Tuesday, July 15, 2014

In short: The Human Vapor (1960)

Original title: Gasu ningen dai ichigo

This seems to be one of the lesser loved non-kaiju movies by the great Ishiro Honda, at least in the West (the language barrier makes it pretty impossible for me to guess at its importance in Japan). While I disagree, I’m not really surprised by this.

The film is structured like a police procedural, with the first half nearly completely devoid of visible fantastical elements beyond the basic mystery of how the bank robber (Yoshio Tsuchiya) our cop hero Okamoto (Tatsuya Mihashi) and his surprisingly – for a Japanese film of the era – independent and competent journalist girlfriend Kyoko (Keiko Sata) are chasing manages to execute his heists, and what his connection to kabuki dancer/actress Fujichiyo (Kaoru Yachigusa), a young but old-fashionedly Japanese upperclass lady quite in contrast to Kyoko, might be. It’s the kind of set-up you’d find in many a standard mystery, only there, the weirdness would be explained away “naturally”. I suspect many people going in expecting something more directly science fictional will be quite disappointed, particularly since the film’s subtext concerning the inevitable clash of old and new values in Japan, and the strange and possibly dangerous mixtures that can result, won’t be what everyone is looking for (or is even necessarily noticing).

Personally, I found Honda’s approach here quite fascinating, his handling of the police procedural elements tight, and his easy build-up of character relations that aren’t quite as simple as they appear at first glance captivating, while the kabuki sequences are filmed with enough poetry of the eye to interest even somebody like me who only has a very superficial idea of what’s going on there. I suspect I miss out on even more subtext deepening measures there, but what can you do when you haven’t even really digested the ways of Western opera beyond the baroque?

Anyway, once the film gets around to it, it is also quite fine SF/horror piece that seems pleasantly influenced by The Invisible Man, and ending in drama I actually found quite moving thanks to the surprising emotional complexity the film carries under a simpler surface, with Honda showing a melancholic feeling towards the end (or changing) of Old Japan but also the knowledge of the horrible price that would have to be paid to keep it unchanged beyond all reason. Honda seems quite aware of his own emotional and intellectual contradictions at play here, which enables the film to show its representations of Old Japan as monstrous and beautiful at the same time, a humanist approach that can even find compassion for a would-be mass murderer while still not excusing his deeds.

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