Invisible ManReview:
Invisible Man (1954)

Author: Patrick Galvan
September 5th, 2017
Note: review may contain spoilers

As some members of the Toho Kingdom readership might be aware, I have a certain fondness for Godzilla Raids Again (1955). I reviewed the film a couple years ago, so I won’t rehash my thoughts in too much detail; but I’m of the opinion that the admittedly imperfect second entry in the Godzilla series nonetheless succeeded as a piece of middle-of-the-road entertainment thanks to 1) some very interesting postwar themes contained within, and 2) substantial craftsmanship provided by its often-dismissed director, Motoyoshi Oda. A fast-working studio employee who, in the 1950s, averaged two to eight movies a year, Oda has been met with negative reception from many reviewers and film historians, and his career has gone virtually unnoticed outside of Japan. The tepid reception might be due in part to the nature of his output (B-pictures, primarily) and his lack of an idiosyncratic style; but I do sincerely believe the man possessed more skill as a director than he’s been given credit for. In regards to Godzilla Raids Again: despite the rushed production schedule and the uneven script (by Takeo Murata and Shigeaki Hidaka) handed to him, Oda turned out a good-looking movie with moody atmosphere and some very haunting human-level moments—such as Setsuko Wakayama standing in horror-induced silence at the window of her house, watching Osaka burn in the distance. I also felt his handling of the scene where a band of convicts escape from an armored truck and are pursued by the police through the city was nothing short of superb, utilizing shadowy photography, kinetic movement, and crisp editing to their utmost potential. The movie hits quite a few good notes, and many of those positive aspects can be attributed to the man behind the camera.

Invisible Man (1954) dying under carAnd having recently seen the 1954 motion picture Invisible Man, from the writer-director talents that would go on to make Godzilla Raids Again (minus Takeo Murata), I am even more convinced of Oda’s virtues as a director…as well as Shigeaki Hidaka’s shortcomings as a screenwriter. This time, however, the negatives overpower the positives. As with the Godzilla picture, Invisible Man is well-crafted, but the admittedly ambitious story flounders too often in too many places, resulting in a disappointing, somewhat dull mixed bag. When all’s said and done, this relatively short film (70 minutes) feels a bit long.

Invisible Man, also known as The Invisible Avenger, opens with a roof-level view of Tokyo’s Ginza district, the Hattori Clock Tower on prominent display. The camera subsequently pans down to the street as a car comes to a screeching halt. The driver steps out in a state of panic, convinced he’s just run over someone. But when he and the gathering crowd check underneath his automobile, they see nothing…until a patch of blood materializes out of thin air. The crowd steps in closer as the blood pool expands, gushing from an unseen source. And then, fading into view like a developing Polaroid, the lifeless, pulverized body of a man appears beneath the car. A reporter on the scene named Komatsu (Yoshio Tsuchiya) discovers a suicide note, in which the dead man confesses to someone identified only as "Friend" that he could not bear life as an invisible man anymore. It is learned the body belonged to one of two survivors of a sub rosa militarist task force. During the Second World War, the Japanese military, in an effort to develop special infiltration teams, created a "radioactive beam" capable of eliminating one’s visible essence. (However, once invisible, a man cannot regain his appearance until the moment of death—hence why the body did not appear until after the car had crushed its owner.) And though the government assumed its invisible troops all perished in the 1944 Battle of Saipan, the body and suicide note prove at least two survived, and one still resides in Tokyo.

Komatsu immediately launches into an investigation, hoping to uncover the truth and identify the man addressed in the letter. Not much time passes before a gang identifying itself as "the invisible men" commits a chain of robberies throughout Tokyo. (No one questions why the thieves, if they are indeed invisible, choose to remain seen via wearing clothes, even wrapping their heads in neckerchiefs.) Panic engulfs the city, the citizens fearfully waiting for the gang to strike again. Komatsu’s investigation brings him to a cabaret employee named Takemitsu Nanjo (Seizaburo Kawazu), who dresses as a clown and carries an advertisement sign wherever he goes. One night, an elderly neighbor of Nanjo’s (Kamatari Fujiwara) is murdered by the "invisible men." Komatsu, believing Nanjo innocent, sneaks into the clown’s room. It is there Nanjo reveals himself as the true surviving Invisible Man, the gang merely imposters capitalizing on the pandemonium. Disgusted that an identity associated with him has been used in a series of crimes and now a grisly murder, Nanjo sheds his disguise and sets out to bring the gang to justice.

