The Invisible Avenger

Rating: 4 out of 10.

An invisible ex-soldier breaks up a mob gang and saves a nightclub singer in Toho’s 1954 SF noir. An interesting premise of war-time test subjects living as outcasts is sadly pushed out by the clichéd gangster plot. Film has its moments, though. 4/10

Tômei ningen. 1954, Japan. Directed by Motoyoshi Oda. Written by Shigeaki Hidaka & Kei Beppu. Starring: Seizaburô Kawazu, Miki Sanjô, Minoru Takada, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Kenjirô Uemura, Keiko Kondo, Haruo Nakajima. Produced by Takeo Kita. IMDb: 5.9/10 Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

With some few exceptions, science fiction movies were an all-American affair in the early fifties. However, in 1954 something came along and changed that, and that something was Gojira (review), that with a single stroke made Japan a contender in the genre. However, the big rubber monster didn’t represent the first sci-fi film in Japan. That honour goes to Tômei ningen arawaru (1949, review), or The Invisible Man Appears. Made for movie studio Daiei, the invisibility effects of that film were made by Eiji Tsuburaya, who five years later had moved to Toho, and helped bring Godzilla to life. In 1954 Toho apparently wanted to do their own version of that film, simply titled Tômei ningen (透明人間), or The Invisible Man — released in the US as The Invisible Avenger, and who else would create the special effects than the father of tokusatsu, Tsuburaya?

While Tômei ningen arawuru retained some elements of H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man, it leaned more on Universal’s cycle of Invisible Man-films, starting with James Whale’s groundbreaking The Invisible Man (1932, review), and added a generic crime drama. Toho’s version, written by Shigeaki Hidaka from a story by Kei Beppu, has no connection whatsoever to the work of Wells, neither does it draw much inspiration story-wise from the American films.

Seizaburo Kawazu as the invisible man.

The film opens with a car hitting something invisible in the middle of Tokyo. While examining the accident, an invisible man (Haruo Nakajima) suddenly becomes visible, dead under the car. In his pocket police find a letter, explaining that the invisible man decided to commit suicide, but that there is one other man like him, invisible, living in the city.

This news naturally throws Tokyo into a tizzy, and taking advantage of the situation, a gang of criminals calling themselves ”the invisible men” start looting race-tracks and banks wearing bandages over their heads. The criminals are organised by a mob boss called Yajima (Minoru Takada), who is also the owner of the nightclub Black Ships, from where he runs an illegal drug business. His right-hand man Ken (Kenjirô Uemura) tries to intimidate the club’s singer Michiyo (Miki Sanjô) to become a drug mule, but she refuses, leading him to assault her in her dressing-room, only to be interrupted by the clown Takamitsu Nanjô (Seizaburô Kawazu).

An imposter.

Nanjô works as a clown, carrying advertisement signs for the club around town, and happens to be a neighbour of Michiyo’s. This kind and unassuming clown is also, surprise, surprise, the invisible man, hiding himself under his clown makeup. His best friend in the world is a little blind girl called Mariko (Keiko Kondo), who lives alone with her grandfather (Kamatari Fujiwara), who works as a nightwatchman.

Newspaper reporter Komatsu (Yoshio Tsuchiya) connects the killings to the nightclub, and starts suspecting the clown might be the invisible man. He sneaks in to Nanjô’s room, and waits for him to get home from work. When Nanjô does return, he finds Mariko in tears – it turns out that the criminal gang has murdered her grandfather. In anger, Nanjô’ storms up to his room and starts removing his clothes, but is interrupted by Komatsu. Nanjô then tells Komatsu his story. At the end of WWI, the Japanese government succeeded in their secret experiments aiming at creating invisible super-soldiers that it hoped would turn the war in the country’s favour. However, the war abruptly ended with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the government turned its back on the invisible soldiers. The few remaining invisible men were scattered over the country, shunned by society and neglected by the government that created them. In order to make a living, Nanjô has decided upon the profession of clownery, so he can stay in makeup without attracting attention. Komatsu is sympathetic towards Nanjô, and together they decide to take on the criminal gang, clearing the invisible man’s name, and avenging Mariko.

Noriko Shigeyama as a kidnapped nightclub singer.

