The Human Vapour is notable to kaiju-philes for a number of reasons. Directed by legendary Godzilla guru Ishiro Honda, yet still relatively unknown to many monster lovers in the States, The Human Vapour was one of a number of human-sized creature films released by Toho that are often termed the “mutant series.” The Toho mutant films include such works of note as the ultra-rare Invisible Man from 1954, the banned Half Human (1955), and the adventure extravaganza Latitude Zero (1969). With special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya and a story by frequent Godzilla-and-company scribe Takeshi Kimura, one would expect The Human Vapor might have more of an international following, but the film has languished in relative obscurity. There might be a good reason for that…
Originally released in 1960 in Japan and eventually re-edited for America and double-billed with Gorath (1962) in 1964 by Brenco Pictures, The Human Vapour (or The Human Vapor, as it is more often spelled) begins with a press conference held by a monster—Mizuno, the eponymous human vapor (Yoshio Tsuchiya, Destroy All Monsters, Yojimbo, etc.). Mizuno has been perpetrating a series of mysterious and violent bank robberies that have left the boys in blue mystified. Now the gas-man tells his tale of woe and rising megalomania. He was a test pilot, retired when infected by… something or another… and confined in a sanitarium for an extended period. Soon Mizuno became reduced to a lowly, bitter librarian until Dr. Sano (Fuyuki Murakami, Invasion of Astro-Monster) offered him release from mediocrity by becoming a convenient Guinea pig for the scientist’s tests. Naturally the tests went awry, and Mizuno was transformed into the titular indestructible vapor being, capable of taking human shape, or shifting into a glowing blue gas. Mizuno utilized his newfound powers to steal money in order to benefit his sweetheart, classical Japanese dancer Fujichiyo Kasuga (Kaoru Yachigusa, the Musashi Miyamoto trilogy). Again and again Mizuno robbed banks to fund Kasuga’s dancing career, but the Law fights back, ambushing Mizuno at the interview and finding their every weapon useless against the vapor man’s power. Their only hope lies in Kasuga, for she is the only one the man of mist cares about. But will she help them? Or does the enigmatic dancer hold a love deeper for her ethereal paramour than for the welfare of all humankind?
The premise of The Human Vapour has potential and begs for deep characterization. The plot, in which a ghoulish monster assists a struggling artist, has drawn comparisons to the classic Phantom of the Opera, and the central fiend does have more time devoted to detailing his character than most Toho kaiju films. Regrettably, however, The Human Vapour doesn’t hold together—the American version, as was so often the case with early Toho monster films, is butchered. Eleven minutes were cut, and the order of events tampered with. While the original movie was plotted to be a mystery, in which the police and the newspapers boggled over the increasingly bizarre crimes until the misty villain’s late-film revelation, the American version restructures the film so that the big reveal is explained at the beginning, thereby draining most of the tension from the following flashback scenes in which the police and reporters try to figure out what’s going on. What suspense that remains is summarily executed by the bored narration delivered by silver screen legend James Hong, who dubs for Yoshio Tsuchiya. Hong gives a unworried, disdainful performance, which suits the egotistic Mizuno, but dulls the movie, especially as his narration mostly describes exactly what we are watching, even going so far as to explain what people are saying instead of allowing them to speak for themselves. When I watched The Human Vapour, I wasn’t aware that the film had been recut, but even in my ignorance the re-editing was painfully obvious. Scenes cut too quickly, some portions of film are obviously missing, and the work comes across as especially sloppy, especially for Honda.
Characterizations are fairly bland anyway, even without the questionable editing. It’s hard to work up much sympathy for Mizuno, who is an angry self-pitying man even in his fully human form, and then upon gaining his gassy power, makes his first official act a murder, soon to be followed by more of the same. His relationship with Kasuga is pretty much nonexistent—they share no chemistry on screen and have no real chance to, except perhaps at the climax. She is his connection to humanity, or so Mizuno claims—the one thing in the world he cares about. At one point, he embraces her, revealing a physical attraction. He says he loves her, but we never see why. If their relationship had been more developed, then I believe the film’s plot would have been significantly improved, and the ending rendered several times more powerful.
The main policeman, Detective Okamoto, is portrayed rather blandly by Tatsuya Mihashi (High and Low). There is nothing particularly noteworthy about his character, or his workmanlike performance. The best that can be said for him is that he isn’t unpleasant to watch. Okamoto does happen to be in a relationship with stereotypically intrepid reporter Kyoko (Keiko Sata, Gorath), however, and Sata’s Kyoko is an affable, spunky lady, and enjoyable to watch not only for her beauty. Detective Okamoto and Kyoko’s relationship, while again not particularly interesting in itself, nevertheless functions to offset the human vapor’s romance and highlight its bizarre nature, as some other reviewers have pointed out. But since neither relationship displays much meaningful complexity, the contrasting themes of human normality and inhumanity are blunted.
Even if the relationships had worked, the plot still makes little sense—especially the desperate ending in which the law attempts to kill the vapor man. Upon even short reflection, the climax is compromised by faulty logic, not the least being why “our heroes” think they have found any guaranteed means of executing the so-far utterly invincible fiend.
More successful are Tsuburaya’s creative special effects. While nowhere near the scale or awe of some of his giant monster work, there are some nicely effective transformations showing Mizuno’s clothes deflate as his body billows into smoke. When Mizuno attacks, the smoke becomes a blue animated cloud, shimmering across the screen malevolently, and doors open and close by themselves. Effects shots are far from numerous, however, and some are certainly more accomplished than others. The mad scientist’s lab, for example, is noticeably cheap.
Music was originally composed for The Human Vapour by Kunio Miyauchi of Ultra Q and All Monsters Attack (1969) fame, but for the American version apparently most of his work was excised, to be replaced by a liberal application of Paul Sawtell’s soundtrack for 1958’s The Fly. This is according to a number of reviews I researched on the Internet, and I can’t personally confirm the music switch as I have not seen the original Fly film, but when I was watching The Human Vapour it seemed obvious that the soundtrack had been heavily tampered with. Overly dramatic cues are layered over James Hong’s bored narration, even when little of interest is occurring on screen. Sawtell’s themes aren’t bad, they’re just overused, and the mismatch in the final film is simply too obvious. Little of Miyauchi’s work remains here, although his distinctively plonking traditional themes for Kasuga’s classic dance interludes remain, successfully hearkening back to a bygone age and the lost appreciation for an art form displaced in time.
The Human Vapour is deeply frustrating as a viewing experience. There seems to be a decent thriller hidden underneath a messy, largely unengaging exterior, screaming to be let out. But no, we will not have our thrills; in the States we are left with disappointing editing choices and brittle-thin characterizations that dissipate our interest. In the end, it isn’t only the title that is vapor. Our attention, too, has gone away to the clouds.