Thursday, June 21, 2012

The H-Man

"Honda and Tsuburaya's monster films address the ghosts of the Japanese past playfully yet seriously, in a way calculated to exorcise those ghosts. They celebrate the nation, but theirs is a pacifist nationalism." -Thomas Schnellbacher, Has The Empire Sunk Yet? The Pacific in Japanese Science Fiction, Robot Ghosts And Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction From Origins To Anime [2007] [p.33]-

The H-Man [1958], as in the Hydrogen man, is director Ishiro Honda's seamless blend of film noir, horror ghost story and science fiction that preceded his similar human-sized film The Human Vapour [1960]. Like Gojira [1954], and later Matango [1963], The H-Man [US title; H-Man is the recognized International title according to Toho Kingdom] delves deeply into the psychology of a director's ghosts and the subtext he continues to weave into film as informed by the horrific and haunting events visited upon a people. It marries his love for science fiction and fantasy with his deep concerns over the proliferation of nuclear weapons on a global scale. Honda, while delivering a uniquely Japanese picture of fantasy somehow manages to speak to people about these events on an international scale while entertaining and if that's "pacifist nationalism" it's also splendid cinematic spectacle.

The opening images of the film are suggestive and illustrate in image this understandably dark fascination with what was arguably a bold, horrifying new world of science in the 1950s.

A mushroom cloud, a floating boat in the dark waters symbolizing the fateful events of the Daigo Fukuryu-maru or Lucky Dragon No. 5 and its crew's exposure to radiation and nuclear fallout during American atomic testing of the Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, in March 1954, roughly four thousand kilometers from Japan under code name Castle Bravo. The images tell the story. The tale is undeniable truth. The nightmare and ghosts are real. From here, Honda takes us into his world where the imagination runs influenced by the affect of nuclear radiation drawn from stark reality and the fate of a fishing vessel's crew including the death of its radioman, Aikichi Kuboyama, six months later from radiation sickness.

Once again, the events of World War II and the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the events surrounding that tuna vessel during the tests on the Bikini Atoll continue to inform Honda's work. It was the spark for the subtext of Gojira and the birth of Godzilla, the mutations of shipwrecked survivors from radiated contamination in the food supply in Matango, as well as the fate that drove The Mysterians to Earth in The Mysterians [1957]. There is an undeniable continuity thematically to Honda's films. Those that would denounce the populist works of the director simply weren't paying attention.

The "Pacific setting is an important plot element" thematically as much as Honda's deep-rooted concerns with nuclear power as noted by Thomas Schnellbacher in Has The Empire Sunk Yet? The Pacific In Japanese Science Fiction from the book Robot Ghosts And Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction From Origins To Anime [2007] [p.32].

In The H-Man, the ghost ship steers through the night. Something captain's the wheel of the ship, but, while death's hand is symbolized by images of atomic mushrooms, Honda alludes to something much more horrific awaiting us as we head into uncharted waters of science and technology unleashing weapons we cannot fully comprehend. It's a well-constructed rendering of reality and fiction and Honda, through Toho, was simply one of the best at building these genre tales.

Honda, combined with the scripted word of dark imaginarian Takeshi Kimura, who orchestrates one of his finest from the 1950s. With music composed by Masaro Sato [Akira Ifukube stepping aside for this one] and visual effects by the always stunning [ok, well, there was Varan The Unbelievable, but the effects were good] Eiji Tsuburaya, Honda really delivers again. The H-Man follows a string of solid pictures behind Gojira, the kaiju eiga classic Rodan [1956] and The Mysterians [the first in a classic science fiction trilogy], and now The H-Man.

The thespian triumvirate from Rodan and The Mysterians, actress Yumi Shirakawa and principals Kenji Sahara and Akihiko Hirata, return in what continues to be a clearly fruitful period in Honda history for the three actors. These three films would mark a genuine Shirakawa, Sahara and Hirata triangle before Honda shook things up a bit within the science fiction and fantasy genre. In fact, Shirakawa and Sahara were married for a period according to Stuart Galbraith IV in his book Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy And Horror Films [p.26].

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The story begins with the death of a man on a rainy evening in the city. The man vanishes leaving only his clothes behind on the rain-soaked streets.

Enter Inspector Tominaga, played with ever smooth cool by Hirata [a far different turn from his troubled doctor in Gojira]. He plunges headlong into the criminal gangster underworld to discover something far more inexplicable is in play.

The location shots and vintage era cars and uniforms make for a pleasing viewing experience. It's so refreshing to watch films untainted by the arrival of CGI. It's a marvel to look back at these classic films.

