By the middle of the 1950s, the cycle of Universal monsters was well and truly expired, the brief flash of brilliance shown in The Creature from the Black Lagoon being extinguished in that film’s hackneyed sequels. Horror was out of fashion, and science fiction was interested in giant tarantulas and scorpions. But in Japan, there was still mileage to be wrung out of the venerable invisible man. In 1954, some five years or so after the release of Daiei’s Invisible Man Appears, director Motoyoshi Oda made The Invisible Man (Tomei ningen). Oda apprenticed under Kajiro Yamamoto along with Akira Kurosawa and Ishirō Honda. During the war, Oda remained in Japan and became a go-to director for competently made but quickly dashed-off filler to keep the industry afloat during the years of conflict. His career as a workhorse meant he never achieved the acclaim of fellow apprentices Honda and Kurosawa, but he also never hurt for work. In 1954 and ’55, he enjoyed his two highest profile films: Invisible Man and Godzilla Raids Again (aka Gigantis the Fire Monster and Gojira no gyakushû), Toho’s cheap, rushed (but not unentertaining) sequel to surprise sensation Gojira. Invisible Man seems just as cheap and rushed, but it is unentertaining, a film consisting mostly of endless padding, dull conversations, and characters who only qualify as being referred to as characters because what else are you going to call them?
Things start off promising enough as a car on a busy Tokyo street collides with something no one can see. As the gathering crowd tries to puzzle out what just happened, one of them noticed blood appearing on the asphalt followed by, amazingly, a dead, naked mad fading into view. In a note, the no longer invisible man explains that he can’t take it anymore and is committing suicide, but that society should be wary; there is another invisible man out there. And that’s pretty much all of the invisible man action for the next forty-five minutes, as the film settles into a monotonous crime drama about Ginza mobster Yajima (Minoru Takada, who had a long career before this film and after, when he specialized in small roles as various authority figures in films like Battle in Outer Space, Atragon, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, and the two thoroughly strange Starman movies), who runs the local cabaret and, in his spare times, dabbles in drug smuggling. Middling thug Ken (Kenjirô Uemura, Human Condition Part II and Gate of Hell) wants to use one of the club’s singers, Michiyo (Miki Sanjô, from Kon Ichikawa’s 1983 adaptation of The Makioka Sisters) as a mule, but she’s less enthusiastic about the idea. Jus as Ken is finding his sleazy thug groove and slapping Michiyo around, in walks a sad clown, interrupting the intimidation. The clown is Takamitsu Nanjô (Seizaburô Kawazu, a bit player from films as varied as Yojimbo, Snake Woman’s Curse, and New Tale of Zatoichi). Oh, he’s also the invisible man.
Or rather, he would be the invisible man except he spends pretty much the entire film in his sad Pagliaccio costume. Part of the time, it theoretically makes sense, as his modest form of employment is walking around in the get-up carrying a sign promoting the club. Never mind why a sexy cabaret would have a mopey clown as their street level promotor. But Nanjô remains in the clown costume even when he’s off the clock, sulking around his apartment building in it and not obviously thankful enough that he lives in a building full of people who don’t think he’s a total creep for wearing a clown costume 24/7. Of course, the viewer knows it’s because he’s invisible under the make-up (though this movie forgets about the mouth and eyes, which is why previous invisible men always covered their mouths and wore sunglasses), but one who isn’t privy to that information could be forgiven for not wanting to associate with this sad sack who lumbers around gussied up in full clown make-up all the time and whose only friend in the world is a little blind girl who lives next door.
When news of the invisible man spreads across town, Yajima hatches a scheme to capitalize on the warning that another invisible man is out there. He dresses his gang up in the iconic Claude Raines style overcoat and face bandages and has them rob banks and race tracks while claiming to be invisible men themselves. The logic of this ruse is, well, there is no logic to it. Being an invisible man has pretty much one and only one advantage when it comes to pulling a bank job, and that’s being invisible. If you bust in fully clothed and clearly visible, merely shouting that you are an invisible man, it sort of undercuts the edge being invisible would give you during a heist. It’s like yelling that you have the strength of Superman while doing curls with a five-pound dumbbell. Luckily for the clearly visible gang of invisible men, Tokyo seems in a forgiving mood and just accepts that they’re invisible while clearly seeing them. The only guy who harbors any inquisitive spirit is news reporter Komatsu (Yoshio Tsuchiya, who played small parts in quite a few Akira Kurosawa films as well as appearing in Toho scifi fare like Matango, The H-Man, Battle in Outer Space, and The Mysterians, where he played the leader of the alien invaders, albeit under a face-obscuring helmet; similarly, he was the leader of controller of Planet X in Godzilla vs Monster Zero). He begins investigating the invisible man case and before too long is on the trail of Nanjô the sad clown of life.
When the gang kills the little blind girl’s grandfather during some typical “down at the docks” gangland shenanigans, Nanjô is finally angry enough to remove his clown make-up and fuzzy ball hat and get down to some serious invisible manning. This means the film delivers only its second invisibility effect at roughly the 45 minute mark, with the film more than half way over and with nothing in between but some very dull talk and a clown walking around with a sign. Even Universal’s Invisible Man series quickly moved from horror and science fiction to something more like crime films. Invisible Man Appears retained some elements of science fiction but was largely a crime drama. This Invisible Man dispenses entirely with any attempt at all to be science fiction or horror, playing entirely like a melodrama with some elements of a gangster film thrown in to give it a reason for happening. Nanjô’s transformation into an invisible man is told to the audience in a couple of lines of dialogue, depriving viewers of the previously de rigueur scene of a guy drinking a formula from a test tube. Motoyoshi Oda tries to pad things out with several cabaret numbers, but other than the high energy opening song and slinky dance, most of the numbers are as boring as everything else that drags this film out to a barely passable feature-length run time that feels much longer than its actual 70 minutes. The back third of the film is an improvement over the first 45 minutes, but only barely.