Gojira/Godzilla had premiered in the fall of 1954, and Toho quickly wanted to follow up with another tokusatsu, or special effects, film, and slated the opening night for December 29, making Tômei ningen a new year’s eve movie. Shigeaki Hidaka, a Toho work horse, cobbled together a script from from Kei Beppu’s original draft. As director the studio chose Motoyoshi Oda, a young director of the same generation as Gojira director Ishiro Honda and the superstar Akira KurosawaOda had risen through the ranks of Toho when several of the studio’s directors where serving in the military, and quickly made a name for himself as a fast and reliable filmmaker, who could turn over as many as seven films a year.

Oda had made a film called Yurei otoko, or Ghost Man, previously in 1954, about a mysterious killer wrapping his head in bandages to conceal his identity. Although neither a supernatural nor sci-fi tale, the movie, based on a popular series of mystery novels, did make a nod toward The Invisible ManTômei ningen also has a distinct film noir air about it, owing more to American crime films than horror or science fiction movies. Much of the movie takes place in a night club, and there’s shady characters walking around in suits, trenchcoats and fedoras. The budget’s obviously minimal, and the movie’s running time of a little over an hour is padded with about ten minutes of jazz numbers in the club.

‘Ello?

Eiji Tsuburaya had worked on invisibility tricks five years before, and basically employs the same techniques as Universal’s genius John P. Fulton had in The Invisible Man 22 years earlier. By wrapping Kawazu in black velvet and filming him in front of a black background, he is able to make him disappear by keying out the black and compositing the images with footage of another background. At one point he also has Kawazu apply black paint to his face with a rag, making it look as if he is removing his clown makeup, thereby turning invisible, but in fact he does just the opposite. Unfortunately in one shot we can clearly see the black paint on the rag. This was also a trick used in one of Universal’s franchise, i think it might have been Invisible Agent (1942, review). There’s also use of some wirework to make things appear to be floating in thin air.

The effects are somewhat better than in Tômei ningen arawuru, but for the key moment of Nanjô removing his clothes and ”wiping away” his makeup, Tsuburaya, who also served as director of photography on the film, tones down the lighting in order to hide the matte lines so that you almost can’t see what is happening. The actual effects are also few and far between, no doubt because of the tight shooting schedule. Most of the time it’s simply actors talking into thin air, with Kawazu adding his lines in post-production. The fight scenes, like in Tômei ningen arawuru, consist of bad miming from the other actors, although not as bad as in the previous movie where one actor actually grabbed himself by the collar. There’s a memorable scene with a moped driving itself, which would be even more impressive if the moped didn’t have training wheels, and if you wouldn’t be able to see the wires attached to the vehicle at one point.

Runaway scooter. Look closely and you see the wires.

Invisibility has always been a tricky trope. Exactly how it would work has been a matter of debate since Wells’ novel. For example, as Yakov Perelman pointed out as early as 1913, a transparent man would be blind, because the all light would pass straight through his eyes, rather than filter through the lens and cornea onto the retina. Wells was well aware of this, decided to take some artistic license. It’s generally impossible to create a work of fiction, even more so a film, which would answer every scientific argument about invisibility, and for the sake of storytelling, expediency and sometimes decency, all invisibility films have cut corners, some more than others. However, The Invisible Avenger does so more than most, violating even basic logic. For example, when in clown makeup, the invisible man has clearly visible eyes, as well as teeth, and gums and other parts of his mouth. It is also hard to buy in on the idea that he could stand all day, rain or shine, on the streets, without the makeup starting to wash away. All his neighbours also seem to find it perfectly normal that he wears the clown makeup even when he’s not working – in fact, that they have never seen him without it. But the greatest break in internal logic in the film is the invisible man that commits suicide in the beginning. When he becomes visible in death, he carries a note in his pocket. Was he wearing an invisible suit with an invisible note when he was hit by a car, and how did they become visible?

Thematically the film partly deals with the age-old topic of the outsider. Like H.C. Andersen’s ugly duckling or Cinderella of the folk tale, Nanjô the clown is a person whom people walk past every day without taking notice of him, but when the stakes are high the people around him see him as the hero he is inside. On the other hand, it is a tale of someone forced to hide their true identity for fear of persecution of being different, a theme popular in sci-fi from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein onward, and popularised in the later half of the 20th century with rising awareness of gay rights.

Seizaburo Kawazu on set.

