Gorath (Ishiro Honda, Japan, 1962)

Thanks to the sacrifice of Rocketship XJ-1 commanded by Professor Sonoda, the Earth learns that an approaching planetoid named Gorath is on a collision course. Dr.Tazawa (Ryo Ikebe) persuades the United Nations to co-operate in the construction of a massive nuclear engine at the South Pole, the idea being that once the huge engines are ignited the thrust can literally push the Earth out of Gorath’s path. As construction on the engines begins a second manned space mission to gather data on Gorath leaves astronaut Kanai (Akira Kubo) with amnesia to the point that he can’t even recognise girlfriend Taiko (Kumi Mizuno). At the South Pole the success of the mission is threatened when the heat of the atomic engines releases a prehistoric walrus from deep freeze. Meanwhile Taiko, Kanai and Professor Sonoda’s daughter Tomoko (Yumi Shirakawa) await their fate back home as Gorath’s passage across the sky results in earthquakes, hurricanes and tidal waves battering Japan.

Along with Mothra, Matango and The Human Vapor this is my favourite Ishiro Honda movie. It’s SF but it hews to the template established by the director’s monster movies and it distills all that is enjoyable about the genre he pioneered into one smooth and quite polished package. A likeable cast and good pacing also mean the director’s heartfelt plea for co-operation between nations doesn’t get bogged down – as it sometimes does in his other movies – by long-winded scenes of bureaucratic speechifying. It helps that everyone here from top level scientists and diplomats to an amusingly complacent taxi driver and mordant barfly get to weigh in on the significance of Gorath’s approach. There’s more humour too. The Sonoda family’s teenage son gets some hilarious lines; refused a whiskey by the adults he declares, “If Gorath’s going to strike the Earth I should be allowed at least one drink!” It’s one of the film’s nicest touches that it’s this kid whose fanciful musings about using explosives on Gorath sparks the idea in Dr.Tazawa’s mind that ultimately leads to Earth’s salvation.

Epitomised by its group of cadet astronauts led by Kanai (frustrated at not being given the go ahead for investigating Gorath, the lads hijack a helicopter and vent their frustrations in an aerial sing-song over Tokyo!) there’s a boisterous, youthful optimism coursing through Gorath that contrasts really well with the film’s grimmer aspects. Honda’s oft repeated message that if humanity were to just put aside its differences and co-operate then there’d be no difficulty that couldn’t be overcome has rarely seemed so infectious. Yet Honda isn’t above acknowledging the generation gap here. It’s quite a surprise when, after the successful ignition of the South Pole engine, Tazawa’s associate Dr.Kono (Ken Uehara) bluntly states that no one at the UN has any faith, short of divine intervention, that the Earth can be saved. “The younger generation.. just can’t understand that”, he says. It’s a sobering moment but the bridge between two generations turns out to be Dr.Tazawa, himself exhausted and reduced to tears at this point but given the strength to carry on after a heartfelt pep talk from girlfriend Tomoko. Speaking of which I really liked the two female leads, Yumi Shirakawa as Tomoko and Kumi Mizuno as Taiko. They’re both cute as buttons and seem more realistically drawn than their American contemporaries. Perhaps because they’re not simply reduced to being homemakers or sobbing when their men go off.

As competent as the character stuff is it’s the disaster spectacle we’re all here for and Gorath doesn’t disappoint on that front, offering a variety of spectacular and ambitious setpieces on earth, in the air and in space, plus one genuine monster. It seems evident that Toho spent more than usual on this and under the direction of special effects expert Eiji Tsuburaya the result is not just one of the best looking but one of the best, Japanese disaster movies. Initially, Gorath is just a glowing red orb but the closer it gets to Earth the more we see it sucking in debris and growing in size, its surface roiled by explosions, sparks and bursts of flame. One especially nice touch has Saturn’s rings being sucked into Gorath’s mass as the planetoid passes nearby. The meticulously detailed model sequences of the nuclear engines under construction at the South Pole, with its icebreakers and cranes busily unloading cargo onto conveyor belts while helicopters fly over – aided by a thumping Kan Ishii score – is likely to thrill anyone who ever got a kick out of putting together an Airfix model kit. It really doesn’t matter that the models mostly look like miniatures because something about them (which includes some quite convincing back projection work with real people in the foreground) stirs the blood. There’s plenty of action in space too including a well done spacewalk from a rocket ship to rescue an unconscious Kanai, adrift in his shuttle after a terrifying close encounter with Gorath, that blends miniature effects and live action.

