Review:
H-Man (1958)
(3.5/5)
Author:
Nicholas Driscoll
Published:
December 16, 2009
Note: review may contain spoilers


H-Man was one of the steadily dwindling number of classic Toho sci-fi films that, for years, languished in relative obscurity in America due to an out-of-print video release and—let's be honest—the sheer fact that Godzilla never shows up in the plot. A member of the so-called "mutant" films, wherein the primary monsters are the size of humans instead of skyscrapers, H-Man further distinguishes itself from the average Toho creature feature with its noir-ish ambience and crime-thriller flavor. On a sheer plotting and technical level, this might be the best of the mutant series I've seen so far.

Originally titled "Beauty and the Liquidpeople" (美女と液体人間), the title seems to suggest a Beauty and the Beast theme, but the plot has nothing to do with the old folktale. Instead, we have a brooding modern-day crime drama when a drug deal goes south, and one of the criminals becomes a victim himself in a violent car accident. Mysteriously, his body is never found; instead his empty clothes are discovered alone, lying in the rain-slicked street. The police go to his lounge-singer girlfriend Chikako (Yumi Shirakawa, Gorath), who seems to know nothing of his disappearance. When a scientist named Masada (Kenji Sahara, Rodan) suggests a wild theory that the man was a victim of atomic testing, at first he is met with derision, but a second similar incident involving another gangster outside Chikako's apartment proves something truly uncanny is afoot, and when a slime monster is revealed attacking Chikako's nightclub during a police raid, the police are unable to stop it. With each new victim, the threat grows worse, and the police, working together with Masada, must rush to defeat the gelatinous monstrosity before it can consume everyone in the city.

H-Man has drawn inevitable comparisons to The Blob, which came out at around the same time, but the two movies are hugely different in tone and story. Whereas The Blob is a teeny-boppers vs. monster-on-the-loose tale, H-Man is considerably darker and more "adult." No speed-demon teenagers here. Instead, vicious gangsters prowl the rain-streaked streets and run a bar teeming with exotic dancers. The hard-bitten police officers face off against the gangsters, and in the middle of this war between law and disorder comes a new and terrifying force that literally dissolves victims right in front of the camera. Eerie, dank imagery prevails, and the mystery behind the monster unfolds slowly, building tension step-by-step. While the central concept of the film is obviously pure fantasy, the plot has enough of a hook to really dig into the viewer, at least for about the first three-fifths of the movie, at which point, curiously, the climactic action stumbles.

What trips up the plot? Partial blame must go to the characters. As with many Toho monster classics, depth of character is hardly a priority; what is most important is spectacle and plot. Here we have the commanding presence of Akihiko Hirata as Inspector Tominaga, and he is great in his part, exuding strength and purpose—and not much else. He is a wonderful policeman, and probably the best performance in the film, but even saying that, there simply isn't much of a character here. He's a two-dimensional tough-guy cop. Kenji Sahara, still quite young at this point, plays the socially-awkward Dr. Masada; he's more fallably human, but not more interesting. Sahara is a likable actor, but his Dr. Masada is just a nerd who, implausibly, develops a shoe-horned-in romance with female lead Yumi Shirakawa, who plays the enigmatic lounge singer Chikako Arai.

Chikako is something of a bad girl, and, in retrospect, the most conflicted (and thereby interesting) character in the film. She works in a bar loaded with yakuza, and knows well who they are. She also begins the movie in a relationship with a drug-dealing gangster—in fact, living with him outside of marriage (which may have been a bit scandalous at the time). Yet she tells the police she knew nothing of her gangster boyfriend's drug-running, which seems very unlikely, yet eventually even Inspector Tominaga lauds her as a good girl after she helps the police take down the gangsters. The viewers don't quite know how far to trust her, but as the slime monsters start turning up, she has little choice but to work with the law, and the smitten scientist. Shirakawa plays Chikako in a similarly at-odds manner; she's smart and tough, but still swoons at the sight of carnage, and needs a strong man to help her out in the end. Shirakawa's performance tends towards the delicate, however—presumably in order to play down the seedier side of Chikako's character, and thereby win over audience sympathy. Nevertheless, due to the utter artificiality of the romance here, when Masada rushes to Chikako's rescue at the climax, I was more inclined to roll my eyes than wear out the edge of my seat.

The supporting cast is quite strong, with a number of familiar faces, and the gangsters especially liven up the screen. Even better are many of the special-effects shots. Eiji Tsuburaya outdoes himself. The eponymous slime beast slips and slides up and across walls, out windows, and through sewers; people collapse into piles of noxious ooze; a huge fire bursts out to light up the night scene. There is a haunted boat sequence that rivals and perhaps even surpasses the similar eerie ghost ship from Matango (1963), and the radioactive apparitions appearing on the deck in the distance remains a visual highlight even to this day. Nevertheless, occasionally the effects falter, particularly when a dancer meets her demise via a wholly unconvincing sequence in which she appears to change into a cardboard cutout before being consumed.

Supporting the experience is a fine soundtrack from Kurosawa-favorite Masaru Sato. The instrumental music is exciting but never overwhelms, and in fact seemed somewhat underused. A "theme" of sorts is included for the H-Man, which consists entirely of a series of bizarre "boinging" sounds, which became increasingly annoying to my ears. Finally, no discussion of H-Man's soundtrack is complete without some mention of Chikako's lounge numbers, wherein Martha Miyake dubs the actress with two sung-in-English love songs—"The Magic Begins" and "So Deep is my Love." The dub is carried off beautifully; not knowing she was lip-syncing, I thought Shirakawa might actually be the one belting out the tunes. These are very nicely done songs as well, unlike, say, the sometimes ear-bending pain of "The Words Get Stuck in my Throat" from The War of the Gargantuas (1966). If only "So Deep is my Love" could have been as iconic.

One of the most interesting aspects of the movie, for me, was watching it in both Japanese and English. The American version has several minutes cut out, which actually improves the pace of the film, snipping away some unnecessary sequences, and trimming the ineffective aforementioned dancer's death, while cleverly editing in English-language newspapers and notes in key sequences. And, while the Japanese performances were quite fine, I actually found myself enjoying the dub even more; Japanese accents are attempted, and while I thought some of the voices were over the top (one girl sounded Mexican to me), for the most part I felt the material was respected. The one change I did not appreciate had to do with the nature of the monsters. (SPOILER ALERT!) In the Japanese version, the slime creatures are said to retain something of their human memory, which explains why they came to Tokyo—and also might explain why the H-Men seem to hound Chikako and attack the lounge. The American version makes no mention of the monsters' retained humanity, which makes the attacks look like mere plot contrivances. (END SPOILER ALERT)

There are problems to H-Man—uninteresting characters, a dull and confusing car chase, and a slightly bumpy climax mark down what is otherwise a remarkably good Toho thriller. While sharing themes with The Human Vapour (1960) and Dogora (1964), H-Man succeeds on its own with a gripping story and some frightfully effective monster shots. Far from the scum at the bottom of the barrel, H-Man is more like a B+.