The search for a drug distributor leads them to a missing man named Misaki, but first we meet Misaki's girlfriend, Chikako Arai, played by a more ravishing-than-in-Rodan Shirakawa. She radiates, to use a word, and oozes sex appeal as a singer in The H-Man.

A nightclub scene is captured beautifully on film by Honda who would handle a similar scene on a smaller scale for Matango. While this scene rivals the aforementioned Matango, Matango is the significantly better film. Shirakawa glamorously lip syncs and genuinely shines as a kind of old-fashioned fifties starlet. Why she never embraced looking back at her time in these science fiction fantasies while under Toho's contracts and working for Honda I'll never know or understand, because they are genuinely solid pictures [see Stuart Galbraith IV, Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo]. Shirakawa beams on screen, but I've yet to see anyone out-Mizuno Kimi Mizuno, a personal favorite like many fans of the genre and an absolutely stunning beauty.

Arai is visited at the club by one Doctor Masada played with real credibility by Sahara following two very different performances in Rodan and The Mysterians. Arai gives Masada something for Misaki, but he is arrested by police. Masada explains he is a scientist studying radioactive emissions from nuclear bombs - the effect of radioactive fallout on human beings. Masada believes a phenomenon is responsible for "melting" people through radiation. Inspector Tominaga scoffs at the notion finding the scientific theory implausible. Masada explains he was seeking out Arai to determine if Misaki had ever been to the Bikini Atoll or Christmas Island. Masada is warned to steer clear of the case and released.

Arai is visited by a member of the Yakuza [Japanese mafia] at night. Her window is open. He warns her not to turn Misaki over to authorities. Upon his escape into the rain, shots are fired and all that is left behind is a gun and the man's clothing. Like the man earlier, he has melted into the rain.

Arai can't explain it to police, but she saw a "dark shadow." Nevertheless, there is little faith in her story as much as there was in Masada's hypothesis. Masada returns and the police grant the professor of Kyoto University access to Arai. Masada asks if the missing Misaki was ever on a fishing boat?

Masada takes Tominaga and detective Sakata to visit a man in a hospital who witnessed a melting. Through flashback Honda revisits the man's experience one eerie evening out on the water. A boat pulls up alongside a drifting ghost ship. Men board the ship. The sequence is handled with lamps and is positively haunting in its effective creepiness. These flashbacks, like the one in Rodan, are Honda trademarks. They are indeed bread and butter in his films. He's just terrific with them. In fact, Matango may be that good because that film is populated with these kinds of sequences and you're simply mesmerized.

While on the vessel the men are attacked by amorphous ghost-like figures who utilize a kind of radioactive primordial soup to dissolve their victims. A handful of men are killed while just a few escape. The terrific mood and vibe is capped off by the men escaping and the sight of ghosts or H-Men topside on the disappearing ship. The H-Man is limited or hamstrung to a degree by its effects, but, a few years later, Matango, on the other hand, would nail the boat and ghost ship sequences to cinematic perfection using make-up and prosthetics. The H-Man is effective but limited. Still, the ghostly figures on the deck of that ship delivers a spine-tingling moment that pre-dates, but recalls the atmospheric best of director John Carpenter's ghost story The Fog [1980].

Upon leaving the hospital Tominaga is still a skeptic chalking up the man's tales as nothing more than a sailor's story. Masada implores them not to discount the power of radiation sickness or fallout. And when Masada asks for the Ryujinmaru's logbook you know what Honda and Kimura are shooting for here. Honda is directly inciting the historical incidents of the atomic tests in the Pacific. The men on the ship disappeared the day of the test. Six men vanished and Honda's horror tale is symbolic of the fate of the radiation poisoning that befell men on that fateful day in the Pacific following World War II.

Masada attempts to prove his thesis of radiation damage on tissue to Tominaga using a frog and turning it too into a pile of mush goo. Actually the frog is liquefied and the liquid is alive. Houston we have a problem - make that Tokyo. The monstrous radiated children of the atomic tests have landed in Tokyo via the Ryujinmaru, a clear symbol of the Daigo Fukuryu-maru and the men that returned to Japan following the incident affected by nuclear fallout. The monsters are on the loose and thus the confusing title of The H-Man when it is clearly H-Men. Masada informs Tominaga that part of the Ryujinmaru has been discovered in Tokyo Bay covered in radioactive fallout.

This is a typically nice character exchange moment between Sahara and Shirakawa. We begin to understand that the H-Men are identified by a stange sound effect on screen. When the sound appears the ghostly creatures are not far away. The sound appears at the end of the scene between Sahara and Shirakawa suggesting Misaki may be close.

