1933’s The Invisible Man was one of the early cycle horror films that helped establish Universal as the go-to studio for chilling fare. They were, at the time, locked in a head-to-head battle with rival studio Paramount, who around the same time was already pushing the envelope of what the newly enforced “Hays Code” would allow a horror film to get away with (the Code had been in place for a while but was rarely enforced; that began to change in the 1930s). Paramount produced a number of controversial horror classics during the early years of the 1930s, including Island of Lost Souls, Murders in the Zoo, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Supernatural. While each of these films earned its place in horror history, none of them developed the same iconic status as Universal’s big three of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, as well as the godfather of Universal horror, 1925’s silent classic The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney. Measured against those films, The Invisible Man was sort of a determined second stringer, though over the years it has remained in the canon of classic Universal horror, joined by later cycle films The Wolf Man (1941) and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (a latecomer in 1954).
By 1949, the Invisible Man had all but vanished. But 1949 is the year in which Japanese director Nobuo Adachi made Invisible Man Appears (Tômei ningen arawaru) for Daiei Studios. The heyday of the iconic Universal monsters was over, and the studio was pitting it’s classic creatures against Abbot and Costello (they would meet the Invisible Man in 1951). The last legitimate film in the Invisible Man series had been 1944’s The Invisible Man’s Revenge. This Japanese entry into the sweepstakes might not have been an official part of the series, but it certainly holds its own against Universal’s films, and in fact is a sight better than most of the official Invisible Man sequels (which included The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman, Invisible Agent, and The Invisible Man’s Revenge). Adachi’s Invisible Man Appears is, like some of the Universal sequels, more of a crime drama than it is a horror or science fiction film, though there are enough beakers and wild white Albert Einstein hair to give it a reasonable claim to the honor of being Japan’s first known science fiction film (though not it’s first horror film; like everyone, the Japanese had been making horror films since the silent era; plus, there’s not much horror in Invisible Man Appears, which looks more toward Universal’s The Invisible Man’s Revenge, itself more a heist than horror film).
Friendly science rivals Segi (Daijirô Natsukawa) and Kurokawa (Kanji Koshiba) are both working on away to turn things invisible. They are also romantic rivals for the affections of Machiko (Chizuru Kitagawa, the excellent samurai drama A Bloody Spear on Mt. Fuji), the daughter of their employer, Dr. Nakazato (Ryûnosuke Tsukigata, also in A Bloody Spear on Mt. Fuji as well as Aira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata and the enticing sounding A Horde of Drunken Knights). Unbeknownst to his research assistants, Nakazato has already figured out how to turn things invisible and has tested his miraculous formula on a variety of animals. He has hesitated to test it on a human, however, since he has yet to figure out how to turn invisible objects visible again, and because the formula ends, after a few days, to turn the subject increasingly violent and irrational. Still, showcasing a moment of bad judgment, the scientist reveals his discovery to shady businessman Kawabe (Shôsaku Sugiyama, who popped up frequently in a number of Daiei series, including several Zatoichi films, one of Raizo Ichikawa’s Nemuri Kyôshirô films, Sleepy Eyes of Death: Sword of Seduction, and the first Majin movie). Kawabe instantly sees dollar signs, but Nakazato refuses to sell him the formula, fearing what could be done with it in the wrong hands, and also because of that whole going insane thing it causes.
Kawabe, not one to be deterred by morality or prudent scientific caution, decides to shanghai the professor, steal the formula, and con some poor schmuck into being an unwitting test subject. After all, he has plans for the formula. Incredibly specific, focused, small scale plans. There’s a diamond necklace he wants. Nothing else, just this one very famous, easily identified diamond necklace that would almost certainly be impossible to fence. Any other potential heist, the combined yields of which could be millions of yen, never crosses Kawabe’s mind, so focused is he and his gang on this one necklace. While perhaps not the most creative would-be criminal mastermind, Kawabe is still no dummy. He’s not willing to test the professor’s invisibility formula on himself. Nor is he willing to sacrifice one of his loyal henchmen, since they’re much handier as fodder for bullets. Instead, Kawabe devises the most complicated way to achieve what should be, even for an untalented amateur, a very simple heist for someone who counts an invisible man among their ranks.
Before too long, an invisible man, complete with Claude Raines style bandages and sunglasses in some scenes, starts popping up at the jewelry store where the necklace’ owner first tried to sell it. Demonstrating his frightful power to not be seen (and some pretty good special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, who would go on a couple years later to cement his place in cinema history with his work on Gojira), the invisible man — who claims to be Professor Nakazato in a ruse so transparent (ha) that it’s surprising anyone falls for it — demands the location of the necklace. Despite his powers of invisibility, the invisible man is shockingly inept as a thief, failing time and again to acquire the necklace and never giving up on it in favor of chasing some other type of loot. Meanwhile, Machiko and Segi race to solve the mystery of the invisible man, the kidnapping of the professor, and the subsequent disappearance of Segi’s lab partner Kurokawa.
