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Review: A Japanese Sci-Fi Double Feature

Today, I returned to Japan Society (where I saw Blind Woman’s Curse) to enjoy another retrospective. This time, rather than featuring the films of a single actor, the programmers chose to celebrate The Land of the Rising Sun’s hardworking special effects wizards with a slate of super obscure sci-fi flicks from the Golden Age of Japanese cinema.

First up was Invisible Man. I’ve always been fascinated by Japanese reinterpretations of Western literature, from Kurosawa’s borderline obsession with Shakespeare (Throne of Blood, Ran) to Hiroshi Inagaki’s surprisingly faithful adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac (Samurai Saga), and while this Toho production borrows little more than the title from H.G. Wells’ classic novella, it’s still an intriguing piece of postwar pulp fiction in its own right. This version of the tale casts its eponymous character as a tragic “monster” to rival any of Universal’s horror icons: once a patriot who underwent an irreversible procedure to better serve his country as a spy, his unusual condition has left him incapable of fully reintegrating back into society. When his last surviving comrade commits suicide by stepping into traffic—his mangled, blood-soaked corpse slowly fading into existence before the eyes of stunned onlookers—the thought of some unseen menace lurking amongst the populace causes mass hysteria to sweep across Tokyo. The local thieves, mobsters, and murderers are only too happy to take advantage of the situation, forcing our reluctant hero to reemerge from his self-imposed isolation in order to clear his name. Although it carries that unmistakable B-movie stench (even at a lean 70 minutes, the narrative feels overstuffed with show-stopping musical numbers and scenes of pointless titillation), Invisible Man is ultimately salvaged by the legendary Eiji Tsuburaya’s inventive visual trickery and some legitimately compelling social commentary. It’s neither as fun nor as cheesy as something like Shochiku’s delightfully demented Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, but I found it perfectly enjoyable.

That said, judging by the audience’s reaction, the second feature, The Secret of the Telegian, was the clear winner of the evening, and I would have fewer reservations about recommending it to fellow Gamera and Ultraman fanatics. Leaving aside one brief excursion to a seedy cabaret (just in time to witness a lengthy song-and-dance routine), Telegian’s overall plot is far more focused and concise than Invisible Man’s. Four shady businessmen (and, as we later discover, former war criminals) receive ominous letters foretelling their violent deaths, right down to the exact minute. Despite the valiant efforts of the police department (and one tagalong reporter, who spends more time investigating the case than he does writing about it), the killer always manages to slip past every cordon and make short work of his target before vanishing into thin air, as though by supernatural means. If you immediately recognized The Joker’s modus operandi in that synopsis, then you’ll absolutely adore the film’s studio sets, which evoke the ‘60s Batman TV show (albeit retroactively: Adam West wouldn’t Batusi until about six years after Toho released Telegian): sterile, subterranean laboratories packed wall-to-wall with buzzing, clicking, and humming machinery covered in blinking lights, glowing vacuum tubes, and innumerable knobs and buttons and levers and dials. Tsuburaya embraces the classic mad scientist aesthetic, delivering one of the most visually impressive “matter transportation” effects I’ve ever seen on the big screen—especially when the process inevitably goes awry, with deliciously gruesome (but still G-rated) results.

All in all, I wouldn’t call either film a newfound favorite, but the very fact that their simple-yet-innovative special effects are able to transcend such flimsy stories and lackluster characters, even after all these decades, is a testament to Tsuburaya’s immeasurable talent (not that we needed more evidence; the man did co-create Godzilla). Thank you, Japan Society, for giving me the opportunity to experience these under-seen, under-appreciated treasures and time capsules. I’m definitely looking forward to next weekend’s double bill (Blue Christmas and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris).

[Originally written April 1, 2017.]

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