Jun Fukuda’s The Secret of the Telegian, the middle film in what is frequently described as Toho’s "mutant human trilogy," is one of the best pure-entertainment science-fiction pictures the studio has put out to date. Fukuda, an underappreciated director, was behind several of the most endearing gems in tokustasu, and this superb thriller from 1960 could very well be his best contribution to the genre. It is certainly, without any doubt in my mind, the finest picture in the above mentioned trilogy. The other two films—The H-Man (1958) and The Human Vapor (1960), both directed by Ishiro Honda and written in part or solely by Takeshi Kimura—had their share of recommendation-worthy qualities but didn’t quite reach the tier of greatness due to some unfortunate screenwriting mistakes. Despite functioning as a generally entertaining mix of a horror film and a yakuza melodrama, The H-Man’s narrative suffered from a few dull sequences and an utterly uninteresting hero. And even though The Human Vapor can be described as the most artistic of the trilogy—not to mention it concludes with a genuine tour de force of tragic spectacle—its overall power was considerably diminished due to an ungainly second act, from which the film never fully recovered. In all fairness, I cannot say The Secret of the Telegian is without its own share of faults: some of the characters could have been sharpened, and the climax is a little too complicated for its own good. But these weaknesses pale in comparison to the overwhelming number of positives that populate Shinichi Sekizawa’s otherwise wonderful screenplay.
The first image we see following the opening credits is an extreme close-up of a loudspeaker as a shrill voice beckons people to enter "the Cave of Horror." Fukuda’s camera cuts to a vista of an amusement park before bringing us closer to the aforementioned attraction, building up the first primary setting in the film. Some visitors wander into the cave, only to come out screeching in terror—followed by panicking employees. At that moment, everyone, including the barker, flees as a mortally wounded man staggers out of the cave and collapses, a bayonet shoved into his ribs.
The police show up and investigate. The dead man is identified as a broker named Tsukamoto; his murderer, who was only glimpsed from behind, is nowhere to be found. Discovered on the body is a letter instructing Tsukamoto to come to the Cave of Horror if he wants to find out "what happened fourteen years ago." But the cops are not alone: a scientific journalist named Kirioka (Koji Tsurata) is also interested in solving the murder. While at the crime scene, Kirioka discovers a mysterious piece of wire, which he later confirms via a colleague is made of Klyotron: a substance capable of replacing a transistor. The investigation brings the police and Kirioka to a smuggler named Onishi (Seizaburo Kawazu), a cabaret owner by the name of Syogen (Yoshifumi Tajima), and a nervous contractor called Taki (Sachio Sakai). And that very evening, Syogen is murdered by a mysterious humanoid figure whose skin glistens with electronic distortions. Just like the man in the cave, Syogen is gored to death with a bayonet.
The truth comes out. The two murdered men, as well as Onishi and Taki, once served together in the Japanese Imperial Army. It was on the night of Japan’s 1945 surrender—the night mentioned in Tsukamoto’s note—that it all began. Onishi, then a commanding officer, and his men had been assigned to escort a prestigious army scientist named Dr. Nikki (Takamaru Sasaki) to an underground safety zone. But instead of transporting the scientist’s research, Onishi used the night’s confusion as an opportunity to steal a shipment of gold. Upon discovering the treachery, a lance corporal named Sudo (Tadao Nakamaru) stood up to his superiors, demanding they return the gold to the Japanese people, only to be stabbed with a bayonet and shot multiple times in the face. After downing the outraged corporal, Onishi turned his pistol on Dr. Nikki, opened fire, and left the two for dead as Taki dynamited the cavern. When the traitors eventually returned, they found no traces of the gold or the bodies.
And now Sudo, having miraculously survived his injuries, has returned to even the score. It soon becomes clear he is using an advanced teleportation technology—created by the army scientist, who also lived through the confrontation fourteen years ago—to transport himself around the country, surprise his victims, and elude capture. Tensions rise as Kirioka and the police attempt to track down Sudo…as well as protect Onishi and Taki from the vengeance-seeking psychopath.