Seizaburo Kawazu in Toho's Invisible Man (1954)

To describe the plot of this picture is to make it sound more gripping and compelling than it actually is. A mere plot summary, such as the one I provided above, might leave the impression that the movie’s central focus is the reporter Komatsu and his determination to solve the origin/identity of the invisible men. One imagines an absorbing mystery-thriller with the journalist conducting interviews, delving into records, surveying crime scenes, collaborating with the police, uncovering clues, discerning patterns, stitching the pieces together one at a time. (How will he—and the audience—find out about what the military did to some of its men during the war?) It sounds like an enticing journey.

Alas, there is virtually no stitching to speak of, and that is the movie’s first crucial mistake. Instead of constructing a tantalizing, procedure-packed yarn, Shigeaki Hidaki’s screenplay opts for the incredibly lazy route of blatantly spelling out the genesis of the invisible men within the first five minutes of the picture’s run time. The body and the suicide note appear, and the very next scene—the very next scene!—consists of a public service announcement in which a metropolitan police chief, all too conveniently, broadcasts the whole backstory. What could have easily made up thirty to forty-five minutes of screen-mystery is instead anticlimactically summed up in a roughly thirty-second speech. The surreptitious mission, the radioactive beam, the platoon of invisible men who vanished in the maritime conflicts…the chief spoils it all. Compare that to, say, Jun Fukuda’s The Secret of the Telegian (1960), which made the most of its murder-oriented plot and emphasized the lengths its investigator heroes had to go in order to solve the conundrum at hand. Invisible Man, very unwisely, chooses not to employ its own potential. There is some interview-spiced unraveling following the big spoiler moment—the most interesting being a scene where Komatsu meets up with the mentor of the man who created the radioactive beam; though it’s also superfluous, as what he learns never comes up again or impacts the remainder of the narrative—all hinting at the superior product this film could’ve been.

To the credit of the screenwriter, the first forty minutes, despite undermining its own potential, does flow with a certain grace. Hidaka quickly introduces us to the remaining principal characters: Nanjo; a cabaret singer named Michiyo (Miki Sanjo), for whom Nanjo has romantic feelings; the cruel owners of the club who are quickly revealed to be the imposters pillaging the city; the ill-fated watchman who became an accomplice to the gang in order to make money to help his blind granddaughter (Keiko Kondo). By establishing a common aspect between these characters—the cabaret—Hidaki keeps everyone related and justifies the numerous scenes set in the club. (Every time we change locations to the cabaret, a new link in the plot’s chain is being fastened.)

