The Human Vapor (Ishiro Honda, 1960)

IS HE MAN OR ASTRO-MAN?

AV_Inferno_DVD_.inddSomething evil has drifted into Tokyo.  High security banks have been mysteriously robbed with only murdered staff left to mark the crime.  The police are baffled – no fingerprints, no weapons, no clues are found.  The culprit is THE HUMAN VAPOR, an atomic age nightmare spawned of science-gone-mad!  Once just a harmless librarian, a scientific experiment grants him the power to disintegrate into an indestructible gaseous thing.  With a city on edge and journalists keenly following this fantastic figure of modern terror, the police pursue their only clue – a beautiful dancer with an unknown sponsor financing her comeback.  Is she the key to stopping the Gas Man from ruthlessly killing again?

Following in the footsteps of their 1954 sci-fi classic Godzilla, director Ishiro Honda, special effects designer Eiji Tsuburaya, editor Kazuji Taira, and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka create a new story of irradiated horror, this time with a human face.  The Human Vapor is presented here, for the first time, in high definition presentations of both the original Japanese version and the recut American version that transforms Honda’s film from a science fiction mystery into a flashback tale told by the Gas Man himself.

Special Features:

  • New high definition digital transfer of the original Japanese cut of The Human Vapor and of the American version recut by Brenco Pictures
  • High definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
  • Original Japanese and English mono audio soundtracks (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
  • Newly translated English subtitles for the Japanese soundtrack
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack
  • Audio commentary by actress Kaoru Yachigusa
  • Interview with special effects designer Koichi Kawakita
  • Half Man … Half Beast! – featurette on Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects with special effects photographer Motoyoshi Tomioka
  • Theatrical trailers
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by David Kalat, an essay by special effects designer Koichi Kawakita, behind the scenes photos, and poster art

Watch The Human Vapor at Internet Archive – https://archive.org/details/TheHumanVapor1960

With the massive success of Godzilla (1954), director Ishiro Honda became Toho Studios’ go-to filmmaker for science fiction spectacle and he quickly found himself splitting time between Toho’s new Godzilla franchise and other sci-fi eye candy.  His 1960 film The Human Vapor lacks the rubber-suited monsters of Godzilla or Varan the Unbelievable (1958), the spaceships of Battle in Outer Space (1959), or the super-submarines of Atragon (1963), preferring a street-level procedural investigating a series of improbable murders and bank robberies performed by man twisted and empowered by atomic science.  The film, known as Gasu ningen dai ichigo in Japanese and usually translated as Gas Human No. 1 or Gas Person No. 1, boasts impressive and unnerving special effects, a suffocating air of dread around the calm but merciless gas man, and a sublimated social commentary typical to Honda’s finer sci-fi efforts.

The Human Vapor opens within a police car in hot pursuit of a bank robber.  The robber’s vehicle crashes down an embankment, but the trailing police find no sign of the driver or the stolen cash.  While at the abandoned car, Detective Okamoto (Tatsuya Mihashi) and two officers hear the sound of traditional music and investigate a nearby home where they find a dance rehearsal going on.  The dancer is Fujichiyo Kasuga (Kaoru Yachigusa), the daughter of a once wealthy and esteemed family, now living modestly with her servant Jiya (Bokuzen Hidari).  When questioned by the police, Jiya denies having any knowledge of the crash or the driver and he advises that household doesn’t even own a car.  The next day, another robbery occurs wherein the robber murders one of the staff, improbably leaving the employee locked within the secure vault area still possessing the only key into the space, and then escapes the bank, impervious to the hail of bullets shots by an attending police officer.  Police forensics identify no clues into the identity of the robber and determine the murdered employee and police officer to have mysteriously suffocated.

Gas ManFrustrated by the case, Okamoto shares with his journalist girlfriend Kyoko Kono (Keiko Sata) his suspicion that Fujichiyo is somehow involved in the robberies.  Okamoto and Kyoko realize that Fujichiyo suddenly possesses newfound wealth; buying a car, booking a theatre for a recital, and hiring musicians to perform with her; and Fujichiyo is taken into custody when a search of her home locates some of the stolen money.  The dancer’s arrest brings a librarian named Mizuno (Yoshio Tsuchiya) to police headquarters identifying himself as the robber, asserting Fujichiyo’s innocence, and claiming a most unusual method of committing the crime.  Brought to the bank to demonstrate his modus operandi, he transforms into a swirling mass of green gas to the astonishment of police and bank staff alike, passing through the vault’s bars, taking even more cash, and killing both the bank’s president and another police officer before escaping.  Mizuno’s demand that Fujichiyo be released is not met with immediate action by the police and so he appears at the station, suffocating two more police officers, only to have his offer of freedom refused by the dancer as being contrary to her innocence.