Filmmakers and scholars have pointed out, for decades, the importance of a good screenplay in the making of a motion picture. After all, if you don’t have a good story to tell, does it really matter how slick and polished—or even well-acted—the final product is? Much can be said on the topic, but the gist is magnificently simple: the best movies have the best scripts. And a solid script generally contains more virtue than an up-and-down script or even a mostly good script. Hence why I feel The Secret of the Telegian stands superior to the other two films in its trilogy. Sekizawa’s screenplay is a well of genuinely clever ideas and narrative devices, all of which serve their purpose and interconnect to the benefit of the film. Like a good puzzle, each piece of the screenplay is instrumental to its neighboring segments. For instance: when Sekizawa exposits on the mysterious Klyotron wire—revealing both its function and its weakness; the wire cannot operate in temperatures higher than 4.2 degrees Celsius—he realizes he, and the audience, will have use for this information in just a couple of minutes. (He’s not dawdling on exposition simply to inform the audience they are watching a science-fiction movie.) For in the very next scene, the audience learns a mysterious man, undoubtedly the murderer, is purchasing refrigeration units. And thanks to the prevenient scene, we can instantly infer why: to keep those Klyotron wires cold so his teleportation technology can function.
In addition to building up the plot, Sekizawa uses these conjoining scenes to introduce key characters. As alluded to earlier, it is in this second scene that Sudo makes his first full-fledged appearance; it is also here that the audience is introduced to the movie’s female lead, Akiko Chujo (Yumi Shirakawa), an attractive sales representative subsequently pursued by Sudo and whose soon-to-bud reciprocated attraction toward Kirioka spawns another developmental stage in the narrative. Without their feelings toward each other—without the scene of Kirioka bringing Akiko flowers and chatting in her apartment—the journalist wouldn’t have discovered Sudo’s purchasing refrigeration units from Akiko’s company. This scene eventually leads to the journalist and the sales rep, who never become outright lovers, venturing to a farm where Sudo, having assumed an alias, resides; and that farm is a major centerpiece in the final act of the movie. Unlike a great many science-fiction pictures—and movies in general, for that matter—the romantic subplot in The Secret of the Telegian does not exist simply to add sex appeal; it is charming, but it also serves an essential role to the story. Remove the romance, the outcome changes.
And here’s the best part: the script is packed with such ingenious touches and techniques. The result is a consistently interesting, smoothly flowing screen mystery.
As is the case with most of Fukuda’s science-fiction pictures, the characters are simplistic in the sense that we don’t really learn a great deal about most of them. Not much is revealed about Kirioka, for example: he’s a scientific reporter; he went to school with one of the cops (Akihiko Hirata); and he has amorous feelings for Akiko. But that’s sufficient, for the character maintains a steadfast, determined personality—also credit Koji Tsurata’s affable performance—and remains involved in the plot all the way through. Not to mention the attributes described above validate themselves in the grand scheme of things: his profession opens windows to answering scientific riddles in the mystery; his friendship with Hirata’s character leads to him joining the investigation; and his relationship with Akiko, as I’ve already expounded, is crucial for the plot to move forward. The same principles apply to the remaining characters…which, again, works just fine in context. After all, Sekizawa and Fukuda weren’t pretending to make a deep, thought-provoking masterpiece about, say, the depths of the human spirit. There is subtext in the film, as I will detail in a bit, but the filmmakers’ end goal was to engineer a fast-moving pattern of action.