Invisible Man Appears is a solid, competent slice of cops ‘n’ robbers entertainment with the addition of a few science fiction elements in the form of the invisible man. Director Nobuo Adachi has a deep bag of tricks that keep things interesting, from silent film era dissolves and wipes to use of handheld and point of view cameras to, of course, a bunch of special effects. It maintains a quick pace, though at times the mysterious invisible man’s attempts to steal the necklace start to feel repetitive. There’s little mystery behind the mystery (the true identity of the invisible man is revealed about halfway through the film and is exactly who you expect him to be), but it’s still fun thanks to spry direction and a good cast of performers. The Daiei crew was less famous internationally than the stars at Toho, Toei, and later Nikkatsu, but they were an able bunch. Particularly interesting in the cast is Takiko Mizunoe, who has a supporting role as Kurokawa’s sister, Ryûko. Although a limited role, hers is substantially more memorable than that of the ostensible leading lady Chizuru Kitagawa. Playing the actress sister of Kurokawa, Mizunoe towers over most of her co-stars and spends the film clad in a stunning array of outfits (mostly adaptations of men’s attire) and looking someone on her way to a party with Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. She began her career on stage, often playing male roles (as was common at the time). Later, as she transitioned from stage to screen, she maintained a cool, modern, but controversial style as a cross-dresser, keeping her hair short and often wearing men’s suits. She cut a natty image, glamorous and challenging in the way many actresses of the 1920s and early 1930s had challenged conventions of feminine behavior and attire. She was also a labor organizer, rallying stage performers to protest for better wages and working conditions (for which she was arrested), a life-long bachelorette, and an outspoken feminist.
Her career as a film actress was brief, but her involvement in film far outlasted her handful of screen roles. Takiko Mizunoe went on to become the first female film producers in Japan, finding a niche for herself at Nikkatsu when it reopened. Nikkatsu was Japan’s oldest film studio but had been shuttered during the war, surviving on its chain of theaters while its film production business and equipment was subsumed in a deal largely brokered (much to Nikkatsu’s displeasure) by Daiei. When Nikkatsu decided to get back into the game in 1954, they found a willing stable of experienced filmmakers ready to jump ship from, primarily, Daiei and Shikoku when Nikkatsu promised them much more creative freedom and a chance for advancement. Among the people who joined the brash new company was Takiko Mizunoe. Her first two films as a producer were Hatsukoi kanariya musume and Midori harukani, directed by Inoue Umetsugu, who went on to great acclaim directing candy-colored musicals and spy films both at Nikkatsu and at the Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong; and starring Ruriko Asaoka in her screen debut. Asaoka would go on to become the female star at Nikkatsu during its golden years. Both films were released in 1955. The following year, Mizunoe changed the face of Nikkatsu films and Japanese cinema in general when she produced Season of the Sun, the first of the Taiyozoku or “Sun Tribe” movies that dwelled on and were aimed at Japan’s modern post-war youth.
Based on a novel by future Tokyo mayor and political lightning rod Shintarô Ishihara, Season of the Sun (Taiyo no kisetsu) was controversial for its frank depiction of jaded, self-indulgent Japanese youths idling away their lives at beaches, in bars, on the dance floor, and at local boxing gyms along Japan’s coast. The old guard was indignant over this depiction of Japanese culture. Predictably, where the old guard is outraged, the young bloods are enthusiastic. This was the first time Japanese cinema had offered something besides movies for adults or children, the first time someone had looked toward teens and twenty-somethings and tapped into the sense of alienation and independence that had arisen among them in the early post-war period. Season of the Sun became more than a film. It became a sensation, a cultural touchstone that reoriented Japanese culture (or at least a portion of it) toward youth, in much the same way as was happening in the United States and, a few years later, Swinging London. It spawned an entire (though short-lived) genre, and hand at the tiller was the “cross-dressed fair lady” Takiko Mizunoe. She went on to produce several more defining films for Nikkatsu, including Crazed Fruit, another Sun Tribe film built around a minor actor in Season of the Sun, Shintarô Ishihara’s lanky younger brother Yujiro.
