The Invisible Man vs. The Human Fly (Tômei ningen to hae otoko)
Japan (1957) Dir. Mitsuo Murayama
We can only presume Daiei Film’s first foray into sci-fi (and indeed Japanese cinema’s first entry into this genre) was such a huge success that they had to wait eight years before attempting a sequel. Or maybe it was the loss of the original team behind The Invisible Man Appears that was the hold up.
A number of unexplained murders are baffling police in Tokyo, the only link being victims hearing a buzzing sound like that of a housefly before they die. When a scientist is killed on an airplane, a police officer jokes it must have been the Invisible Man as nobody saw anything, another scientist also on the plane, Dr. Hayakawa (Shozo Nanbu) explains he has recently create a cosmic ray that can cause invisibility.
Further investigation links businessman Kōkichi Kusunoki (Ichirō Izawa) with the dead scientist, nightclub owner Kuroki (Fujio Harumoto), and petty criminal Yamada (Chujo Shizuo). Meanwhile the murders continue, and the police remain baffled but having seen the invisibility ray in action, Chief Inspector Wakabayashi (Yoshiro Kitahara) wonders if maybe it was possible to shrink a man to the size of a fly.
Naturally, this suggestion was laughed at but only in sci-fi cinema could it actually be a plausible concept. Sorry to disappoint, but The Invisible Man vs. The Human Fly is not as horrific or as extravagant as the title suggests, in that nobody turns into a fly like in the classic US film released around the same time as this one. That might have made it a bit more interesting but low budgets can undermine even the biggest aspirations even in the “anything can happen” world of movies.
Instead, this sequel of sorts to the aforementioned 1948 film – sequel seems tenuous since invisibility is the only thing they share – chooses the easy way out by shrinking its antagonist to the size of the fly, making the label “human fly” more of a poetic one than anything. But that doesn’t mean some fun could be had with this – it is a nice change for Tokyo to be under threat from someone who is only a couple of inches in size and not a gargantuan monster.
Something else it does which may go unnoticed, is explore the opposite side of the first film’s moral about how science is neither good or evil but is used for both. In that film, the invisibility was used to commit crimes and murders, here Wakabayashi believe it can be used for good in combating the nefarious use of science by the human fly, creating a science vs. science dichotomy for its central feud.
Unfortunately, the script by Hajime Takaiwa is a little clumsy in trying to establish the main plot and the characters within the first 10 minutes, resulting in a haphazard and confusing narrative. It takes a while to discern who the principal cast are, not helped by many being similar in appearance, a problem that blights the murder of a singer from Kuroki’s nightclub who is identical to one who becomes semi-important later on, and that of fated detective Hayama (Yoshihiro Hamaguchi).
Hayama proves more productive than Wakabayashi, having found Kusunoki served in World War II with some of the victims, including the dead scientist, but gets too close to the truth for Kusunoki’s liking and he despatches Yamada to put Hayama off the trail for good. It is revealed Kusunoki was part of a group who created a serum that can shrink humans but they were caught and he was left to pay the price and now wants revenge, which seems fair enough all things told.
The serum comes in a capsule form which, when broken, releases a gas that shrinks the person exposed to it to a tiny size – clothes and all as well as somehow giving them the ability to fly because science – but when it wears off has deleterious side effects to their personality, making them unstable and aggressive. This of course, was the problem with the invisibility potion in the first film.
Meanwhile, Professor Hayakawa’s assistants Tsukioka (Ryuji Shinagawa) and Sugimoto (Joji Tsurumi) have been able to make things invisible and have also created a second ray to restore them to normal. However, anything living is prone to developing cancer and dying after a few minutes. To counter this, when Tsukioka tries it on himself, he makes sure to cover his hands and face with a special reflective material, treating us to the cute visual of a disembodied head floating around in many scenes.
Replacing the legendary Eiji Tsuburaya in handling the special effects is Toru Matoba, liberally borrowing many tricks Tsuburaya employed in the first film for the invisibility gimmick, whilst adding his own touch for the human fly sequences. Using a combination of green screen and miniatures, it manages to look oddly impressive yet still decidedly cheap and cheerful at the same time, though we have to consider the budget probably wasn’t that hefty to allow him to pull off something truly spectacular for the era.
Despite a generous 96-minutes to work with, the telling of the story is a bit of a mess as mentioned earlier. It spends too long exploring the science behind invisibility and not enough time moving the story forward or fleshing out the characters, leaving the real conflict until the last act. For all the good this does in subverting many of the tropes and ideas beholden to the invisibility mythos, the uneven storytelling means many of these aren’t take full advantage of for dramatic purposes.
But we can’t undervalue the earnestness of Asian cinema and the cast throw themselves into this as if it was Shakespeare. The Invisible Man vs. The Human Fly might be B-movie fodder in every aspect, it has a charm to it that is annoyingly inescapable, and I don’t just mean the half-naked nightclub dancing girls either. Messily executed story aside, this is strangely enjoyable cult curio.