However, the story may also reflect on the feelings of many Japanese war veterans after WWII. After surrendering in 1945, Japan was occupied by allied forces, mainly American, who forced upon them the doctrine that Japan had fought an aggression war, which was true, but not very well understood by the Japanese soldiers. So soldiers of a fiercely proud and nationalist nation were forced to denounce the government they had been fighting for, were not allowed to criticise the American occupation and the US aggressions towards Japan, and many of them were tried and found guilty for war crimes. Many war veterans felt that their sacrifices for Japan were demonised, that they weren’t compensated for their loss and injuries and were on the whole forgotten and discarded by the Japanese government – very much like invisible men who had to put on masks to cope with daily life.

But be the interpretation what they may, these themes aren’t explored in earnest, instead the script focuses on the personal drama – Nanjô’s sweet relationship with the young, blind girl, and with his neighbour, the club singer – and the generic crime plot, complete with car chases, fist fights and a cinematic duel at the top of an oil cistern. The film is rather violent for its day, and it doesn’t go easy on its women. The rape attempt on Michiyo in the beginning of the film is rather disturbing, although it goes no further than some slapping and grabbing, but seeing this sort of violence towards women in a mid-fifties film is unusual. More disturbing still is a scene of a club dancer held prison by the criminal gang, suspended in rope bondage in a skimpy outfit – and brutally whipped. A scene like this would never have passed US censors.

The acting is decent enough throughout the film, but there’s only so much you can do with this kind of material. Kawazu is pleasant, but walks through the whole movie doing a puppy-eyed sad clown routine. Miki Sanjo as the damsel in distress is good, despite some over-acting. Yoshio Tsuchiya is perhaps responsible for the best, and at least most naturalistic work in The Invisible Man, although he could have had even more material. 

Minoru Takarada and Miki Sanjo.

The Invisible Avenger has a decent 5.9/10 rating on IMDb, although as of writing based only a little more than 100 votes, and does not have any critic reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. It is also rare enough to not even have a star rating on AllMovie, which is quite unusual. Finding any Japanese reviews, contemporary or modern, is challenging, and such “reviews” as exist mainly consist of plot summaries. However, one anonymous blogger at Movie Scrapbook notes that Tômei ningen is rough around the edges, but still interesting to watch today. The blogger also notes that the film holds added value for people living in Tokyo, as it showcases what the city, especially the neighbourhood of Ginza, looked like in the fifties. A somewhat more in-depth analysis comes from user Yojimbonoyoieiga at what Google translates as Meeting to Praise a Good Movie. She writes: “I think it’s a valuable work as an early Tsuburaya special effects film, but I haven’t met anyone who likes it very much, and I don’t remember seeing it on TV.” Yojimbonoyoieiga laments the many song numbers, which she feels distract from the plot and go on for too long. Likewise, according to the writer, the focus on the leading lady and the interpersonal drama comes at the expense of the SF plot. She gives the movie 55/100 points.

Mark David Welsh gives The Invisible Avenger a tentative thumbs up: ” It’s a brisk and efficient production all round, with decent direction and black and white photography. The story does threaten to get a little mawkish at times but stops short of getting too sentimental, although there are few surprises for the audience along the way.” East Asian film specialist Hayley Scanlon at Windows on Worlds finds it to me a middling movie: “It is […] one of [Toho’s] less well considered efforts and Tsuburaya’s effects remain few and far between, rarely moving beyond his work on Daiei’s Invisible Man five years previously. Bulked out with musical numbers and dance sequences, Toho’s Invisible Man is a less satisfying affair than Daei’s puply sci-fi adventure but is nevertheless interesting in its defence of the sad clown who all alone has decided to shoulder the burdens of his world.” Mark Cole at Rivets on the Poster concurs: “This was not one of Toho’s greatest films […].  But it is typically well made and reasonably enjoyable in a modest sort of way, even if there are far too many dance numbers and not enough invisible bits.” And that’s pretty much all critic reviews I could find of Tômei ningen.

At the nightclub.

The film has its very sweet and touching moments, and it is easy to like Nanjô, even though neither his nor the other characters’ personalities are explored any deeper. Because of the flat characters it doesn’t quite hold up as a drama. As a special effects film it is so-so. The effects used by Tsuburaya are the same that were pioneered in Hollywood over twenty years prior, and they don’t quite reach the level of brilliance as the best ones by Fulton, perhaps equalling those in some of the weaker Invisible Man films by Universal. As a mob drama it’s a bit too generic to be appealing. Like its Japanese predecessor, the film has a hard time finding its genre, jumping from one to the other, sort of trying on different hats familiar from Hollywood to see which of them fits best. The direction is decent, nothing much to complain about, but neither much to praise. The filming of the hustle and bustle of Tokyo is great, and I like the way Tsuburaya films life in the crowded housing area – shooting scenes from inside one apartment into another one, over the shoulder of one of the actors, so to speak. It gives the film an intimate an familiar feel. Overall, it’s a rather pleasant, if slow-moving and terribly predictable film where everyone does exactly what we expect them to do. I haven’t found a subtitled or dubbed version, but if one reads up on the plot it’s perfectly watchable even without understanding Japanese, but perhaps more for aficionados than the casual viewer.

