The Invisible Man Appears (Tômei ningen arawaru)

Japan (1949) Dirs. Nobuo Adachi & Shigehiro Fukushima

“There is no good or evil in science, but it can be used for good or evil purposes”

Obviously, this Japanese take on the HG Wells classic should be entitled The Invisible Man Disappears but that would be too blatant. And whilst this title suggests this film is a comedy, in fact it isn’t – unless you are fastidiously petty about the dated special effects, which aren’t that bad.

In Kobe, scientists Dr. Nakazato (Ryûnosuke Tsukigata) has developed a solution that will makes living beings invisible, although he has yet to test it on a human. Aware that both of his protégés Kyôsuke Segi (Daijirō Natsukawa) and Shunji Kurokawa (Kanji Koshiba) are in love with his daughter Machiko (Chizuru Kitagawa), Nakazato offers her hand in marriage to whichever one can create their own invisibility potion.

Meanwhile, Nakazato’s friend, businessman Ichiro Kawabe (Shôsaku Sugiyama) is also interested in Machiko, but is unbeknownst to Nakazato, is crooked. Learning of the potion, he hatches a plan to use it to steal an expensive diamond necklace, the Tears of Amour. One night both Nakazato and Kurokawa disappear, then a few days later, a jewellery shop owner is terrorised by an invisible man looking for the Tears of Amour.  

Not quite the story you might be expecting if you have read the original Wells’ novel, or seen the classic 1933 Universal horror film with Claude Raines, but the Japanese have a habit of taking a well known western property and putting their own unique spin on it. The Invisible Man Appears – Japan’s first ever sci-fi film – is a great example of this, yet Nobuo Adachi’s script does incorporate some elements of Wells’ original story in it.

The story from Akimitsu Takagi retains one vital part from it – the aggressive personality that develops for the user of the solution and weaves it into the central plot regarding the theft of the necklace. As for the science behind the invisibility, there is very little of that, except for a brief discussion at the beginning between the three scientists. Segi thinks that using very black paint will work as it doesn’t reflect light, but as Kurokawa points out, it will still project a shadow.

We don’t know what magic Nakazato used to make his potion, he kept that a secret, but he unwittingly demonstrates it to a duplicitous Kawabe who gets some dark ideas after seeing a hamster vanish before his eyes. Later that night, Kawabe attends a show by androgynous singer Ryûko Mizuki (Takiko Mizunoe), owner of the Tears of Amour and conveniently enough, Kurokawa’s sister.

Kidnapping Nakazato wasn’t the most subtle of scenes, but it does lead to some cute comedy as his invisible cat runs amok in the house, scaring Machiko, her sister Motoko (Asako Takahara) and mother Toshiko (Namiko Rokujô). Kurokawa was abducted under a more discreet pretence, using Nakazato as the lure – after this, we (literally) don’t see him again until the end.

Plot holes are abound once the invisible man shows up, I mean, appears, I mean… well, you know. First, he enters a jewellery store covered in bandages for the whole world to see, then once he has the owner alone, strips off to reveal his see-through body. Why didn’t he just turn up in his invisible form to freak the guy out even more? Clearly, it was so they could replicate the famous reveal scene from the 1933 James Whale version and whilst not as accomplished, it is still a very well done moment.

Admittedly, the story feels a little overburdened by the necklace theft subplot but this is a red herring of sorts, revealing the level of thought that had gone into it. As mentioned earlier, one caveat to the invisible potion is the anger that evolves which Kawabe knew about. Along with the fact there is no antidote to reverse the process, Kawabe forces his ill-tempered captive to get the necklace in exchange for the antidote, knowing he has no choice but to capitulate.

Running for just under 83-minutes, there is surprisingly ample time to let most of the plot threads have some time to develop whilst others remain purely functional. A little more exploration into the suffering of being invisible would have been nice, but overall pretty much everything is sufficiently wrapped up by the time we reach the deservedly downbeat ending.

Handling the special effects was Eiji Tsuburaya, the man who would go on to legendary status for his work on the Godzilla films, creating the template for the entire Kaiju genre. Compared to the Hollywood films they are rather rudimentary but not unforgivably so, taking some of the ideas from its ancestor to new levels. One prime technique was to use the camera to serve as the antagonist’s POV, so anything in his hand could be held in front of the camera.

Similarly, this helps to disguise some of the tricks to moves thing about like opening doors or windows, whilst the movements denote when our man is on the screen without having to knock things over, or create footprints (which they did for the climax). Finally, the fourth wall breaking close-ups of his victims adds to a little tension and horror to what is more of a crime thriller than sci-fi flick.

Considering Japan was still its post-War building stage and coming to terms with the western influence on its society and culture, the performances are much more in line with a Hollywood B-movie than Japanese cinema of the period. Nobody hams it up to embarrassing levels but the cast aren’t quite as staid as if this were an Ozu film – they move around too much and the dialogue is a lot snappier.

The Invisible Man Appears has never had an international release prior to this new Blu-ray issue, giving it a certain cachet among film buffs, sci-fi fans, and Japanophiles as an undiscovered historical curio well worth a look before it vanishes again!