Year: 1957 Runtime: 96′ Director: Mitsuo Murayama
Writer: Hajime Takaiwa Cinematography: Hiroshi Murai Music: Tokujiro Okubo
Cast: Yoshiro Kitahara, Ryuji Shinagawa, Junko Kanau, Ikuko Mori
A strange and increasingly violent series of burglaries and murders shakes Japan. The murder victims are usually found stabbed in the back, and killed in tightly controlled or completely locked places. Or on an airplane toilet. Additionally, nobody ever sees or hears any sign of the perpetrator or perpetrators. Why, you could think the killer is invisible! That’s at least what the lead investigator of the case, well-respected young cop Wakabayashi, says in a moment of weakness.
When the policeman utters this rather absurd theory while interviewing some scientists he is friendly with about the airplane toilet business one of them witnessed, they aren’t laughing about his flights of fancy. Ironically, the men are working on some scientific ray stuff whose by-product is invisibility, or, as they prefer it to be called, imperceptibility. They haven’t tested it on a human being yet, though, out of fear that it might be dangerous.
Apart from putting the idea of an invisible copper into his brain, this isn’t getting Wakabayashi anywhere right now. Fortunately, the continuing murder spree gives our hero and his team a lot to distract them. The last few victims have been pointing in the air and swatting at something during their last moments, and witnesses heard the buzzing of a fly. Why, you could think the killer can turn into a fly! Which is nearly, but not quite what is happening. In truth, the killer is using an experimental reagent made during the war to facilitate his escapes. This reagent, you see, can shrink down a man until he is not quite as small as a fly. As SCIENCE(!) teaches, all small creatures are able to float through the air while making the buzzing noise of a fly, so that’s the explanation for the noises the witnesses heard.
About half of the murders are connected by this reagent too, because the victims have all been part in the war crimes committed during its creation, though none of them have been punished for them. This part of the killing spree is vengeance for and by the only man who did get punished, and is now using a rather mad gentleman with an addiction to the reagent to commit the murders. The other half of the killings has something to do with the madman’s obsession with a nightclub singer on whom he likes to perv when he is shrunk down, but let’s not go there.
Obviously, this is the sort of case that can only be cracked if someone is willing to take the risk of becoming an invisible man.
Even though this plot description sounds as awesome as it is dumb, Daiei’s IM vs HF is not quite as awe-inspiring as I would have liked it to be. The film has two major problems it is only just able to conquer to my satisfaction. The first one is scriptwriter Hajime Takaiwa’s peculiar decision to frame much of the movie’s first two thirds as a slightly weird police procedural, with many scenes of earnest looking men doing earnest police business that are only from time to time broken up by the insanity that waits in the plot’s background. The second problem is also one belonging to the script. Takaiwa seems hell-bent to stuff Human Fly as full of elements of the police procedural, the slightly sleazy exploitationer and the mad science horror film as possible. This, however, leaves even the more patient viewer (like me) with a film full of ideas and plot-threads that are never really explored nor explained and in the end more often than not just stop with a hand-waving gesture when Takaiwa is getting bored of them.
Characterization-wise, there’s never a clear through-line for why people act like they do. Just to take some obvious examples, why does the film’s villain suddenly turn from a man out for vengeance and a bit of money into the sort of bad guy more fitting into an issue of The Spider? What does he need the invisibility ray for when he already can turn into a flying, buzzing little man? And, while I’m at it, why doesn’t he just steal it (he is the Human Fly, after all) instead of going for a semi-apocalyptic blackmail plan? And why does the elder scientist’s daughter decide that the invisible scientist already at work isn’t enough and turns into the invisible woman?
I sure could make up some reasons for the characters’ behaviour, and some of the film’s obvious plot holes, but I do think that’s the responsibility of the script, not the audience. Especially the film’s last third gives the impression of Takaiwa giving up and just making stuff up as it goes along without any thought for coherence or sense. Come to think of it, hero pulps like The Spider with their usually heated and sloppily constructed narratives seem like an excellent point of comparison to what Taikawa does here writing-wise.
Comparable to many of the hero pulps, the writing flaws that hinder IM vs HF from becoming the goodSF/crime/horror hybrid movie with a subtextual line about the violence committed by war-touched people in post-war Japan it could have been, are also making it enjoyably nutty and near impossible to dislike for viewers like me who can get excited about a film that’s just full of silly stuff for no good reason other than the clear awesomeness of all silly stuff. This is, after all a film that doesn’t want to realize that flies have wings for a reason, a film that also makes up some nonsense about face and hands of an invisible person getting visible quite fast again because of the rays of the sun while the rest of it doesn’t (no nudity for Japanese people who want to turn visible again, it seems), only to then forget that for the rest of its running time. It also presents turning back from an invisibility by means of SCIENCE(!) as very dangerous, until it’s time to wrap everything up, when it’s not only possible to turn visible again and live, but to seemingly go from one state to the other at will. It’s all very dumb, and reeks of lazy writing as much any modern blockbuster I’ve seen, but it sure is fun to watch what nonsense Takaiwa is going to come up with next.
The film’s other big plus point is Mitsuo Murayama’s (whom I know as one of the Japanese directors who’d go on to work a bit for Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers) direction. For my taste, Murayama isn’t a very consistent stylist, but he is the kind of director always going for the most interesting angle from which to shoot the more boring police procedural scenes, making the parts of IM vs HF most in need of not looking square and boring look much weirder than their actual content and context deserve; if you’re the generous type, you might even suggest Murayama is hinting at the strangeness surrounding his square policemen right from the beginning by way of his stylistic tics. Be that as it may, Murayama’s often peculiarly cramped, close-up and Dutch angle heavy visual style keeps the movie’s rather slow beginning interesting, and helps the mess that is its script stay a mess that is fun to watch even in its worst moments.