On the whole, it’s a slow-moving and rather dull affair. There’s no invisibility effects until halfway through the film. None of the characters are ever fleshed out, and remain cardboard cut-outs. There’s the good guys and the bad guys, the little orphaned girl and the damsel in distress. The bad guys walk around shouting and sneering, the good guys are kind-hearted and noble.

Promotional image.

In the late fifties Toho created a loose trilogy known as ”the transforming man” trilogy, consisting of The H-Man, The Secret of the Telegian and The Human Vapor. These films featured villains or anti-heroes whose bodies were altered by some scientific accident or innovation. In a way Tômei ningen can be seen as a precursor to these movies, and there were several other Japanese sci-fi films that fall under the same category. Interestingly enough, this kind of science fiction theme was popular in the US in the late thirties and forties. I have lost count of how many times Boris Karloff was the victim of some scientific accident and returned as a human nuclear reactor or zombie or poisonous creature. One of the things that made Japanese science fiction in the fifties so interesting is the way in which its movie industry suddenly tried to catch up on thirty years movie history, and did it all in five.

From The Lost World (1925, review) through Metropolis (1927, review) on to King Kong (1933, review), the Universal horror films of the thirties and forties, the Republic serials, pulp magazines and comic books, and up to early flying saucer films, alien invasion movies and superhero TV series. And the flooding of American culture that came through the US occupation also brought the film noir, the hard-boiled Dashiell Hammett detective stories, the romantic Hollywood dramas and adventure films. Everything was thrown in the mix along with Japan’s own long cultural heritage, the tentative first steps of manga, the age-old opera tradition, and much more. Writers and directors didn’t always know how to handle these new influxes, but found them exciting and full of potential. Sometimes true magic was born, other times it all ended up as one big mess, but it was seldom boring.

Seizaburo Kawazu to the left.

Seizaburô Kawazu was a veteran actor who turned up both in cheap programmers, such as the Zatoishi films, and in major supporting roles in A movies, like Kenji Mizogushi’s A Geisha (1953) and Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961). He had previously played the lead in Ghost Man. He turned up in a number of science fiction films later: The Secret of the Telegian (1960), The Last War (1961), Mothra (1961), Gorath (1962) and Dogora (1963).

Miki Sanjo is perhaps best known for playing the female lead in Kurosawa’s The Quiet Duel (1949), opposite screen legends Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura. Her career never really took off toward stardom, but she continued to work steadily throughout her life, and appeared in over 100 films and as many TV series, up until 2010. She passed away in 2015. As a curiosity one can mention that she unveiled a test mould of the statue of the world-famous dog Hachiko late in life when she bought an apartment that had previously been sculptor Andoshi’s studio. Hachiko became famous in the twenties for turning up at a train station every day at a set time to greet his owner, as he had always done, even though the owner had long since passed away. Hachiko’s life was retold in the 2009 Lasse Hallström film Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009), starring Richard Gere.

Miki Sanjo and Seizaburo Kawazu.

Minoru Takada, playing the mob moss, was a veteran of the silent era, and formerly one of the bigger stars of Japanese cinema. However, in the fifties he was primarily relegated to supporting parts in B movies. He appeared in a number of the short films about a character called Super Giant in the fifties, and the Starman TV movies in the sixties. He also appeared in a number of sci-fi movies with theatrical releases; Battle in Outer Space (1959), The Last War, Atragon (1963) and Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster (1964).

Yoshio Tsuchiya, playing the reporter, may be familiar to sci-fi fans through his appearance in numerous Toho tokusatsu films. Tsuchiya was something of a renaissance man. His father, a linguist who translated Shakespeare into Japanese, would read him the works of the English master as bedtime stories, so even though Tsuchiya got a degree in medicine, he followed his calling into theatre. Originally not keen on movie work, he was nonetheless persuaded by Akira Kurosawa to audition for the role of Farmer Rikichi in Seven Samurai (1954), and his audition was so powerful that Kurosawa reportedly nearly fell off his chair.