Mizuno reveals his origins to Kyoko’s newspaper, describing himself as a former test pilot who’s career ended when he was diagnosed with lung cancer.  Working as a librarian, Mizuno was approached by Dr. Sano of the Japanese Space Research Program (Fuyuki Murakami) who offered him ¥20,000 to participate in an experiment designed to alter his body to space travel.  Mizuno was subjected to 240 hours of continuous treatment in an enclosed chamber, eventually transforming him into the Gas Man to Dr. Sano’s surprise.  Feeling deceived by the doctor and uncovering that he was not the first test subject, Mizuno killed Dr. Sano and used his new powers to help Fujichiyo dance once again.

Unable to capture the Gas Man, hold Fujichiyo, or prevent the recital, the police devise a plan to fill the theatre with UM gas during the performance, igniting it at a set time to destroy Mizuno.  The plan unfolds and the theatre is filled with the combustible gas but when the police attempt the remote ignition, they discover their wires have been cut (by Fujichiyo).  At the recital, Fujichiyo thanks Mizuno for his devotion and during a long-awaited embrace between the two, Fujichiyo flicks a lighter and ignites the UM gas, sacrificing herself and Jiya to finally destroy the Gas Man.

The Human Vapor was recut for American audiences four years later and released by Brenco Pictures with substantial amendments.  Takeshi Kimura’s investigative procedural is reordered so as to commence with the Gas Man recounting his creation and criminal exploits to journalists, presenting the original film’s footage as a flashback before moving on to the recital which ascribes the cut ignition wires to Mizuno.  The Brenco cut fiddles with the movie’s music and sound effects and features the great James Hong as the dubbed voice of Mizuno (although reviews describe his vocal performance as somewhat lacklustre).

PrintThis post contributes to “The Great Villain Blogathon” and Honda’s Gas Man is certainly a memorable screen villain, with a smug, callous performance from Yoshio Tsuchiya and eerie gaseous effects by Eiji Tsuburaya and his team (Mizuno’s final demise is poignantly chilling).  Yet what makes Mizuno memorable is the conflicted nature of his villainy, something achieved in The Human Vapor‘s various oppositions and its uneasiness with the changing nature of post-war Japan.  Detective Okamoto seeks to uphold the law in contrast to Mizuno who imagines himself as post-human and therefore above man’s laws.  Upper class Fujichiyo values her honour and obligation to Mizuno over the risk to life posed by the Gas Man that careerist reporter Kyoko advocates guarding against.  Mizuno’s willingness to steal and kill to achieve his goals is not entirely unlike Okamoto and the police’s willingness to search Fujichiyo’s residence or hold her despite her acknowledged innocence.  In fact, The Human Vapor casts a critical view at modern Japan and post-war economic miracle the country was riding.  Mizuno is made a monster by atomic power and uses his new ability in service of a traditional woman and art form, using and assaulting institutions of the new Japanese Establishment – banks, law enforcement, media.  The Gas Man is a victim of a new Japanese modernity and his villainy functions as a kind of return of the repressed, one that Honda cleverly contains by a technological solution enabled by the sacrifice of an earlier way of life

Human Vapor PosterArrow Video continues to lead the way in Japanese genre cinema, but the label has still yet to break into science fiction.  With no North American release of the film on hard media and an existing relationship with MGM (the rights holder to the Brenco cut), The Human Vapor seems like a viable option for this great cult label.  And with so many great lines splashed across it, we love this poster of the film for an Arrow Video edition.

Credits:  The cover summary is inspired by the one used on the Video Gems VHS cassette’s packaging.  The commentary by Kaoru Yachigusa and the interview and essay by Koichi Kawakita are special features included on Japanese DVDs of the film.  We used the Criterion Collection edition of Godzilla as inspiration for the interview with Motoyoshi Tomioka and the essay by David Kalat.

Be sure to come by at the end of the week for our other contribution to “The Great Villain Blogathon!”

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “The Human Vapor (Ishiro Honda, 1960)

  1. Silver Screenings May 15, 2016 / 9:36 pm

    A smug villain?! Say it ain’t so! 😉

    This sounds like a fascinating sci-fi film.Thanks for the introduction to this (to me) unheard-of film – and thanks for bringing it to the Villain Blogathon!

  2. girlsdofilm May 17, 2016 / 9:09 pm

    This sounds great! In my humble opinion, the sci-fi genre has spawned some of the best villains, and Gas Man sounds like a force to be reckoned with!

    • spinenumbered May 18, 2016 / 1:31 pm

      If you like the Gas Man, just wait for … the Mushroom People! Matango is coming up on Friday.

  3. Kristina May 20, 2016 / 12:30 pm

    Sounds fun, thanks for covering it for the blogathon!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s