Motoyoshi Oda directs Invisible Man (1954)Having said that, the nightclub-set sequences are the best and vividly demonstrate Motoyoshi Oda’s capabilities as a director. As with a similar scene in Godzilla Raids Again (1955), I very much admired his instinct for camera movement and making the most of large crowds to deliver an intoxicating cinematic experience. Consider the first such scene. It begins with an establishing shot outside the cabaret, soothing romantic music oozing from within. Cut immediately to an interior: of a slim, shadowy figure on a winding staircase. A beam of light envelops the figure, revealing it to be Michiyo, who calls herself, in song, "the sad clown in town" (an obvious reference to Nanjo). As she sings, Michiyo makes her way down the stairs, and Oda’s crane-positioned camera pulls back and up, revealing a dance floor packed with weaving bodies and a band playing in the background. From there, the director switches to a fixed, grounded shot set in the back reaches of the cabaret, a bar table in view, reflective lights cast off an unseen disco ball streaking upon the walls. Three shots elegantly combined to familiarize the audience with the new setting. The remainder of the sequence consists of numerous crane vistas and one particularly good shot of Michiyo walking lengthwise upon the stage: as she strolls, the camera pans along with her, her background changing (going from one end of the band-laden stage to the other) while dancing couples occasionally streak past in the foreground. Oda then switches to a lengthy dance performance—which includes a man pressed against a wall, his clothes painted to make him appear to blend into his background; the cabaret is playing up the invisible man controversy, as one character then acknowledges. Another favorite moment of mine occurs after Michiyo finishes her song and walks back to her room, where she prepares to undress, only to shriek upon discovering one of the cabaret owner’s henchmen (Kenjiro Uemura) has crept in. Michiyo attempts to fight off her attacker, who easily wrestles the singer to the ground and is about to have his way with her when someone knocks on the door. The henchman bolts to his feet as Nanjo, still dressed in clown makeup, steps inside, asking for his pay. Angered, the henchman slaps a fistful of banknotes into Nanjo’s chest, shoves him aside, and storms out. What follows is a very nice little exchange between Michiyo and Nanjo as they quietly talk and console one another. So good is this moment that it pains me to admit these two characters don’t have much in the way of chemistry. Both are well-acted; they just do not share enough scenes to make a truly visceral connection with one another.

Another flavorful sequence. Komatsu, suspecting Nanjo might be an invisible man, following the clown’s every move. The reporter hires a car to keep watch on the subject. Director Oda situates his camera inside the automobile, the window chassis framing the shot, the view constantly changing; and the dialogue is minimized, capitalizing on film’s ability to convey story and mood with visuals. It concludes similarly: Komatsu takes refuge in a pachinko parlor opposite the cabaret and pretends to play. No dialogue, eyes locked on the mysterious clown. I hope to one day experience other films in Oda’s career, as scenes such as this show he had all the makings of a good crime director—provided he ever got his hands on a script with more than one compelling character.

Speaking of which, the one consistent human aspect of Invisible Man would have to be Nanjo himself. Following his introduction (as a spectator to the public service announcement declaring the existence of invisible men), Nanjo reveals little bits and pieces of his personality as the story presses along. We see his friendship with the little blind girl. We learn his mother was a Christian and taught him to try and do good with his life no matter what (film historian Stuart Galbraith IV suggests this touch might’ve been implemented by special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, a religious man himself). Having said that, is it a coincidence the boarding house he resides in is called Heiwa-So—"Peace House?" Most fascinating of all, Nanjo embodies a somber antiwar theme. His friend committed suicide because his appearance had been "stolen by the military" and he could not reintegrate into society. When Nanjo returned to his homeland, he was dismayed to see once-beautiful Japan torn to pieces. Worse yet, his lack of physical visibility meant could not say goodbye to his terminally ill mother. So unbearable was his grief he also considered taking his own life (probably refraining due to his Christian beliefs). The war, including and especially Japan’s wartime leaders, took everything from him; dressing as a clown became his only way of being noticed by society. This is where the good side of screenwriter Hidaka comes into play—something also on display in Godzilla Raids Again (1955). Even though the themes in that picture were a tad underdeveloped, I appreciated Hidaka’s (due credit also given to Takeo Murata) depiction of people trying to move on with their lives in the aftermath of a great disaster: surely a common sentiment in 1940s-50s Japan. And in Invisible Man, he outright condemns Japan’s World War II authorities.