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Masada hides Shakawa from the police and the Hanada gang.

Arai wishes the scientists to release the information they have because people have "dissolved." It does have a certain campy humor to it, though it's never played that way. One of the scientists, Doctor Maki, played by Koreya Senda, is a hold over from Varan The Unbelievable [the same year] where he played Doctor Sugimoto. I bet he never realized he'd be part of another unbelievable case. Bad joke? And so Maki wants to make the findings public as Honda's horror tale is tied directly to Tominaga's crime procedural and missing persons investigation. This is a nice scene between Hirata, Sahara and Shirakawa.

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The thing about these early Honda pictures is that they breathe. They take their time. His camera reveals details, characters, style, mood, atmosphere. They are filled with the kind of old picture charms that today's cinema has simply lost more often than not. Today, we have all the subtlety of a striking hammer, maybe even the strike of Thor's hammer in The Avengers [2012]. It's all spectacle and very little time is taken to simply absorb a frame like a work of art. Honda's art here in The H-Man gives viewers a chance to enjoy the moment and take it all in like fine pop art. Honda spends a good deal of time converging the police, the gangs and ultimately the H-Men together in a big, bold musical number inside of a truly fantastic night club sequence. It really kicks and song and dance numbers are truly magnificent and big in their presentation given striking detail and complexity.

Ultimately the H-Men attack Blob-style absorbing humans quicker than you can count and appearing, where required, as ghostly apparitions and the harbingers of death. Their form alternates somewhat inexplicably.

The hypothesis that is proven is that a heavy dosage of radiation can liquify its victims and thus create a liquid life form. The H-Man, like Matango, is body transformation horror, albeit, again, not nearly as successful as the execeptional Matango.

The H-Man posits that the mind of man could be transplanted into an altogether different form as a result of technology run amok. The headlines read: H-BOMB CREATES ANOTHER TYPE OF HUMAN. The frightening horror established within Honda's sci-fi horror is that a new life form capable of living with radiation has been born.

Arai is abducted and Masada gives chase in the film's climactic action sequence, which is a tame stroll in the park by today's standards, but the score is appropriately stirring lending the sequence its most thrilling component culminating in a crash.

There are moments in the final minutes where The H-Man feels as though it devolves into the slightly formulaic as kaiji genre standards are applied accordingly. 1. People scurry and run fron the invasive menace. 2. Areas are evacuated. 3. The Japanese groupthink a plan to destroy the creature. In this case, it's the H-Men, or the H-Man, though it's really the H-Men and the film does seem a tad confused on this basic plot point. Though, giving it some thought, more in a moment on that point.

Arai is taken into the sewers. The gangster believes Arai was always too good for the missing Misaki. With the H-Man close and flitting about the sewers, the man offers her the choice of going with him or being "eaten by the H-Man." It does have a certain unsavory ring to it.

The flame ignition group tasked with destroying the H-Man gives the orders to burn the sewer system down despite the fact Masada heads into the sewers to find Arai.

As Arai and the gangster make their way through the sewers the end arrives swift as the H-Man always gets his carbon-based man. Meanwhile, an exhausted Arai is about as helpless as damsels in distress go. Masada saves her from the encroaching H-Man. Ultimately the flamethrowers finally finish off what is clearly several H-Men.

All confusing titular humor aside, I offer my defense of Honda and Kimura here. The H-Man, as a title, does capture the essence of Honda's nightmare living in a new world of radioactive and nuclear technologies. The H-Man conjures an idea of haunting and nightmarish consequences and the impact of technology unchecked affecting man. So, The H-Man is less a title referring to a specific physical entity or entities that physically inhabit the film, and more an idea born of madness.

In The H-Man, the challenge was to simulate the effects of monster slime dissolving and liquefying a human host. Tsuburaya used life-sized latex dolls, dressed them, then let the air out while filming at a slightly increased speed. It just so happens the idea of men mutating and undergoing body transformation into deadly gelatinous masses is a good one. The concept is one that has surfaced in films for decades. Think films like more recent horror outings such as Splinter [2008]. Thus The H-Man brings us the latest monster from the mind of Ishiro Honda in keeping with his examination of human foible within the nuclear age - ourselves. A scientist professes, "We cannot guarantee there will never be another H-Man again." And of course that's the message of Honda in his war on the possibility of human extinction within this new age of nuclear power and atomic weapons. Our existence faces the potential to be replaced by the likes of the H-Man if humankind continues its stumble into the technological darkness. This is Honda's fear and this is his warning and it's brought to fantastical life through limited effects crossed with a film noir style in The H-Man. What form will man take in the future of humanity? That is the question. The H-Man: C+. Director: Ishiro Honda. Writer: Takeshi Kimura/ Hideo Kaijo.