Yujiro Ishihara rocketed to stardom, becoming Nikkatsu’s most bankable superstar. Around his fame, and out of the ashes of the Sun Tribe films (which, like Icarus, flew too close to the sun and got burned, this time by censors and watchdog groups), grew Nikkatsu’s signature “borderless action” style modeled primarily on a combination of American film noir and “youth gone wild” movies and French crime films. Mizunoe built the Sun Tribe films, and now she was again at the center of a craze that wold sweep Japan. She produced several of Nikkatsu’s best and most successful Borderless Action films, including I Am Waiting (1957), Red Pier (1958, a remake of the French crime classic Pepe Le Moko), and Rusty Knife (1958), all starring Yujiro Ishihara and another of Nikkatsu’s emerging leading ladies, Mie Kitahara, who had also been in Crazed Fruit and would become one of Ishihara’s most frequent co-stars. Mizunoe also produced I Hate But Love in 1962, a pairing of Ishihara and Ruriko Asaoka directed by one of the great mavericks of Japanese cinema, Koreyoshi Kurahara. Her last film at Nikkatsu, produced in 1967, was Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill.
The other most interesting name associated with Invisible Man Appears is its effects supervisor, Eiji Tsuburaya. Tsuburaya’s name would become synonymous with Japanese special effects films. The FX house he started, Tsuburaya Productions, remains active to this day. Compared to what he would accomplish a few laters with Ishirō Honda on Gojira, Invisible Man Appears is a showcase of modest but inventive effects. The wonders of an invisible man film were well established by this time. Audiences expected to see the invisible man undress, revealing nothing underneath his layers of clothes. They expected to see object move around, doors open and close, things like that. The invisible man almost always has to drive a vehicle and smoke a cigarette. Tsuburaya delivers all of the above and then some, and most of them are realized in a believable fashion. His “undressing” and “floating objects” scenes are substantially better than, say, the scenes in which actors are pantomiming fights with the invisible man, which mostly involve the actors clutching at their own lapels. Invisible Man Appears was his first science fiction film. Since, arguably, it was Japan’s first science fiction film period, it would mean Eiji Tsuburaya had, fittingly, been there the day Japanese scifi launched.
The script by Nobuo Adachi, based on a story by crime fiction writer Akimitsu Takagi, is something of a threadbare affair, most of its shortcomings manifesting in the fact that this gang of criminals has an invisible man at their disposal and can’t seem to think of anything to use him for than trying to steal this one necklace, a heist that, even as they focus on it exclusively, they can’t pull off. One can’t help but enumerate the sundry ways in which the invisible man could have lifted the diamonds without breaking so much as invisible sweat. There’s also the fact that this invisible man pretty much undermines his one skill — being invisible — by walking into a room and loudly laughing and announcing that he has arrived. Had he just hung out over by the curtains and kept quiet, he could have stolen the necklace on his first outing, but that’s not as much fun, one supposes, as laughing loudly and doing the dramatic “undress to reveal I am not there” routine that all invisible men love so dearly.
Chizuru Kitagawa and Daijirô Natsukawa are both wooden as the pair of lovers caught up in this crazy plot. Kitagawa in particular is saddled with a hapless role that demands she alternate between meekly agreeing to a “marriage off” competition between her two suitors and being a helpless damsel in distress. Luckily, Takiko Mizunoe and Shôsaku Sugiyama are on hand to liven things up. As the transparently (ha) villainous Kawabe, Sugiyama gets to devour scenery. And given her off-screen style and history, it’s no surprise that Takiko Mizunoe turns in a more credible and far less “damsel in distress” performance than Chizuru Kitagawa. Mizunoe’s Ryûko, besides looking fabulous, gets into the thick of things, laying traps for the invisible man and, during the film’s finale, mounting her own rescue operation at Kawabe’s serial villain-style seaside retreat/dungeon. She’s a peach, and there’s a reason why, despite her relatively small (if pivotal) role, many articles about Invisible Man Returns end up writing mostly about Takiko Mizunoe.
Despite being a reasonably fun blend of light science fiction and heist film, Invisible Man Appears didn’t inspire Daiei to launch an Invisible Man franchise a la Universal Studio. Eiji Tsuburaya would soon go to work for rival studio Toho and there would build a special effects tradition to rival Ray Harryhausen in the United States, built on the twin pillars of his work on Godzilla fils in the 1950s and ’60s, and later on television with the Ultraman series. Daiei didn’t entirely abandon science fiction however. In the wake of Gojira’s success, Daiei sought to come up with their own kaiju series. Their creation was Gamera, and if never the measure of Godzilla, it certainly proved a lucrative and iconic series in its own right. Daiei also concentrated on the very lucrative and long-running Zatoichi films starring Shintaro Katsu and, in a bid for a second giant monster series, produced three Majin films about a giant stone god that comes to life and stomps on medieval villages and evil samurai warlords. And while Daiei might have been finished with the invisible man, Japan wasn’t. Like Eiji Tsuburaya, the invisible man appeared at a new home: Toho Studios.