Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection
Japan | 1958
Directed by Ishirô Honda
Kenji Sahara
Yumi Shirakawa
Akihiko Hirata
| 87 Minutes | Not Rated
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC | 3-disc set)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
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More Toho sci-fi/horror!
Review by
Troy Guinn

NOTE: DVD Rating is for entire 3-film set
Of the many works of Japanese science-fiction spawned in the wake of the classic Gojira/Godzila, 1958's The H-Man is perhaps the one that addresses the dangers of the atomic age as directly as that seminal film. This time, however, the central monster is more likely to creep up your pants leg than to topple a skyscraper onto your head.
    On a rainy night in Tokyo, a rendezvous between two of the city's underworld does not go as planned. One man sits behind the wheel of a car while another attempts to put a bag into the vehicle's trunk. Something grabs his leg, he cries out and empties his gun into his unseen assailant, to no avail. The car speeds away as the man tries to escape his mysterious attacker, but he rushes into the path of an oncoming taxi cab. When a crowd gathers around the accident scene, all they find that remains of the victim is the bag he was carrying... and his clothes.
    The police, led by Inspector Tominaga (Akihiko Hirata), find that the bag contains drugs, and learn that the bag was stolen from a locker belonging to a Mr. Gold. Under scrutiny, Mr. Gold admits he bought the drugs from a man named Misaki. The police are familiar with Misaki and assume that he stole the drugs back from Mr. Gold, and then for some reason ran off without his clothes in the rain, leaving the drugs behind. Well, there are some strange types in the Japanese underworld, I guess.
    Misaki is known to have a girlfriend, Chikako (Yumi Shirakawa), who is a nightclub singer. She claims to have not seen Misaki for several days, but Tominaga figures that Misaki will attempt to contact his girl and so he puts Chikako under police surveillance. A young man approaches Chikako, but before he can tell her his purpose, Tominaga's detectives grab him. When they bring him to the station, he turns out to be a biochemist named Asada, and he is actually an old friend of Inspector Tominaga. Asada believes that fallout from nuclear testing is causing human beings to literally "melt away", and he wanted to question Chikako to ascertain whether Misaki had recently been out at sea, where the radiated fallout has been common. Tominaga and his detectives laugh at Asada's theory and tell him to stick to lab work.
    Asada's convictions remain unshaken, however, and after Chikako is attacked by a gangster who then horribly melts away outside her window, he convinces Tominaga to listen to the testimony of the surviving members of a ship that had a nightmarish encounter. These sailors tell of how they found a drifting ship, the Ryujinmaru, and climbed aboard to investigate. They found no crew, but instead ran across an oozing slime that engulfed and dissolved several of them before they could escape back to their own ship. Now they lie in the hospital, suffering from radiation sickness.
    Tominaga dismisses the sailors' story, and even after witnessing Asada's lab experiments in which living frogs are gruesomely dissolved with radiation, the detective won't be convinced that Misaki had suffered the same fate. However, as the police are rounding up gangsters at Chikako's night club, the slime shows up and dissolves a policeman, a gangster, and one the club's performing girls. Finally, Tominaga has to admit that Asada's theory is correct, and that the city is in great danger as the slime absorbs more people and continues to grow. The military sets up an elaborate trap for the slime (now dubbed "H-Man" because of the occasional green man-like shapes that appear from out of the radioactive muck). They will try and trap the slime in the sewers and burn it out. Just as the military is implementing this plan, Chikako is kidnapped by a surviving gangster (the driver from the opening scene) and he brings her down in the sewers with him. Asada, whose interest in Chikako has now grown beyond the merely professional, must try and rescue her from the sewers and the H-Man before the military ignites the wall of fire and it consumes them all…
    Released in Japan under the much less exploitable title of Beauty and the Liquid People, The H-Man draws its primary inspiration from the same real-life incident that germinated the idea for Godzilla: the fateful voyage of the Japanese fishing vessel Lucky Dragon, which was sailing in supposedly safe waters yet her crew still suffered burns and radiation sickness because of atomic bomb testing in the Bikini Atoll. The message couldn't have been clearer to the Japanese people: there was no predicting the potential dangers caused by nuclear testing, nor was there such thing as a 'safe zone'. Where Godzilla is a work of grand-scale destruction that conveys the fear of a country still shell-shocked by real-life devastation, the Japanese society depicted in H-Man, made a mere five years later, is astonishingly different. We get the sense of a cosmopolitan, confident nation rebuilding itself at lightning speed. While the film begins and ends with images of mushroom clouds and dire warnings about what horrors might spring from the nuclear age, the scientist Asada spends most of the film being laughed at for his wild theories, and even the titular menace proves to be something the authorities, once they are convinced, can confront and actually contain in a way they can never do with Godzilla and his ilk.
