Monday, March 20, 2017

Beyond Godzilla: The H-Man

For obvious reasons, Japan has long held conflicted feeling about nuclear energy. There is no better example of their inherited collective memory of atomic devastation than the king himself, Godzilla/Gojira. The annual leveling of Tokyo was definitely a macro, big picture event. In contrast, this radiation monster operates on a micro level, flowing under doors to dissolve its prey, one by one. The production team from the original Godzilla reunited to bring to oozing life the monster of Ishirō Honda’s The H-Man (trailer here), which launches the Japan Society’s new film series, Beyond Godzilla: Alternative Futures & Fantasies in Japanese Cinema.

As so many monster films do, H-Man begins with a maritime disaster. The crew of the Ryujin Maaru II are basically fodder for the goo, but a few will survive to tell their tale. Shortly thereafter, a mid-level drug trafficker named Misaki meets a rather strange fate, apparently dissolving on the streets of Tokyo. This is not some sort cartel acid attack, because Misaki’s disembodied clothes were left behind unharmed. Therefore, the cops initially assume he is still alive and proceed to hassle his innocent girlfriend Arai Chikako, in hopes of finding a missing shipment of drugs.

Straight-laced young Prof. Masada understands this not a garden variety gang war. The phenomenon is nuclear (the “H” for Hydrogen might be a bit of a misnomer, but whatever). He has even recreated predatory radioactive goo in his lab, using frogs (or rather toads). Whichever, this is science, it doesn’t have to be precisely accurate. Regardless, the cops are determined not to get it, until it is too late. Still, they are not necessarily wrong to be concerned about the gangsters operating at the night club where Chikako performs. Naturally, the drug smuggling subplot will come to a head right when the H-Man strikes, because that is how it always works.

It is hard to think of a film that purees more genres than H-Man. It is sort of a kaiju film, but also somewhat akin to a Universal-style monster movie, especially following Black Lagoon. There are science fiction elements, but also old school gangster shenanigans. Plus, there are exotic Cotton Club-style night club floor shows that are far more surreal than anything involving the H-Man. Yet, it all fits together relatively logically and flows pretty smoothly, thanks to Honda.

Yumi Shirakawa is convincingly innocent and vulnerable, while still rocking the sequined Josephine Baker outfits. Kenji Sahara’s Masada is unflaggingly earnest and tireless in the service of exposition. Technically, there is not much of an H-Man to brood or emote, but Makoto Satō chews enough scenery for the two of them as Uchida, the ruthless drug kingpin.

H-Man is weird and crazy in all the right ways. Frustratingly, it is one of those films that was chopped up and redubbed for its original American release, so it has often been presented in prints and cuts that do not do it full justice. Happily, the Japan Society will present The H-Man as it should be seen (in color and subtitles) when it screens this Friday (3/24), kicking off the Beyond Godzilla film series.