A key location in Ishiro Honda’s 1958 sci-fi mystery The H-Man is a seedy nightclub. Working inside is Chikako Arai (Yumi Shirakawa), singing and dancing in skimpy clothes to please various Japanese underworld bosses. [Note: This review is based on the Japanese cut, not the mostly incomprehensible American version also included on this disc.]
The club is dark and atmospheric, and also lurking inside is the H-Man, a former gangster turned radioactive slime. Anyone he touches dissolves, apparently turning into one of the H-Men who roam Japanese sewers feasting on anyone who comes near.
Honda directs the nightclub sequence with care, building a layer of tension through rapidly increasing music, gunfire drowned by drums, and victims dissolved out of sight of other humans. It is a wonderful sequence, maybe even one of Honda’s best in terms of pure atmosphere.
Like many of Honda’s films, the message of atomic testing effects is loud and forceful. Here Japan’s Lucky Dragon incident is hardly hidden in the subtext. The film contains a flashback sequence in which an abandoned fishing vessel is discovered drenched in radioactive fallout, although the source of the bomb is left alone (it was an American test in real life).
Much of H-Man is a vast departure from the typical Toho science fiction of the day. It is darker, richer, and significantly terrifying. The slime, what the H-Man becomes, is creepy and eerie, certainly more so than The Blob which came out the same year. It never grows to a monstrous size, but remains hidden for much of the film, stalking victims and striking when they have no way out.
People not only die in the film, but they graphically decompose when attacked. Much of Toho’s lively, colorful monster movies avoid showing the human casualties. It is a trademark of Honda, and here he breaks the mold in disgusting fashion.
Gangster films were huge in Japan at the time, and many of the Toho sci-fi films of the era brought the element in to complete their stories. H-Man is no exception, and much of the film is taken up with an investigation. The police discuss who is killing various gang members, while Dr. Masada (Kenji Sahara) tries to convince him a radioactive blob is behind the murders. It can be sluggish, and the first trip into the nightclub is extended, although the information provided is necessary.
As ridiculous as it sounds, Toho’s brand of science is oddly logical, and its final warning that more H-Men are possible amidst a burning Japanese skyline is powerful. The film is not always clear and since the H-Man (Men, actually) is a blob, any intentions or identification is lost. Masaru Sato’s zippy score also salvages an otherwise dry chase sequence late in the film, a score that seems inappropriate given the subject but does work.
Honda would revisit the idea of a man turned into liquid with The Human Vapor two years later. A fine film on its own, it lacks the tension and dread of The H-Man, something rare in Toho sci-fi, and it is the difference that makes H-Man stand above the films that follow.
Being such a dark film, the DVD struggles to impress. Black crush is a regular problem, fusing people with the backgrounds into a single black blob. Colors are bright, especially blue, but are obviously digitally enhanced. Flesh tones are orange and unnatural.
The grain structure of the film is handled well, with minor mosquito noise. Ringing is rare but notable. Print damage, with the exception of the stock footage explosion at the beginning and double printed special effect shots, is minor. The source has been nicely cleaned up, but is murky and unimpressive.