There are exceptions, however: Sudo and the men he’s pursuing. This is particularly true of the victims, whom Sekizawa and Fukuda wisely characterize in a less-than-sympathetic light. In addition to being motivated by greed and self-preservation, the three men do not even hold much loyalty to each other. Before the psychopath identifies himself, Syogen and Onishi contemplate bumping off Taki, assuming he murdered Tsukamoto—assuming he assumed they unearthed the gold lost in the cavern fourteen years prior. And when Sudo subsequently confronts the three traitors and corners Syogen—he revealed in a tape recording his intent to kill the cabaret owner next—Onishi and Taki do nothing to help their comrade. Despite a clear opportunity to attack Sudo from behind, they turn tail and run away, leaving their comrade helpless and unable to defend himself as the killer plunges a bayonet into his chest.
It is also through Sudo and his victims that a subtle theme emerges. Onishi and his military accomplices were once higher-ranking officers who turned against the Japanese people during their country’s most vulnerable moment, intending to make away with as much physical wealth as they could haul, thinking solely of their own well-being. Lance Corporal Sudo, a committed soldier, undeterred by his lower rank, defied the breach of trust before him, seeking justice with the return of the purloined gold. In the moment, the greed-driven criminals prevailed, essentially punishing their subordinate for his allegiance to Japan. And due to these traumatic events (war-spawned treachery and violence), Sudo was transformed into a bloodthirsty killer dedicated to personal retribution; the additional deaths of police officers and regular citizens, whom he once fought to protect, means nothing to him. And thus, The Secret of the Telegian declares itself as yet another instance of the Japanese science-fiction/fantasy genre possessing more intellectual value than detractors, namely American film critics, have given it credit for. Though not examined to extreme depths in this particular outing, there is an anti-war message running through the picture’s veins.
Irony’s aplenty, too. For instance, in the WWII scene, it is revealed that Syogen used Tsukamoto’s bayonet to subdue Sudo; in turn, Sudo decides to first murder Tsukamoto, owner of the bayonet, and then picks the man who wielded it as the second to die. Also note the poetic touch of slaying Tsukamoto in a cave. Also note he confronts his remaining three targets in Syogen's military-themed nightclub, while donning a soldier's uniform. Also note how the deranged lance corporal saves the highest-ranking officer, Onishi, for last—and how he taunts his former commander with firearms before drawing the bayonet. Also note how, as demonstrated below, Sudo holds his military rifle at hip-level when confronting the criminals in the cave and how he holds a double-barrel shotgun in a similar manner when confronting the police.
Daedal as Sekizawa’s script is, I must admit to some standout faults with it. As I said in my introductory paragraph, a few of the characters are not as well-rendered as they probably should have been. Or, perhaps better put, they are not utilized to a wholly satisfying degree. This criticism applies, oddly enough, to a character I previously complimented: Akiko Chujo.
Yumi Shirakawa brings her usual charisma to the role, and Akiko is used to sensational effect—but only up to a point. After leaving Sudo’s farm, Akiko is, for all intents and purposes, dropped from the narrative, with roughly twenty-five minutes to go. From this point on, the character is designated to simply standing in the background. To have a character so wonderfully integrated into the story and then suddenly—and awkwardly—dropped is not only a flaw, but a major disappointment. Furthermore, the movie certainly could have done more in detailing Sudo’s fixation upon her. He attempts to kidnap her after Syogen’s murder; he requests her company to send her to his farm; but his motives are not particularly clear. Is this simply a reappearance of the beauty and beast motif present in the other two "mutant human" films? Is Sudo trying to eradicate her as a potential witness since she’s seen him up close a couple times? I’m leaning more towards the former, but regardless, a little more clarification would have helped.