Additional Commentary: For additional analysis and inspired reflection I turned to fellow bloginator Mykal Banta and his always wonderful reflections on cinema inspired by the birth of the atom bomb. Following the first atomic bomb test, Trinity, in July 1945, detonated at the White Sands Missile Range in south central New Mexico, an abundant world of cinema was born and Mykal over at Radiation Cinema! Sci-Fi B-Movies And Television From The Atomic Age! continues to explore that particular world ever so articulately and with a literary flourish.

His article, Ishiro Honda Irradiates Film Noir: The H-Man, is a popular post at his site and caught my eye too. It was my first real exposure [pun not intended actually] to The H-Man. I revisited Mykal's piece after seeing the film and writing about it so as not to influence my own viewing experience.

So many have often underappreciated director Honda, even actors who worked for him like Rhodes Reason [King Kong Escapes] who unfairly dubbed him a "hack" director noted in an interview with Stuart Galbraith IV for Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo. Nothing could be further from the truth. There was much more in play in each film than the fantastical he created to meet the human eye. Note this wonderful opening by Mykal which really captures the essence of Ishiro Honda as a director.

"The great Japanese director, Ishirô Honda, made films constructed like Russian nesting dolls: The surface layer is always something grand and commercial, certainly, but once opened, layers of treasures come into the light. Honda never saw things simply, or easily. Like the artist he was, he would see the core of any film he was assigned (he worked for Japan’s Toho Studios) through his own crystal prism. Thus, his 1956 masterpiece, Gojira (Godzilla), a film about a giant lizard destroying Tokyo (and magnificent on those simple terms), becomes a film about the horrors of nuclear war and the essential goodness of mankind. And no assigned project was given anything less than the full Honda vision. Thus, his 1969 Gojira Minira Gabara Ōru Kaijū Daishingeki (All Monsters Attack), while often thought of as the worst film in the Godzilla franchise, is actually a delicate and moving film about a child’s alienation in a harsh, urban world of crushing poverty."

These thoughts could not capture the man's work more eloquently.

The goo-like impact of The H-Man arrived in 1958 alongside The Blob [1958]. As Mykal notes this fact is mostly "purely and wonderfully coincidental," including their respective running times almost to the minute upon further inspection. While the reddish, jelly-like Blob was pure outerspace science fiction, Honda's gelatinous green ooze was the work of Honda's mind affected by the arrival of real concerns in the form of atomic mushroom clouds.

Unlike the pure science fiction of The Blob, The H-Man had higher aspirations. As Mykal notes, this was a "gangster film" with a "crack team of untouchables" hoping to "crush the Tokyo underworld." Yes, "Honda has envisioned a direct and linear crime film with an undertone of effective, very creepy sci-fi – not the other way around. And Honda will have his way!"

It's true that The H-Man is populated by a variety of character archtypes that are complemented by "glowing liquid – driven to slither and ooze from Tokyo’s sewer system" or "blue radiated... monster ooze" or "radioactive slush killer" or "blue glowing mutants."

As we've noted earlier, as many sources have noted and as Mykal notes, the implication of many H-Men as a specific number is never made clear, but it is more than one H-Man, which is why I would generally accept the title of Honda's film as a conceptual device as I've offered earlier.

Mykal breaks down his analysis of each picture he reviews, in many instances, via segments dubbed The Good Stuff, which is also good fun.

Mykal discusses in some detail the work of Hirata and offers a delightful assessment of the character actor. "I watched his mad doctor save Tokyo in Honda’s 1954 Gojira. His tortured, moving performance was just so perfectly controlled, so reserved and – yes – just plain cool. There is something about a Hirata character that always seems unhurried and slightly remote from the frantic thrashings of his fellow humans, particularly when others are devoured by chaos and panic. He dwells always in the perfect eye of the hurricane." This is a terrific tribute and speaks volumes about the actor's abilities. Hirata's hard-nosed gumshoe role in The H-Man is the anti-thesis of his quirkier, disturbed scientist role in Gojira and the stark contrast genuinely demonstrates his range, a range American critics often discounted in Japanese/ Toho science fiction films regarding Hirata and a host of other Japanese actors. American writers demonstrated real ignorance of the acting breadth of Japan's top actors and Hirata's work in The H-Man and Gojira offers a substantive example of genuine versatility.