In a sense, Invisible Man is an antithesis to the Universal-produced film Invisible Agent from 1942. That movie also dealt with wartime themes, except it sunk to the level of simpleminded propaganda in which most of the villains were presented as bumbling simpletons in order to make the good guys (the Allies) appear all the more noble; and the invisible man (an American, of course) was a smarmy wisecracking hero who tossed out one-liners as opposed to developing into a fleshed-out, relatable character. Not only that, but being turned invisible was, in essence, a privilege and something to be proud of—because it was a tool for serving one’s country and making a mockery of the enemy. And when the mission was over—when the Nazis and other Axis Powers were thoroughly humiliated—the noble American hero, who survived without any lasting consequence, was left to smile and laugh mirthfully as he regained his physical appearance and took his girl into his arms. Pandora’s Box has been opened, in war of all times, but there are no regrets and nothing to lament over. ("How could negative consequences exist for a potentially dangerous technology if used for a good cause?" the film seems to ask.) The Toho film, by contrast, presents its protagonist as lonely and sad, wishing to lead a normal life once more, but unable to. A well-written, empathetic lead; and the soulful performance by Seizaburo Kawazu makes it even better.

Another possible postwar symbol: the blind girl whom Nanjo befriends. He asks her what she would like for Christmas. She asks for a music box which plays her favorite song. The little girl mentions she once had such a music box but it was burned in the war. She would like to have another one, because listening to the song helps her remember her (deceased) parents. From this, we can speculate her parents were killed in the fire bombings, and she doesn’t want to forget them. Not to mention: the little girl, was she hurt during the war herself? It just might account for her loss of eyesight.

levitating phone in Toho's Invisible Man (1954)

Upon Nanjo becoming The Invisible Avenger, the film more or less devolves into a showcase for Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects. This was Tsuburaya’s second time dealing with the subject of an invisible person—the first being Daiei’s The Invisible Man Appears (1949); he even replicates the "levitating handgun" effect used prominently in that movie’s climax—and the results are perhaps just as dazzling as they were the first time around. The scene where Nanjo scrubs off his clown makeup, revealing his invisibility, is particularly impressive. To achieve this effect, Kawazu gradually covered his face with black greasepaint; when combined with a separately photographed background, the dark shades became see-through, and the actor seemed to wipe away his very being. Even more impressive are the levitation effects. In his confrontation with the gang, Nanjo taunts his opponents by splashing beer in their faces, playing instruments, and hurling bottles at them. In another instance, he unfolds a bank statement, the paper appearing to spread itself in midair. (Though this effect’s diminished a bit by the fact that finger-sized sections of the paper seem to dissolve and then reappear before our eyes as it opens. I assume the final result was achieved with a stuntman—probably the late Haruo Nakajima, who receives screen credit—dressed entirely in dark velvet and photographed before a similarly colored background (all of which would be removed in post-production); but his velvet-covered hands likely touched parts of the paper that should’ve been visible only to the camera, resulting in the parts covered by his fingers seeming to vanish until Nakajima shifted his hand again.) Following John P. Fulton’s example: when an invisible man regains his appearance in the moment of death, his skull is momentarily visible before the face materializes over it. (John P. Fulton did the special photographic effects for Universal’s Invisible Man series of the 1930s-40s.) And of course, Tsuburaya presents more than a few Fulton-esque shots of Nanjo walking through malleable surfaces such as mud, his footprints appearing to imprint themselves. The most noticeable gaffe is another technique borrowed from the earlier mentioned The Invisible Man Appears: the still-unseen Nanjo drives a rabbit scooter through the streets of Tokyo. I don’t remember how seamless the effect was in the Daiei film, but here, the wire guiding the scooter along is all too plainly visible.

On the wholesomely negative side: though the visual effects are enjoyable to watch and enjoyable to contemplate in terms of how they were pulled off, they come at the almost total expense of the story. The dramatic glue that ought to be holding these extravaganzas together is missing. In the film’s latter half, Komatsu, formerly a prevalent supporting character, practically disappears from the narrative; when he pops up again in the climax, he might as well be an extra. Nanjo’s friendship with the little blind girl is nearly forgotten as well. Nanjo and Michiyo share a would-be tender scene in a music hall: the clown pleas with the singer to flee from the gang’s control. But since they’ve spent so few scenes together, there’s no real emotional payoff and not much to get invested in. In fact, Michiyo has a more interesting dynamic with the gang in that she works for them but declines becoming an accomplice—until threatened with flogging—and does not shy from slapping one across the face when he tries to take advantage of her. And the villains are simply not engaging enough to make up for what’s lacking around them.