Eiji Tsuburaya returns from Invisible Man Appears to do the special effects for this film, but they are, as noted, very few and far between. We eventually get the requisite undressing scene and some floating objects and, of course, the invisible man playing a few bars of a piano and having his footprints appear in sand, but that’s about it. There is a scene of the invisible man riding a moped, but that effect is undone by the too-obvious training wheels and tow cable. The rest is just people talking to a nonexistent actor or pantomiming getting punched by an invisible man. The lack of effects probably has to do with the fact that film was a B-picture programmer filmed on a very tight schedule and budget, but it also probably has to do with the fact that Tsuburaya was pulling double duty on this one, working on the (scant) special effects while also working as the film’s cinematographer. Eiji Tsuburaya the cinematographer fares better than Eiji Tsuburaya the effects pioneer in this outing. In fact, the one thing to recommend in Invisible Man is Tsuburaya’s photography. It’s not particularly inventive, but he does capture a lot of mid-century Tokyo color. Much of the film was shot on the actual streets of the Ginza neighborhood, so as a window into the daily bustle of Tokyo at the time, it’s interesting. The scenes in the cabaret are there mostly to pad the film out to an acceptable number of minutes, but at least one of the numbers is pretty good (this film has substantially fewer special effects than Invisible Man Appears but tries to make up for it by including more bikini-clad dancing girls, as well as a little bit of light bondage when the invisible man has to rescue one of the girls from the gangsters).
Invisible Man Appears proved that such a film could be cheap and fun. Invisible Man proves that such a film can be cheap and boring. For die-hard fans of Japanese cinema, it’s a little bit interesting to see so many Toho bit players getting to step up into lead roles. Unfortunately, the script gives most of them very little to do. Seizaburô Kawazu is a non-entity as Nanjô the invisible man who spends most of the film as a clown with an immobile hangdog expression. Why make your invisible man visible for so much of he film but then have him be so expressionless and dull? It’s possible that the film was attempting to make a point about the state of Japan — and Japanese veterans in particular, given what is revealed about how Nanjô becomes invisible — by having Nanjô drift through modern post-war Japan as either an invisible man or a clown, but intending something is not the same as achieving it effectively, and whatever the intention was behind Nanjô, nothing changes the fact that he’s a paper-thin character that never captures one’s attention. It’s no mystery why he never became a marquee name at Toho, though like most of the cast in this film, he had a long and busy career that included appearances in most of the studio’s 1960s science fiction fare
The one actor who fares best in Invisible Man is Yoshio Tsuchiya as the reporter. His is the only role that is relatively well written (the gangsters don’t appear often enough, but they’re fine when they do), and it’s nice to see him in something approaching a lead (given what a wet blanket Nanjô is, this is arguably the reporter’s film). A man who studied to be a doctor and whose father instilled in him a love of Shakespeare, Tsuchiya never showed much interest in entering the motion picture business but was persuaded to go for an audition by none other than Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa loved him (though never enough to cast him as a lead), and Tsuchiya, after appearing as the farmer Rikichi in Seven Samurai, went on to appear almost every Kurosawa film during the 1950s and ’60s. He was also a mainstay of Toho’s genre-defining science fiction films, beginning with Invisible Man (the studio’s second science fiction outing, even if it has hardly any science fiction in it). Starting with 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again, he appeared in five Godzilla films, his last one being 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah. Although never a star, he was one of Toho’s hardest working and most dependable players, and you’d be hard pressed to watch one of their samurai or science fiction films and not catch at least a glimpse of him.
The other thing that might make Invisible Man of interest to fans and historians of Japanese genre cinema is that not only does it star the eventual leader of Godzilla’s Planet X in Yoshio Tsuchiya, and not only was its director of photography Eiji Tsuburaya, the man who single-handedly created the Japanese special effects film with Gojira. But the actor who plays the invisible man who commits suicide during the film’s opening was a guy by the name of Haruo Nakajima. He might not be a familiar face, but if that’s so it’s only because he’s famous for what he did with his face obscured. Starting with the original and reprising the role throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Nakajima was the man inside the Godzilla costume.
Alas, other than a chance to see the background and bit players of Toho get a movie all to themselves, and perhaps get a glimpse at some nice period street scenes, there’s precious little reason to watch Invisible Man. In every way, it’s a step backward from its fun, effects-filled predecessor at Daiei Studios, Invisible Man Appears. With little money and little time, Motoyoshi Oda does his best to cobble together a passable film but just doesn’t have the talent to pull it off. Given how little interest Toho seemed to have in the invisible man in their invisible man film called Invisible Man, one would think that this movie got it out of their system, especially since they were about to go on one of the greatest winning streaks in the history of science fiction cinema. With success after success in the Godzilla franchise, other giant monster movies, and their space invasion films, why bother revisiting a “monster” whose best days were far in the past? Well, something must have kept someone at Toho interested in the concept, because they had at least one more in them, the variation on the invisible man theme The Human Vapor, released in 1960. But there was one more straightforward invisible man film to be made before that, and this time the ball had been served back to Daiei. In 1957 they decided to give the invisible man another go, this time with a bigger budget, a more authentic science fiction feel (including theremin music), and a title as lurid and enticing as what American International was dreaming up in the States: Tômei ningen to hae otoko, aka Invisible Man vs. the Human Fly.