Invisible Avenger/Tômei Ningen (1954)

Invisible Avenger (1954)‘Yes it seems he was studying these things, experimenting with protein collision using the Cyclot Theory.’

A motorist runs over an invisible man in the street. The authorities reveal that he was one of two survivors of a wartime experiment. Panic grips the country as a gang of criminals take advantage of the situation, blaming their crime spree on the surviving soldier…

Five years after Japanese science fiction got a kick start with ‘The Invisible Man Appears’ (1949), the box office went ballistic for ‘Godzilla, King of the Monsters’ (1954). Tucked away in the Big G’s mighty shadow was another production from Toho Studios; a return to the H. G. Wells story of scientific misadventure and ‘things that man must leave alone.’

As with the first Japanese ‘Invisible Man’, our unseen hero foregoes the usual ‘mad scientist and his reign of terror’ for reluctant involvement in criminal activity, as he is forced out of hiding to prove his innocence of a string of robberies. The gang recruit an elderly watchman to assist in their latest caper, promising him the money he needs for his blind granddaughter’s eye operation. Of course, they dispose of him instead, leaving the girl to rely on her neighbours; a kindly clown and a nightclub singer who spends most of her time resisting the advances of her boss, who might just have some skeletons in his closet.

As per usual in a Japanese film, the drama is played totally straight and the cast take the more outlandish twists and turns in the script in their stride. Principals Seizaburo Kawazu (the clown) and Yoshio Tsuchiya (the reporter) both later appeared in Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Yojimbo’ (1962) and Tsuchiya had already worked with the great director on ‘The Seven Samurai’ (1954). 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.

Invisible Avenger (1954)

🎵Don’t you love farce?
My fault, I fear
I thought that you’d want what I want
Sorry, my dear 🎵

In a way, the film foreshadows the development of the character as a secret agent in the 1970s on US television. The NBC Network launched former ‘Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ David MacCallum as ‘The Invisible Man’ in their 1975 season, who tried to cure his invisibility while working as an operative for the Klae Corporation. When that didn’t take, the network tried again with the unintentionally hilarious ‘Gemini Man’ featuring Ben Murphy working for INTERSECT and turning himself invisible with a digital watch. Unsurprisingly, it was cancelled after only 5 episodes had been broadcast.

The SFX here are courtesy of Eiji Tsuburaya, who provided the same service to ‘The Invisible Man Appears’ (1949) and was head monster-wrangler for Toho until his death at the end of the 1960s. It appears there hadn’t been a huge amount of technical progress in the five years since the first film, but still the usual motifs are efficiently delivered. After all, where would we be without the floating cigarette and the sinking seat cushions? By this point, Tsuburaya was able to use his own name, having been forced to hide behind a corporate identity in the post-war years, due to his work for the defeated regime during the conflict.

Although no great shakes, this is pleasing production, assisted by its relative brief running time of 70 minutes. Further adventures for the Japanese version of the character followed in ‘Invisible Man Vs. Human Fly’ (1957).

The Invisible Man Appears/Tômei ningen arawaru (1949)

The Invisible Man Appears (1949)‘Gadzooks, it’s the cops! Let’s go!’

An elderly scientist has been working to perfect an invisibility formula for over ten years. His two best students are also tackling the problem, albeit from different angles, whilst they compete for the hand of his eldest daughter. Unfortunately, the naive professor makes the mistake of showing his research to a slimy businessman…

Apparently, Japan’s first science fiction movie, this serious-minded excursion into H. G. Wells territory is modelled after the Universal ‘Invisible Man’ series of the 1930s and early 1940s. One of the ‘unmasking’ scenes even bares a close resemblance to Claude Rains ‘unwrapping’ in the guest room of the pub in ‘The Invisible Man’ (1933) itself. We also get the usual round of floating cigarettes, sinking seat cushions and naked footprints appearing out of nowhere.

However, instead of the usual ‘mad scientist on the run’ plot, this story focuses more on the criminal possibilities afforded by invisibility, specifically the efforts of a gang of crooks to heist a priceless diamond necklace called ‘Amour Tears.’ Actually, with its skilful use of light and shadow and impressive black and white cinematography, the film often looks more like an American Film Noir than anything else. There’s also an element of mystery about the identity of the Invisible Man, which is unusual, even if the solution is not that hard to guess.

One of the notable facts about this production is the participation of Eiji Tsuburaya, who was in charge of the SFX. These are fairly slick, given the vintage of the film,  but still not quite as good as those delivered by Hollywood in previous years. Tsuburaya was actually blacklisted at the time, having worked with the governing regime during World War II, but he sidestepped the ban by forming his own company, which was credited rather than him. Five years later, he was instrumental in bringing ‘Godzilla, King of the Monsters’ (1954) to life and a long career followed as head of FX with Toho Studios and their stable of monsters. The only other familiar name is that of actor Shosaku Sugiyama, who appeared in ‘Daimajin’ (1966) for rival studio Daei. This folk tale featured a giant statue on the rampage in a coastal community and spawned two sequels.

The Invisible Man Appears (1949)

‘No one will recognise me with these sunglasses on…’

The film was quite a domestic hit and Japanese cinema returned to the character, if not this incarnation, on several occasions. Whether it can be successfully argued that this project paved the way for Japan’s science fiction bonanza of the 1950s is doubtful. This often plays far more like a crime picture with some fantastic trimmings than science fiction and it’s more likely that Japanese filmmakers were still taking their main inspiration from Hollywood rather than from their own recent cinematic history.

A sober and sometimes thoughtful thriller, which puts a slightly different slant on what is now an all-too familiar tale to modern audiences. It 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.