    Director Ishirô Honda very effectively captures the feel of a film noir, from the constant downpour of rain to the abundance of lit cigarettes, flashing neon lights, seedy nightclubs and the interplay of detectives and underworld figures. There is even a scene where a trenchcoat-wearing thug slaps the heroine a few times for information… but the scene is rather awkward and one gets the impression that the gentle and pacifistic Honda wasn't quite comfortable with this level of brutality.
    Where the legendary director does shine is in the film's most memorable sequence, in which the unlucky sailors investigate the ghost ship Ryujinmaru and fall victim to the nightmarish slime creature. This is Honda at his most masterful, creating a mood of pure tension, with great interplay between the characters as the horror of their situation grows. Honda demonstrates a knack for terror and creepy imagery that would eventually be fully realized in his best pure horror film, Matango (1963).
    Toho effects master Eiji Tsuburaya pulls just about every trick from under his trademark hat to bring The H-Man's titular creature to life, including traveling mattes, reverse footage, and even sets that rotated to allow the slime to move up and down walls as if guided by an intelligence. The results can be said to be convincing about 90% of the time. In fact, to compare the creature of H-Man to another of its '50s sci-fi brethren, The Blob, Tsuburaya's creation is the more convincing of the two monsters. The effects of the H-Man's victims melting away are simply achieved but quite creepy and disturbing, thanks in large part to the use of lighting and cutaways in the editing.
    H-Man is a gorgeous film to watch and has its memorable images, and is certainly worth watching as an example of a Japanese take on film noir conventions. However, the film can be slow-going at times, and while the interplay between Tominaga and Asada is entertaining (particularly when Tominaga realizes that Asada is falling for Chikako even before Asada himself is aware of it), Yumi Shirakawa as Chikako is charismatic in her nightclub performances, but a bit bland and non-engaging otherwise. Also problematic is that we have a central menace that lacks definition (no, I don't mean its blob-iness) and is ambiguous in its motivation. At times, we can almost believe that Misaki's consciousness is guiding the slime, trying to protect Chikako while seeking vengeance on his underworld cohorts. Viewed that way, there is a certain pathos to the creature, but as it consists of many more souls than just Misaki's, it's hard to consider the slime as anything other than thoughtless ooze driven only to consume what lies in its path. As forces-of-irradiated-nature go, the blob of H-Man just doesn't inspire the awe that a Godzilla or Rodan does, although one could make the point that the giant sludge-monster Hedorah from Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) is the horror of the H-Man finally realized on a giant scale.

Sony has released H-Man as part of its Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection set, which also includes two other works by Ishirô Honda, Battle in Outer Space (1959) and Mothra (1961). All three films are presented in gorgeous prints (2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen), and include both the Japanese-language, subtitled versions as well as the English-dubbed American release, making this set another must-have for the DVD library of any fan of Japanese fantasy cinema. The only negative to the set is that there are audio commentaries for Battle and for Mothra, but sadly, not for The H-Man.
    As for the American version of H-Man, it runs about 6 minutes shorter than the Japanese version, and mainly eliminates a needless and slightly confusing subplot where the police are targeting a gang they suspect are behind Misaki's disappearance. Considering H-Man's plodding pace, the footage is not much missed. 4/17/10