The Universal monsters were well and truly over by 1957. The final shot fired by Universal was the campy 1956 clunker The Creature Walks Among Us, a sad last gasp from their last surviving monster franchise. The Invisible Man hadn’t been seen for years outside of Japan, where he’d last appeared (so to speak) in Toho’s 1954 misfire Invisible Man. Horror in the United States had given way to a hybrid of horror and science fiction that manifested primarily in the form of irradiated giant monsters. When straight horror did get made was largely the purview of small, independent producers aiming for a teenage drive-in crowd. Horror was about to receive a much needed transfusion courtesy of Hammer Studios in England (with American International Pictures following hot on their heels), but while the coming wave of Hammer Horror would include Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and even the Wolf Man, they never got around to making an Invisible Man movie (though plans had been made). It seemed by 1957, the only people who might be interested in the Invisible Man were producers of nudie cutie movies. Well, them and Japan.
Eight years after they pioneered the Japanese science fiction film with Invisible Man Appears, Daiei decided to give him another go. The studio had been relatively inactive on the science fiction front in the interim, but they’d emerged as one of the preeminent houses for more respectable fare, starting more or less with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon in 1950. That film kicked off a golden age of international acclaim for Daiei productions that included Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell and Kenzi Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu. They made several ghost stories between 1949 and 1957, but their only science fiction film during that period was the strange, apocalyptic Warning from Space, released in 1956. The itch must have been growing to get back into the science fiction game, though. Toho was on a tear, the success of Gojira having paved the way for a steady stream of science fiction movies from that studio. Although never the measure of Toho’s science ficiton and kaiju empire, Daiei eventually developed their own franchise kaiju with the release of Daikaijû Gamera in 1965, beginning a series that would yield six films between 1965 and 1971 then get resurrected in the 1990s. In the years before Gamera, Daiei was still searching, and although Warning from Space was a bizarre and compelling film, it wasn’t the sort of thing one could turn into a series. But the invisible man? He was proven franchise material, albeit a franchise from another country and a couple decades earlier.
The question was how to go about it without just repeating what they’d done in 1949’s Invisible Man Appears. Once again, Universal provided the template. When creativity and budgets were flagging, Universal propped up their classic monsters by pitting them against one another in nutty free-for-alls that might have been short on the polish, chills, and artistry of the originals but tried to make up for it with novelty, action, and the sheer fun of seeing the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s smash up a castle as they fought one another. The Invisible Man hadn’t been a part of those monster team-ups, his sole venture into such a realm pitting him against comedians Abbott and Costello. Similarly, Toho followed up the success of Godzilla by pitting their star monster against other monsters, starting with Anguirus in 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again (directed by Motoyoshi Oda, who also directed Toho’s Invisible Man). Daiei had no history of werewolf, vampire, or mummy movies, and while it might have been cool to watch the invisible man square off against a traditional Japanese spirit or yokai the likes of which had been appearing in the studio’s ghost films, in the end it was obvious that the only fitting opponent for an invisible man is the invisible man’s natural enemy: a really tiny flying hitman. Thus was born Invisible Man vs. the Human Fly.
The film opens with an impossible murder aboard an airplane. A man walks into the bathroom alone and is discovered, moments later, dead from stab wounds. No one saw anyone enter the bathroom with the victim nor leave it. This murder is just the opening salvo in a killing spree, all of the dastardly deeds committed under similarly impossible circumstances. Assigned to the case is Tokyo police inspector Wakabayashi (Yoshirô Kitahara, who was in just about all the Gamera movies but never in the same role), who jokes that the only solution he can see involves the murderer being invisible. This offhand joke is taken seriously by Dr. Tsukioka (Ryûji Shinagawa), who has been working on a cosmic ray project with a local mad scientist and discovered one of the byproducts of their research is a ray that can render objects invisible. Tsukioka’s lab partner Sugimoto (Jôji Tsurumi) is enthusiastic that the invisibility ray could aid the police in their investigations, but Tsukioka is quick to caution that they’ve not perfected a way to reverse the invisibility effect without riddling the subject with cancer. This doesn’t stop Sugimoto from idiotically trying the ray out on himself, though he protects his head and hands so that the movie can show us some scenes of just his head floating around.
Meanwhile, the murders continue, and it doesn’t seem like invisibility is the explanation. Instead, tininess is the explanation. The murderer, we soon learn, possesses the ability to shrink down to the size of a fly, allowing him ingress to all sorts of seemingly inaccessible locations where he can grow back to normal size, commit his heinous act, then shrink back down to make his escape unseen by anyone around him who didn’t notice a full-sized guy throwing down a test tube full of smoking vapor then inhaling it and shrinking down to the size of an insect. As the corpses pile up and terror grips Tokyo, Wakabayashi struggles to solve the crimes, grasping at ever more outlandish scenarios until he hits upon “perhaps it’s a very tiny murderer who can also fly.” Once he’s hit upon this astounding conclusion, he decides the only way an honest cop could possibly catch a murderous human the size of a fly is to use the invisibility ray, cancer be damned. Exactly how being invisible gives you an advantage over a tiny little flying murderer is of no real concern to Wakabayashi. Citing the whole “you will be invisible forever or die of instant cancer” side effect, Tsukioka regretfully refuses to let the desperate inspector use the invisibility ray. However, when word of the invisibility ray leaks out, the sinister forces behind the human fly decide they want it as well, forcing Tsukioka to consider using the ray on himself in order to combat this diminutive menace.