Miki Sanjo and Seizaburo Kawazu in Invisible Man (1954)Adding insult to injury is the picture’s underwhelming climax. Nanjo confronts the gun-wielding cabaret owner (Minoru Takada) atop an oil refinery, the baddie wildly firing his pistol, causing nearby storage tanks to catch fire, both men ultimately plummeting to their deaths. This scene marks Oda’s biggest lapse in terms of directing, as he photographs much of the fight (Takada shadowboxing) in static wide shots that do not make much use of the setting. Livelier camera movement and more complex action (say, Nanjo hoisting his opponent into the air and throwing him) would’ve conveyed welcome tension. Furthermore, a dull finale just invites the audience to pick at the hiccups in logic. For instance: how is it a handgun, a small close-range weapon, can be fired at oil storage tanks an estimated 50-100 meters away, and the small, decelerating bullet still strikes with enough power to cause these huge metal containers to catch fire and explode? Then there’s the image on which the film concludes. As I mentioned, Nanjo’s neighbor requested a music box for Christmas. Remembering that: after Nanjo and the cabaret owner fall, a song permeates the soundtrack; the camera swings away from the crowd gathered around the noble avenger’s body to—guess what?—an opened music box which has suddenly appeared on the ground nearby. Where did it come from? How did it get there? Why haven’t we seen it before? The obvious implication is Nanjo dropped it during his fatal plunge; but the movie has very plainly established that an object held by an invisible man will not itself be rendered invisible. So if he was, indeed, carrying it with him, shouldn’t we have seen a music box floating in the air the whole time? Continuing on that note, how did Nanjo manage to perfect his disguise? Covering himself with makeup would only make his flesh visible. What about his eyes? Shouldn’t we be able to see right through them since nothing’s covering them? (He doesn’t wear sunglasses like his counterparts in the Universal movies.) How about when he opens his mouth? Whatever’s behind him should be viewable when he speaks.

Logical lapses tend to pop up quickly for those looking for them, but when the movie fails to engage, even the most forgiving audience member is likely to notice.

In regards to the supporting performances: Miki Sanjo, whom Kurosawa fans will recognize as the fiancée from The Quiet Duel (1949), gives the film’s standout performance apart from Kawazu. Yoshio Tsuchiya is good enough as the reporter but, due to the limitations of the script, isn’t given a chance to deliver the same level of zest and energy we typically expect from him. (The actor admitted in a 1996 interview with Steve Ryfle he wanted to play the invisible man himself.) Keiko Kondo is pleasant and likable as the sightless child. Kamatari Fujiwara, as her grandfather, sadly does not have enough screen time to make us feel for him when he is knocked off. Minoru Takada and Kenjiro Uemura, as the two primary villains, look and talk sinisterly, which is pretty much all the script requires of them.

As for Kyosuke Kami’s musical score, it enhances mood when necessary (somber and somewhat startling for Nanjo unveiling his lack of an appearance; sad for the romantic scenes) but isn’t especially memorable. In terms of music, the nightclub songs left more of an impact on me. However, let me note actress Sanjo’s lip movements rarely match the dubbed-over lyrics for her English language song. At one point her mouth closes completely, and she somehow continues to sing!

In summary, Motoyoshi Oda’s Invisible Man is a close miss. Screenwriter Hidaka is, of course, due credit for his good contributions here, but his errors leave their presence felt to a more noticeable degree; meanwhile, Oda succeeds in turning out another good-looking product as he would with Godzilla a year later. The result of their combined efforts in this instance works well enough on a visual level but cripples itself in the story department. On the other hand, the movie is at least endurable—probably helped by its seventy-minute run time—and I heartily encourage those who have seen Toho’s Invisible Man to give extra consideration for how director Oda impacted the good material here. After all, a number of those fine cinematic moments stem from what he was able to pull off with his camera.