bit of a stir when she was part of an all-women’s opera company in the early thirties, and cut her hair short in order to play male characters, in the old tradition of kabuki theatre (and indeed very early Japanese film, when all men were portrayed by women). Her short hair became her trademark, and she often played male characters on stage, and strong women in film and on stage.
In 1933 Mizunoe was the centre of a labour dispute at the Shochiku opera. With communism and workers’ unions on the rise, Mizunoe emerged as the leader of a committee of women labourers protesting salary cuts, and demanding higher wages for musicians, as well as paid holidays and better working conditions. The situation escalated into a strike and protracted negotiations, and finally the arrest of Mizunoe and 46 other women on suspicion of being dissidents. Most of them were released the next day. Mizunoe was fired, but eventually re-hired after the dispute was settled. She eventually left the opera and stayed in the US for some time in 1938 and 1939, after which she returned to Japan.
After another successful run in theatre and a few film roles – including The Invisible Man Appears, Mizunoe started working as producer for one of Japan’s five big film studios, Nikkatsu, in 1955. The film industry was booming after WWII, and the fifties saw the rise of directors like Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujirō Ozu, and with special relevance to this blog, Ishirō Honda, creator of Gojira/Godzilla. 1954 saw the release of both Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Gojira, and Nikkatsu, which had only focused on distribution and screening for a number of years, decided to start making their own films again. Mizuone became Japan’s first female movie producer working for a major studio, and it didn’t take her long to prove her worth, as it quickly became clear she had a remarkable eye for spotting new talent, and wasn’t afraid of taking on controversial films.
Her biggest find was Yujiro Ishihara, who had previously been discarded at the studio’s auditions. At a time when James Dean and Marlon Brando had been pegged as the new brand of male actors, Mizunoe saw in Ishihara’s charisma and bad-boy attitude the makings of a Japanese James Dean, though his twin career as a singer and actor (as well as soft-porn star) instead earned him the moniker ”Japan’s Elvis Presley”. Mizunoe produced his first two films, Season of the Sun and Crazed Fruit, both released 1956. The latter was his first turn as a lead, and catapulted him to stardom. The controversial film explored the post-war, westernised youth of Japan, and singlehandedly gave rise to the so-called Sun Tribe subgenre. It’s sensual, languid filming, rapid editing and extreme close-ups were way ahead of its time, and infuenced Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, among other French filmmakers who were still years away from creating the Novelle Vague movement.
This was followed up by further hits like Rusty Knife (1958), one of the best known of Nikkatsu’s film noirs, and led to a long, successful and tumultuous collaboration between Ishihara and Mizunoe. For many years in the fifties and sixties, Mizunoe lived in a purpose-built house conjoined with Ishihara’s house, and the two became hosts of a commune of young actors and artists in the film industry, but as the years went by and Ishihara got married, he felt that Mizunoe became controlling and invasive, and allegedly drove his wife to a breakdown, to the point that he demanded Mizunoe be evicted and slapped with a restraining order in 1968.
With the late sixties, Mizunoe produced fewer films for Nikkatsu, and worked primarily with Ishihara’s independent production company. She was also a popular public persona and TV personality. In the seventies TV made its final breakthrough in Japan, and as a result, the country’s film companies suffered. This was also a time when so called Pink Films, a very Japanese brand of soft-porn movies, were becoming increasingly popular. They had a steady audience and were cheap to make, which the film companies Toei and Shintoho had already proved. In 1971 Nikkatsu decided to abandon traditional films, and focus solely on high-end Pink Films, branded as ”Nikkatsu Roman Porno” (from the English phrase ”romantic pornography”). This was the last straw for Mizunoe, who left the company, along with a good portion of the rest of the studio’s talent, after having produced a staggering 76 films for it, many of which are regarded as classics today. She instead took up a successful career as a TV host, along with the occasional film appearance. One such was in a big supporting role in the Oscar-nominated Sandakan 8, or Brothel No. 8 (1973), a feminist film dealing with the phenomena of Asian prostitutes in the mid-century. The film won numerous awards and was nominated for the Golden Bear prize at the Berlin Film Festival. She later produced a play about her life with her old opera group.
Mizunoe retired from show business in 1987 to focus on jewellery design, although she did do a few cameos here and there. She remained unmarried throughout her life, after a husband-to-be got stuck in the United States due to the discrimination against Japanese during and after WWII. However, her later years were dogged by accusations of illegitimate child birth, which she disproved with a DNA test. After becoming wheelchair-bound due to a riding accident in the nineties, she withdrew from public life. She passed away in 2009. She has been portrayed by other actors in two different TV movies, and there is at least one book written about Mizunoe. Five of the films she produced made it to the list of Nikkatsu’s revered Top 20 movies at the studio’s 100th anniversary in 2012. The blog Toronnto Jpowwow puts her among the 10 most influential women in Japanese cinema.
Mizunoe has no connection with science fiction outside of The Invisible Man Appears, but since there seems to be very little information available in English online about this female icon and pioneer of Japanese theatre, film and TV, I just thought I had to put down a few lines about her.
Ryûnosuke Tsukigata was a popular actor in leading and supporting roles in period dramas before and during WWII. International audiences know him best for his roles in Akiro Kurosawa’s debut film Sugata Sanshirô (1943) and Sugata Sanshirô – Part 2 (1945), where he had big supporting roles. Blink and you’ll miss him in Eiichi Kudô’s 13 Assassins (1963). After the war his roles lessened somewhat and he often found himself in B movies such as The Invisible Man Appears.
Shôsaku Sugiyama was a veteran actor, who was often cast in supporting roles or bit-parts. He appeared in the never-ending stream of Zatôichi films about a blind swordmaster churned out from the sixties to the eighties, including the most well regarded one, Zatôichi chikemuri kaidô (1967). The movie was remade in the US in 1989 as Blind Fury, starring Rutger Hauer. He also had a small role in Kunio Watanabe’s 1958 version of the popular story of The Loyal 47 Ronin, a source of countless movies (Sugiyama that is, not Hauer).
The other person deserving a whole chapter on this blog is Eiji Tsubaraya, father of Japanese special effects. But we’ll leave the long-form introduction to a later post. As mentioned, he created the special effects for Toho’s Gojira in 1954, and went on to work on most of director Ishirō Honda’s tokusatsu movies. Although Tômei ningen arawaru was produced for Daiei, he felt that by and large, he wasn’t given big enough budgets and artistic freedom with the studio. So when his blacklisting ceased with the ending of the US occupation of Japan, he chose to sign a contract with Toho. And the rest, as they say, is history.
For some reason IMDb lists a second director alongside Nobuo Adachi, and search as I try, I can’t find any mention of a second director anywhere else, so I’m leaving him out of the equation. If you have any more information on this matter, please let me know in the comments below!
Tômei ningen arawaru (透明人間現わる). 1949, Japan. Directed by Nobuo Adachi. Written by Akimitsu Takagi & Nobuo Adachi. Starring: Chizuguru Kitagawa, Takiko Mizunoe, Daijirô Natsukawa, Mitsusaburô Ramon, Ryûnosuke Tsukigata, Shôsaku Sugiyama, Kanji Koshiba, Kichijirô Ueda, Hiroshi Ueda, Shôzô Nanbu, Shinobu Araki, Saburô Date, Music: Gorô Nishi. Cinematography: Hideo Ishimoto. Editing: Shigeo Nishida. Special effects: Eiji Tsuburaya. Produced by Hisahi Okuda for Daiei.