My reservation extends to the character of Dr. Nikki as well. On the one hand, I appreciate that Nikki is presented as something of a war victim himself. He lost both of his legs in the cave collapse. As an ultra-nationalist, he elected to remain in isolation, feeling the new Japan was a country with no need for him. And he redeems himself (for creating the technology Sudo has been using to commit his crimes) at the end of the picture by destroying his machines while a volcanic eruption destroys his lab. On the other hand—minus the WWII flashback sequence, which pays little attention to the scientist—Dr. Nikki is introduced to the audience much too late in the film; so even though these points are interesting concept-wise, not enough screen time is devoted to make them really resonate. At the end of the day, Nikki feels more like a bonus character—and his death, as a result, channels no emotional impact. What’s more, I’m not convinced Nikki’s even necessary outside of creating the teleportation machines. Had he died prior to the conclusion, not much would’ve changed. The laboratory still would’ve been decimated by the eruption, and Sudo still would have been killed while trying to teleport. (Not to mention the heat generated by the lava could have easily been the key to malfunctioning the teleportation machines, as the audience knows the Klyotron wires need a consistently low temperature.) This underwritten character and slightly excessive denouement stick out in what is otherwise a thrilling and well-executed climax.
Speaking of which—swinging back to the positive side of things—The Secret of the Telegian showcases Jun Fukuda at his finest. A few too many canted camera angles notwithstanding, Fukuda’s direction and image coordination are fluid and pristine. The dialogue-free scenes in Syogen’s cabaret are first-rate examples of how to shoot what some call "pure cinema," letting the images tell the story; turn off the sound, and everything still works to great effect. And let it be said that with this movie, Fukuda created some of the most exciting foot chases I have ever seen in a color film. The murder of Taki and the subsequent pursuit by the police is a first-rate thrill sequence which employs scale and minimal camera movement to truly dazzling effect. A favorite touch of mine occurs after Sudo escapes in a railway yard, hurling the gate open as he does. The cops follow. Fukuda frames a nice side shot with the cops dashing past the camera as they too enter the yard. And then, the camera presses forward and down, revealing the lifeless body of a man—one of Sudo’s extra victims. By not depicting the actual moment of this bonus murder, by focusing on the results, by splicing it into the middle of a great action scene, by devoting no more attention to it than necessary, Fukuda produces a more startling effect. One that heightens the sense of danger without interrupting the flow of the sequence.
The Secret of the Telegian contains a little something for everyone—including fans of non-tokusatsu Japanese cinema, who are bound to be absolutely delighted by the cast. Tsuruta, a diverse actor who was excellent in the final two films of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy and a common face in the films of Kihachi Okamoto, is splendid as the lead. Nakamura, also no stranger in Okamoto’s filmography, gives a solid, menacing performance as the lance corporal out for revenge. Kawazu, perhaps most recognizable as the brothel owner in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), once again turns out a great performance. Even bit parts (such as the amusement park’s barker—Ikio Sawamura, the cowardly law enforcement official in Yojimbo) are delightful and add an extra layer of fun to the movie. And for tokusatsu fans, there’s quite a few familiar faces here—Hirata, Shirakawa, Sakai, Tajima, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Hideyo Amamoto, Senkichi Omura, Fuyuki Murakami—to enjoy. Also: one of Onishi’s henchmen is played by Shoichi Hirose who, two years later, would don the ape suit in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962).
Finally, there is Sei Ikeno’s soundtrack. Like an Akira Ifukube film score, the soundtrack is fairly repetitive; also like an Ifukube film score, the music can afford to repeat itself, because Ikeno’s cues perfectly fit the tone of the picture and gracefully mesh with the images. The main title sequence, which recurs in variations throughout the movie, is effective and suitably creepy. The film’s chase sequences are further heightened in tension thanks to the Ikeno themes accompanying them. And lastly, I am quite fond of the romantic cues employed for Kirioka and Akiko’s scenes together.
Jun Fukuda and Shinichi Sekizawa have been somewhat marginalized over the years. Their lighthearted, humorous approach in the mid-to-later Showa Godzilla movies has sometimes been compared negatively to the more serious of Ishiro Honda’s films and most of the tokusatsu movies made since the 1980s. But as far as I am concerned, these two men are among the greatest talents ever to work in this genre, as The Secret of the Telegian beautifully demonstrates. This is one of the most delightfully entertaining science-fiction movies I’ve seen in quite a while.