Thursday, November 21, 2013

(Some of) my assorted thoughts on The H-Man (dir. Ishirō Honda; Toho Co. Ltd., 1958) ...

Thanks to the copy in my elementary school’s library of Godzilla by Ian Thorne (Crestwood House, 1977), I spent a good couple years of my childhood pining to see the dozen-plus – if you will – kaiju movies therein accounted for. It was the pre-DVD, pre-Internet era, and I was 10 and growing up in a rural locale, so to me, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster and Destroy All Monsters were painfully unattainable and thus my expectations of them all the ore aggrandized.

Twenty-plus years later, and thanks to advances in both mass consumer technology and personal autonomy, these movies – and related and/or similar movies – are far more accessible. In fact, my palette has extended beyond not just Godzilla (or, for the purists, Gojira) movies, and not just Shōwa-era kaiju Toho movies in general, but to NON-kaiju Shōwa-era sci-fi Toho movies … like, for example, The H-Man ( ... as it's known in the U.S., where the English dub was first released in 1959. Though the original Japanese title translates to Beauty and the Liquid Men, the 2009 U.S. DVD release of the original Japanese version still bills it as The H-Man.)

… actually, for a good while, I didn’t feel as though I were watching a sci-fi film, and  in the end, wish I’d been right. Yes, the title sequence  -- with its ceremonial imagery of hulking ships at sea, a blackened sky cast over them as they’re subjected to the mercy of a roaring storm – and close-ups of newspaper headlines declaring a Bermuda Triangle-like scenario – really, really wants the audience to know that something mysterious and supernatural has gone on and/or is still going on, and wants you to feel scared and intrigued about it. And in the subsequent scene, when an apparent bank robber seems to vanish out of thin air, leaving all of his clothing behind, I’m pretty sure that I was supposed to be thinking, “Woah, what’s going on here?! I must keep watching, to see the resolution to this mystery?” But I was actually thinking, “Hmm, because of the limited special effects, the editing renders things vaguer than I think they were meant to be, so it’s a little confusing as to what we’re supposed to find confusing.”

Like the original Gojira -- also Honda-directed -- from four years earlier, The H-Man is a story of horror wrought by nuclear testing. It’s obvious why this theme and perspective would be recurring and dominant in Japanese films … not just 10-15 years after World War II, but as late as Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990). And while Toho and Honda pioneered the monster movie-as-allegory-for-nuclear devastation subgenre, in other respects, they were not possessed of an “original voice” or a “singular vision”. Even as a kid, I noticed that the “humans”-centered plotlines (which actually make up, on average, 75% of each one) in Godzilla movies seemed to mimic American movies: e.g., the James Bond-esque elements in 1966's Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster; the android-from-the-future-on-a-mission-to-alter-the-course-of-history Terminator knockoff in 1991's Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah. Those movies, though, were following contemporary – if cross-continental – trends. The H-Man is quite another case: with its heavy crime-mobs elements, and especially taking into account the scenes set in a seedy, smoky jazz nightclub, one would think that it had taken 25-30 years for `30’s gangster movies to be imported across the Pacific.

(By the way, there’s a team of about four or five policemen and detectives, including the highest-ranking one, who don’t really need to all be there. Sometimes, one or two are missing. Other times, they’re all present. It seems like two or at most three characters are stretched out across five, for no discernible reason.)

Now, I don’t mean that derisively: I happen to like procedural detective/crime narratives. Coincidentally, the premise anticipates The X-Files by over 30 years: an obsessive, solitary professional – in this case, a scientist – is convinced that the answer to an unsolved crime is supernatural in nature, but all concerned law enforcement personnel – and pretty much everyone else, period – believe that his ideas are baseless and fantastical. But it’s just not that character dynamic that resembles X-Files; they take a similar procedural approach, rather than a fantastical one, keeping the ghosts, monsters, or what have you elusive. As far as U.S. antecedents, from my limited knowledge, I can think of the early `40’s horror movies of Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton, in the sense that they were worldly and very restrained about showing anything sensational.

The anti-hero (the contrarian scientist) forming an alliance and romance with the misunderstood, in-a-bad-spot bad girl heroine has a distinctly American flavor to it, though I can’t pinpoint specific influences.

That’s not to say that Honda and Toho didn't upon spectacle and thrills. The “melting” radiation-affected humans and the ethereal, translucent beings they evolve into are clearly intended to shock, gross-out, and scare. Still, as I said earlier, throughout the scene on the abandoned boats – where the specter-ish entities are first seen – the eerie, ominous ambiance and slowly-building suspense is pulled off pretty tastefully and skillfully Unfortunately, working around these effects lead to awkwardly framed-shots and disconnected editing.

And of course, there’s the climax, comprised of wide shots of a city quadrant being evacuated by the authorities, replete with armed vehicles and tanker trucks; and the subsequent wide shots of the gasoline-saturated river and underground waterways … including a shot of a vehicle speeding over a bridge as the enormous flames from below tower over and lash out at it. It would seem that here is where a considerable chunk of the budget went. And though the desperately-go-right-into-the-heart-of-the-storm-to-rescue-the-girl-and-pull-it-off-just-in-the-nick-of-time motif climax is intuitive, as well as earnestly, laboriously staged and performed,  the technical limitations lead to confusing editing. E.g., when we cut from a shot of the encroaching fire to the principles running from it, it’s not clear how far behind them it is, or where they are now in relation to the where we saw them in the shot that preceded the one of the fire.

Now, some people consider special effects that seem cheesy by today’s standards to irrevocably render a movie laughable. I see past technical (or sheer budgetary) limitations for what they are, and in their context, look at the effort being made. So, for me, it’s Toho; it’s a gritty detective/gangster movie; it’s character-oriented and worldly, with the fantastical elements restricted just about enough to make the movie cerebral without being bombastic and overindulgent visually; and it has a humane, if simplistic (or at least too-brushed-over), “message”. …oh, if it’s not clear, those are all reasons that I liked it!

-- Ryan

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