A long-time, die-hard fan of the traditional monster movie, I was honestly ashamed that I’d never heard of one of Japan’s earliest forays into this unique sub-genre of Science Fiction and Fantasy: The Invisible Man Appears completely slipped past my radar in all the decades I’d been exploring genre properties from around the world. I knew that the Japanese had kinda/sorta cornered the market on the giant lizard and space age turtle movies of their era; but I honestly never knew about this flick until an email reached me from Arrow Video. They offered me the chance for a screener to review on SciFiHistory.Net. I couldn’t pass it up; and though I found the affair a bit undercooked I’m still thrilled to have finally seen it.
And don’t get me wrong: while I love the Frankensteins, the Draculas, the Werewolves, and even those Creatures emerging from those Black Lagoons, which of us at one time or another hasn’t wanted to possess the power of invisibility? We’ve all wanted to be that fly-on-the-wall, that ultimate voyeur who could get in and out of anywhere without being noticed. Slip past those armed guards. Escape with no danger of being caught. Maybe even watch a Playboy centerfold or two slip down to even less than their panties! Perhaps that’s why this particular ‘creature feature’ winds up getting more remakes, retreads, and reboots over time: it’s that each of us secretly craves that ability.
Therein lies the problem. Such lust is never satiated without consequence.
What’s been lost over the years (in most incarnations dabbling in invisibility) is that the magical serum inevitably drives the user insane. Why wouldn’t it? The sufferer no longer has the ability to see himself in the mirror, much less check just how gruesome that cut on the leg is. Self-awareness? Why, that’s all you have, and not in a good way. The condition is as much a curse as it is a blessing, so is it any wonder that you’d slowly lose one’s ability to function in the world … a very high cost in exchange for very little gain.
Why, it’s enough to make a grown man cry … if not commit murder … or worse …
From the product packaging:
“A scientist successfully creates an invisibility serum, only to be kidnapped by a gang of thugs who wish to use the formula to rob a priceless jewel.”
What’s an invisible man got to do to get a break around filmdom? Isn’t it bad enough that said formula not only erases him from visual existence but also eventually drives the user insane? And now the Japanese have him pulling jewel heists?
Such is the plight of any one of the three scientists featured here (the feature’s set-up makes a brief guessing game out of just whom has been transformed). Dr. Kenzo Nakazato (played by Ryunosuke Tsukigata) has surrounded himself with a pair of successful proteges – Shunji Kurokawa (Kanji Koshiba) and Kyosuke Segi (Daijirô Natsukawa), both of whom who have not only set their sights on inheriting the man’s science but also the love of his only daughter, Machiko (Chizuru Kitagawa). Still, even with the added promise of a potential love triangle, The Invisible Man Appears never really invests in its characters the way the Universal Studios Monsters Universe did; and that’s a big miss so far as this reviewer is concerned.
Instead, Appears’ narrative focus stays largely on its effects work (which is good) and giving screen time to the feature’s villain, Kawabe (Shosaku Sugiyama). When the film isn’t marveling in magically opening doors and windows or the invisible kitten traipsing its tiny footprints across the living room floor (a fabulous sequence), it’s given over the Kawabe’s scheming glances into and away from the camera so that the audience can see he’s secretly up to something. (Don’t we already know this?) Eventually, it comes as no surprise when the jewel thief also turns out to have lecherous cravings for the young Machiko; but a greater investment in cinematic nuance might have made for a more grounded exercise here.
In fact, a reasonable person might argue that Appears spends too much of its time straddling that line between what it really wanted to be: is this a Science Fiction and Fantasy picture whose characters lean a bit more glamorous, or is it a gangster picture with SciFi and Fantasy undertones? Too often, it feels like all of this started out as a crime picture that somehow morphed into a genre entry to give the studio a way out of simply marketing Science Fiction. (I’ve read that some historians have credited this picture of Japan’s first legitimate SciFi prospect, so maybe executives were a bit worried about its box office potential.) I’ve seen a few Japanese gangster pictures – and I’ve watched more than a fair share of their samurai flicks – and I’m inclined to think someone wearing a studio suit pushed this one more in one thematic direction than the other.
Now, that reality doesn’t take away the visual achievements here. Appears was made almost two decades after its Hollywood inspiration; and the two stories are entirely different. Japanese special effects pioneer Eiji Tsuburaya supplies the visual work, and all of it (while obviously dated) is quite good. I didn’t find it particularly groundbreaking – certainly not by comparison to what Hollywood had accomplished with similar subject matter – but this was a master craftsman starting to build a wildly impressive skill set; and, on that level, it works exceedingly well.
But when invisibility is probably what originally brought audiences in to see this release, why spend so much time centered on the criminal element? Kurokawa’s descent into madness could’ve used more visibility in this monster movie. After all, it’s the rational man’s tumble into irrationality that gives these pictures their bite: audiences naturally feel sympathy for the monster trapped in science beyond its control, and a bit more pathos would’ve made for stronger storytelling.
Recommended … but, largely, The Invisible Man Appears will likely only appeal to fans of early Japanese cinema and/or fans of the wider ‘Invisible Man’ franchise. While this one certainly feels derivative of the Hollywood original (even handpicking scenes to recreate to slightly different effect here), I found it more of an exercise in what was possible for special effects guru Tsuburaya, who would go onto later fame with his work on the legendary Godzilla movies for Toho Company. The film’s pacing is a bit clunky, some of which can be attributed to chosen camera trickery to distinguish between the good guys and the bad (unnecessary distractions which pull the viewer from the experience for no real reason); but performances work they way they should in this cautionary tale that reminds us there’s no good or evil in science … just those who would use it for good or evil.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MVD Visual and Arrow Video provided me with a Blu-ray of The Invisible Man Appears by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.