Since it was first published in 1897, H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man has endured in popular culture, stepping off the printed page and onto cinema and TV screens, as well as treading the boards, and even into music. Since the original Universal film adaptation back in 1933, versions of the character have been portrayed on the silver screen by Vincent Price, Kevin Bacon, and even Chevy Chase; Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had also crossed paths with him more than once.
On television, there have been various takes, from faithfully adapted period serials, to contemporary updates, including one made in the mid-1970s, starring David McCallum. John Hurt took on the role in a 2017 audio, which was released by Big Finish Productions. Queen even wrote a song which had the character as the subject. Now, nearly a century-and-a-quarter since the Invisible Man was first introduced to us, it seems that the enthusiasm for the character is in no danger of vanishing without a trace.
The 2020 reimagining by Blumhouse proved to be a global success, even despite the significant challenges presented by the Coronavirus pandemic impacting upon its release. In fact, the Invisible Man is a character that has a worldwide appeal, it seems, because as well as embracing Hollywood’s renditions, some countries have even gone as far as making their very own versions, many of which vary wildly from the original novel, and just use the central idea of a transparent protagonist (or antagonist, as the case may be).
Arrow Video’s latest Blu-ray release brings us two examples, both of which are available here for the first time outside of Japan – The Invisible Man Appears, and The Invisible Man Vs. The Human Fly. These two films – dating from 1949 and 1957 respectively – are some of the earliest instances of the H.G. Wells story and character being adapted for cinema by non-English speaking nations; the films also represent rare pieces of early tokusatsu – or ‘special filming’ – cinema, with this genre having roots in Japanese theatrical traditions, like Kabuki, or Bunraku, which used special effects.
In charge of the pioneering work done to create the visuals in The Invisible Man Appears was Eiji Tsuburaya, whose move across to Toho Studios in the early 1950s launched tokusatsu proper, in the form of Gojira (or Godzilla), which then ended up generating the kaiju genre of monster flicks. Tsuburaya‘s techniques in creating the illusion of invisibility were reused by him later, when Toho released its very own version of the character in 1954, with Invisible Man. As such, The Invisible Man Appears firmly secures its place as a landmark piece of Japanese cinema.
Both films find themselves at an interesting point in history, coming at the dawn of the Atomic Age, in terms of what had recently happened with the Allies’ bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The wounds of World War II would still have been open, both in a literal and metaphorical sense, and Japan was attempting to come to terms with its place in the conflict, as well as finding its way in the aftermath. All of this is reflected in The Invisible Man Appears, its theatrical release only four years after the end of the hostilities.
The movie opens up with a caption: “There is no good or evil in science, but it can be used for good or evil purposes”. It happens to be a message which resonates very strongly through each of the features, perhaps trying to help the damaged nation in coming to terms with the horrors that it had experienced as a consequence of the dropping of the A-Bombs. Indeed, in The Invisible Man Vs. The Human Fly, there is a clear attempt to try and reconcile such terrible devastation with placing trust and faith in science, with a character describing it as being in effect a byproduct of scientific advancement.
For the most part, scientists are presented in both movies as benevolent characters, carrying out experimental works for the betterment of mankind. The application of technology is only a problem if it is directed through the very worst traits of human nature, such as motivations of greed or revenge. In The Invisible Man Vs. The Human Fly, the villain of the piece misuses an experimental gas, developed during World War II, to enact retribution on his compatriots who abandoned him, leaving him alone to be treated as a war criminal; this shows Japan’s ongoing attempts to look at how it acted throughout the conflict, and trying to set things right.
Neither movie is a direct adaptation of Wells’ work, with The Invisible Man Appears being focused largely around a jewel heist; and in The Invisible Man Vs. The Human Fly – which, despite also being made by Daiei Motion Picture Company, is not actually a sequel – the story feels very much like a Police procedural drama, with all the varied outlandish fantastical elements being included for extra colour or flourish. Most of the visual effects work – coming from a pre-CGI era – stands up reasonably well today, and matches much of what the VFX artist John P. Fulton did on Universal’s 1933 original.
In our modern 4K UHD age, we have become accustomed to seeing films being restored to a sparkling, pristine condition, along with having special features aplenty when released on Blu-ray. Arrow Video has been prevented from doing so with this set, largely due to the obvious difficulties inherent when dealing with foreign archive material, as it can be both cost-prohibitive and problematic to put together a slew of extras; cast and crew members will mainly no longer be with us, and trimmings or outtakes most likely non-existent.
With these practical limitations in mind, the package which has been assembled by Arrow Video is still impressive all the same. Writer, scholar and critic Kim Newman is on top form, in a featurette where he talks us through the history of the Invisible Man in cinema, putting both of the Daiei films into this wider context. A copy of the trailer for The Invisible Man Appears is also included, with its screaming hyperbole of the film’s technical excellence unintentionally hilarious, and it actually makes most modern-day PR feel almost muted and subtle by comparison.
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Both movies are sadly unable to be fully restored to modern standards, as there are only exhibition prints surviving, and the damage to each makes it impossible to make the prints look immaculate. As a consequence, there are some signs of tramline scratches and other visible artefacts on the picture throughout. However, we are lucky to have these exist at all, so any real criticism about the picture quality would be very unfair, particularly if we remember the bad old days of VHS, when many studios seemed to have a ‘that’ll do’ approach to sticking films out on tape, without any thought being given to restoration or quality control.
Both The Invisible Man Appears and The Invisible Man Vs. The Human Fly are fascinating examples not only of historic Japanese cinema, but also a look into their society at such a pivotal time, as well as the way in which American cinematic tropes can be given new life when seen through the prism of another culture. We are truly fortunate to have both films, as they were at risk of disappearing forever, very much like the lead character.
The Invisible Man Appears / The Invisible Man Vs. The Human Fly is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.