Invisible Man vs. the Human Fly predates the American B-movie horror classic The Fly by several months, and the fly in Daiei’s film is nothing like the one in 20th Century Fox’s film. Daiei’s film is much less grotesque in its handling of its titular human fly, preferring to imagine him as just a regular contract killer who develops a heroin-like addiction to the gas that turns him tiny, making him the willing pawn of the seedy businessman who controls the supply of the drug. Like Toho’s Invisible Man, the invisibility formula is the result of experiments conducted during the war and the invisible man is a good guy. He’s also not very interesting. Screenwriter Hajime Takaiwa (who went on to write a bunch of films in the Shinobi No Mono and Sleepy Eyes of Death series, both starring Raizo Ichikawa) seems to realize an invisible man doesn’t have the greatest screen presence. In a battle between a fly-size hitman and an invisible guy, the fly-sized hitman provides a lot more potential in terms of story as well as special effects. As a result, this film hardly seems interested at all in any of its invisible people. The idiot lab assistant who renders himself partially invisible is a one-off who plays no real role in the film other than to eat a banana. When Tsukioka finally decides to render himself invisible, it happens when more than half the movie is already over. Even then he has limited screen time. There’s not even an undressing or “unraveling the head bandages” scene, since this particular method of making someone invisible does the same for their clothes, baggy suit, fedora, and all.
Instead, the bulk of the film is taken up by detective Wakabayashi and his team always being one step behind the human fly. Said human fly is initially represented in the film as nothing more than a mysterious buzzing before someone drops dead, but once the film reveals him for the first time there’s no reticence about showing him again and again. The effect is achieved by simple superimposition, which means any time he’s on screen, the human fly is semi-transparent and only vaguely integrated into the scene around him. The best bit of this is when he lasciviously prowls around the bare midriff of busty cabaret dancer Meiko, played by B-movie bombshell Ikuko Môri. It also means that depending on the care put into any one scene, the human fly looks to be the size of anything between a fly and a bottle of beer. As to why he can fly, that’s explained away by a bit of well-researched hard science consisting of reasoning along the lines of, “A human who is small enough? Well, of course they’d be able to float around.” The diminutive flying man effects culminate in the human fly’s meandering flight from the cops, during which a tiny figure is propelled around a room. But that’s neither here nor there, especially once the human fly escalates his reign of terror from knocking off a few people to holding the entire city hostage with a mad bomber scheme that sees the film go full “tiny kaiju,” complete with legions of soldiers and equipment deploying, panicked citizens, and exploding miniatures.
Invisible Man vs the Human Fly was the first film for director Mitsuo Murayama, whose career was cut short when he passed away in 1977 at the age of 57. If one comes in looking for horror or monster action, one is going to be somewhat disappointed regardless of what sort of job Murayama does directing it. But taken for what it is — a supremely weird police procedural with a dollop of science fiction — Murayama’s oddball little movie is a lot of fun. He keeps it moving at a good pace with an able cast that never acknowledges how absurd the whole thing is. Working with cinematographer Hiroshi Murai, Murayama turns in a film that looks a lot more accomplished than its presumably low budget probably should have allowed. It follows the lead of Toho’s Invisible Man not just by making the invisible man a good guy but also by padding out its run time with saucy cabaret numbers. As these numbers are built around Ikuko Môri (in her first role here, but soon to become a regular in the Zatoichi series as well as the lead in 1958’s White Snake Woman and a prominent part in Daiei’s very enjoyable Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare, in which she plays a long-necked woman), they are most welcome. Plus, as clumsy as the human fly effects might be, they are also charming, and they’re certainly plentiful.
1957 was a major year for Japanese cinema. Nikkatsu released the first of their “Sun Tribe” films (produced by Invisible Man Appears co-star Takiko Mizunoe), which in turn led directly to the creation of “Borderless Action” films and young stars like Yujiro Ishihara and Akira Kobayashi. As was happening in the United States with American International Pictures and would, in a couple years, happen in London on Carnaby Street, the market was pivoting away from the two-party system of “stuff for grown ups and stuff for children” and beginning to pay attention to a new demographic of consumers that had arisen since the end of the Second World War: teenagers and twenty-somethings. In previous decades, youths in the teens and twenties would have probably been toiling away in the factories or on the farm (regardless of whether they were in the United States, Japan, or England) and either supporting a family of their own or contributing their wages to a familial pot to help them make ends meet. That changed in the 1950s, and the youth market suddenly had some cash they wanted to spend.
Thus the rise of the malt shop, of rock and roll, of car culture, and the drive-in movie. American International started making movies that would appeal explicitly to teens. Japan might not have had drive-in movie theaters, but they did have an emerging post-war youth culture that had grown up largely on American films and was looking to rebel against the generation that had led the world to war. While this sort of youth culture film would find it’s spiritual home at Nikkatsu, Daiei’s ridiculous Invisible Man vs the Human Fly is pure drive-in movie material, right down to the cheap titillation of its cabaret numbers and the endearingly ludicrous human fly special effects. If you swapped out Mitsuo Murayama’s name for Roger Corman and released it to the drive-in circuit on a double bill with Horrors of Spider Island or Mesa of Lost Women, no one would bat an eye. In fact, AIP (where Corman did much of his work as a director and producer) later became one of the primary forces behind dubbing Japanese genre films and releasing them in the United States. To have this much strangeness grafted onto an otherwise straight-forward cops and criminals film makes for pretty entertaining cinema. But not entertaining enough for Daiei to sink more money into more invisible man or human fly films meaning, sadly, we never got anything like Zatoichi Meets the Human Fly.