Tsuchiya went on to appear in nearly every Kurosawa film from 1954 onward. Thanks to Kurosawa, he also managed to get a rare tour of the sets of Gojira at Toho studios, filmed by Kurosawa’s good friend Ishiro Honda. Tsuchiya immediately became thrilled with the special effects works led by Tsuburaya, and he and Honda soon became great friends. He used to call Kurosawa and Honda ”his other two fathers”. Although fiercly protective of his actor, Kurosawa let Tsuchiya appear in all the sci-fi films he wanted to be in, as long as they could be worked around his own movie shoots.

He had a supporting role in Godzilla Raids Again (1955, review), and was slated for a leading role in The Mysterians (1957). However, Tsuchiya was much more interested in playing the leader of the alien Mysterians, although it was a role that he would play with a helmet over his head for the entire film. Honda tried to talk him out of it, but he stubbornly stuck to his guns, making the character a memorable one. He also appeared in Varan the Unbelievable (1958), The H-Man (1958), Battle in Outer Space, The Secret of the Telegian, The Human Vapor (1960), Matango (1963), Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), The Killing Bottle (1967), Son of Godzilla (1967) Destroy All Monsters (1968), Space Amoeba (1970), Tokyo: The Last War (1989) and Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). Tsuchiya was fluent in both English and French, rode motocross and played flamenco guitar. That is, besides being a medical doctor and one of Japan’s biggest movie stars.

Minoru Takarada.

You may not recognise the actor playing the invisible man who commits suicide in the beginning of the movie, but you’ve all seen him before. That’s Haruo Nakajima, who wore the rubber suit of Godzilla from 1954 onward in 12 different films, and played a number of other Toho monsters.

Director Motoyoshi Oda had his fifteen minutes of fame in 1955, when Ishiro Honda neither had the time nor the interest to make a sequel to Gojira, and he was appointed as director of Godzilla Raids Again. However, no other big films came his way, and he continued to be treated as a second-rate director at Toho, and he retired from the business in 1958, returning sporadically to work in TV.

Eiji Tsuburaya, of course, is widely known as the father of Japan’s special effects industry, who worked with Toho until his death in 1970. Prior to his interest in special effects, he worked as a cinematographer for over 15 years up until 1940. For Tômei ningen he returned one last time to his old profession as director of photography, probably because the movie was on an extremely tight schedule, and he knew he wouldn’t have time to synchronise his special effects photography with another DP doing principal photography. If he was in charge of all photography, he could film exactly as he wanted the scenes to be filmed.

Seizaburo Kawazu and Miki Sanjo.

What immediately strikes one about the film is the jazzy music, unusual in a movie like this. It was written by Kyôsuke Kami, a Toho furniture who is often quoted as the father of Japanese jazz. Kami started his career as a live musician playing at screenings of silent films in the twenties, and started writing music for film with the advent of sound cinema. He also started Japan’s first major jazz band, recorded Japan’s first Jazz song and released Japan’s first jazz record. He composed both classical orchestral scores and jazzier scores for his films, and the music for Tômei ningen is a mix of both. This is one of his more famous scores, which means he didn’t work on any high-profile films.

Production designer Teruaki Abe also worked on Godzilla Raids Again, The Mysterians, Battle in Outer Space, The Last War, Mothra, Gorath the Unbelievable and King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). Producer Takeo Kita went on to produce a number of sci-fi and kaiju films for Toho.

Janne Wass

Tômei ningen (1954, Japan). Directed by Motoyoshi Oda. Written by Shigeaki Hidaka and Kei Beppu. Starring: Seizaburô Kawazu, Miki Sanjô, Minoru Takada, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Kenjirô Uemura, Kamatari Fujiwara, Yo Shiomi, Sônosuke Kawamura, Seijirô Onda, Shin Ôtomo, Noriko Shigeyama, Keiko Kondo, Haruo Nakajima, Shôichi Hirose. Music: Kyôsuke Kami. Cinematography: Eiji Tsuburaya. Editing: Shûichi Anbara. Production design: Teruaki Abe. Sound recordist: Shôchi Fujinawa. Special effects director: Eiji Tsuburaya. Produced by Takeo Kita for Toho Company.

2 replies

  1. I did actually find a subtitled version at one point. I’ll look around in my old links and see if I can find it for you.

    Thank you once again for another stunning piece of cinematic research!

    Liked by 1 person

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