In another segment Mykal notes Honda And The Hottest Club In Tokyo. "Club Homura swings! From the hot band all dressed in cream-colored suits to the gorgeous dancers, it looks like one fine time. The service looks absolutely top flight, and the singer (Chikako) can really give purr the sultry (on this evening, she sings in English – a little number called “How Deep is My Love”). I can’t think of another film where a club scene so perfectly captures the Atomic Age in all its splendor." As I discussed earlier, the sequence manages to juxtapose criminals, law enforcement and sex kittens within a spectacular and splendid framing of action. As Mykal notes, very little dialogue is exchanged and it is mostly a visual sequence told through picture and action highlighting the magic of Honda.

Mykal's final thought: "All worlds meet in the bowels of Tokyo or Fire Solves Everything!," is just terrific. Consider Gojira, Rodan, The Mysterians and now The H-Man and fire figures prominently somewhere along the way. Amusing, but not far from the truth. Here he makes a good degree of humor about Honda's scriptwriters fighting the proverbial nuclear fire with fire. "Yes, Tominaga’s plan of attack is to dump thousands upon thousands of gallons of gasoline into the sewer system and light it. The push pins indicate the “fire ignition groups” that will set off this giant gas bomb “simultaneously.” Well, yep, that should do ‘er. The dozens of officials listening all nod their heads in approval once Tominaga has finished. Yes, yes. Fine plan. You guys sure you don’t see a potential problem with Tominaga’s tactical masterpiece? Anyone? No? Well, OK, then, light it up." It's fairly illogical, but we do have these lapeses in good sense within the fantastical world of Honda and that's okay.

Without hesitation, do check out Radiation Cinema! and the work of Mykal Banta. Based on the content of his wonderful site, Banta will never be accused of being prolific, but his rare entry is always a work of quality on vintage films. Mykal dispatches on average one to two posts per month with just one post in 2012. He has achieved a grand total of 49 quality posts. He has a whopping 286 "Irradiated" followers and climbing as of this writing since his site's inception in 2008. That's incredible really when you consider folks like myself have been toiling away at it since 2007. Impressive and deserved. His efforts are always solid. All the (nuclear) power to him.

In the end, Mykal makes some great observations and gives The H-Man a discerning look even if I didn't quite appreciate it the film to the same degree. Here are his final remarks. "Honda draws both worlds - the one of sci-fi horror and the one of gritty urban crime – patiently together, pulling all concerned toward the twilight world of Tokyo’s sewers with a watchmaker’s precision. He winds the tension in his watch, too, with a master’s stroke."

Meanwhile, writer Stuart Galbraith IV certainly noted the strengths of The H-Man including the then compelling effects scenes that truly propel the ghostly tale in his book Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy And Horror Films. But Galbraith IV does make some excellent points regarding the film's shortcomings. As Galbraith notes, The H-Man can seem a tad confused by alternating between "moving blobs" and "blue-green ghosts" [p.38]. Like the title, what exactly are we shooting for here? As Galbraith notes, "neither form is adequately explained." Additionally, the transformation of the human form to the anti-matter of an H-man is "never really explained." It's a fair point, and one that is forgivable for fans of the genre. Galbraith does note the "hauntingly gruesome effects" implemented as geuinely effective particularly given the film's copyright date dubbing them "creepy" and "unnerving." Given the still fairly steamy dance number, which still looks relatively provocative, Galbraith notes The H-Man was hardly a "family picture" though "marketed for general audiences." Planet Of The Apes [1968] was also rated G remarkably.

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One thing is certain, Honda oversaw some profoundly detailed work in his films. Still, as a film, The H-Man is not quite as successful as Rodan or Gojira, but then again The H-Man is a different kind of film melting and fusing together a number of disparate genre elements. Fans of kaiju eiga may not take a fancy to this genre approach, but like its crime noir, it's an intriguing exercise from a master director, one he would use to good effect by cross-breeding the genres with kaiju eiga for Dogora [1964]. The H-Man is one of three human-sized science fiction affairs followed by Ishiro Honda's The Human Vapour [1960] about a man transformed to gas and the directorial debut of none other than Godzilla fixture Jun Fukuda for The Secret Of Telegian [1960], also starring Shirakawa and Hirata, about a man transformed into a television signal. The H-Man is considered the strongest of the three.

2 comments:

le0pard13 said...

I admit I've not seen this, but given your usual fine write-up, SFF, and the screen caps, this one has a distinct style. Even if it was 1958, I can see the 60s from here. Well done.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

L13. Exactly right. Loaded with style. The 60s is in the air. Thank you friend.