One of the nice touches here is that the film exudes a genuine wonder for space exploration. This is a world (set in 1982!) in which the UN has established a succession of manned satellites stretching out into deep space. As Gorath closes in we see the satellites coming in to land at a spaceport on Earth. Honda successfully creates a detailed world here that seems busy and convincing beyond just the threat of Gorath. And as we near the climax with everything beginning to look a touch too predictable the film throws in a wonderfully imaginative flourish with the arrival of a giant prehistoric walrus which begins wreaking havoc at the South Polar base. Seems the heat from the nuclear engines thawed it out from deep beneath the ice! You share the wistfulness of Dr. Kono and Dr.Tazawa as they’re forced to kill it with their aircraft’s laser even though they’d like to let it live. There’s a palpable ambition and confidence through Gorath, so much so that Honda can cross-cut between Kanai regaining his memory while watching Gorath on TV and the floods, earthquakes and hurricanes raging outside, and sell both with equal conviction. The scenes of a flooded Tokyo with the tops of office buildings and pagoda’s sticking up out of the waves are so good they almost don’t look like models. Even the scenes at the South Polar base as humble Dr.Tazawa finds himself the centre of a frenzy of cheers, hugs and backslapping from the international crew he’s been working with feel really well earned.

The Human Vapor (Ishiro Honda, Japan, 1960)

Opening with a taut robbery sequence in which employees react with terror as doors and bank vaults seemingly open at will, a second robbery gets even stranger when a dead employee is found inside the locked but ransacked vault. With both keys to the vault still in the hands of the authorities it’s a mystery as to how someone could have gotten in without them. On the trail are Detective Okamoto (Tatsuya Mihashi) and his reporter-girlfriend Kyoko (Keiko Sata),  whose combined investigations lead to a reclusive dancer named Fujichyio and her suitor Mizuno (Yoshio Tsuchiya), the victim of a scientific experiment gone disastrously wrong which has left him with the ability to dissolve his whole body into gas!

This follow up to The H Man (1958) and Secret of the Telegian (1960) from director Ishiro Honda and studio Toho is a superior film in every respect. The script by Takeshi Kimura, who would go on to write the excellent Matango (1963), has real emotional clout courtesy of a Phantom of the Opera-ish tale of doomed love. Though imitative of American models (as so many of these early Japanese crime movies are) The Human Vapor is not only sprinkled with imaginative touches but displays at least some interest in its characters and their relationship with each other. For those who like the non-monster Japanese fantasy film of this era, The Human Vapor is something of a must see. The first third of Honda’s movie establishes a real sense of mystery. Banks are raided, guards gunned down, yet no one sees anything. At the same time our heroes Detective Okamoto and crime reporter Kyoko have an amusingly competitive charm that makes their scenes together an easy watch. When the stolen money is used to pay the theatre costs for Fujichiyo’s upcoming performance Okamoto has her arrested. However under interrogation she refuses to identify the source of the money. With Fujichiyo in prison the second act really builds on this stalemate when the Gas Man, as he’s tagged by the papers, strolls into Kyoko’s newspaper office and announces his identity to all and sundry. It’s a genuine surprise. Why is he doing this?

Mizuno requests to be taken to the bank by the cops where the circumstances of the last robbery (the bank teller in his secure area of the vault) will be recreated. Surrounded by a dozen nervous trigger happy cops the unease is palpable as Mizuno is ordered to demonstrate how he did it and, boy, does he ever! This terrific sequence ends with Mizuno sternly warning the terrified cops to let Fujichyio go. With that we suddenly realise Mizuno’s reason for revealing himself. It was to prove Fujichyio, the woman he loves, innocent of the robberies. When the cops refuse to release the dancer  from her cell Mizuno takes it upon himself to invade the police station and free her. In another striking scene Mizuno dissolves himself to slip between the bars of a police door. Here, over 30 years before Terminator 2 is exactly the same moment Robert Patrick performed when his T2 shape-shifter slipped between the cell doors of the medical facility in pursuit of Linda Hamilton! Did The Human Vapor make a big impression on the young James Cameron? After watching this you have to wonder. But even offered her freedom Fujichyio refuses to leave. Frustrated, Mizuno frees all the other prisoners and with this act you can see the beginnings of the megalomania that afflicted Claude Rains’ character in The Invisible Man. It’s a resonant and foreshadowing moment for both characters. Mizuno out of control with his powers while Fujichyio stays put, granted the freedom to leave but her innate morality unable to let her accept an offer she knows to be wrong. When Mizuno then visits the newspaper office and explains how he gained his powers we get a classic mad scientist flashback – complete with Frankenstein-style laboratory – explaining how Mizuno unwisely volunteered to help one Doctor Sano whose tests on Mizuno had the unexpected side effect of dissolving his flesh!

The performances here are all fine with Yoshio Tsuchiya’s intent, sinister Mizuno effectively single-minded in his support of Fujichyio (I especially liked the delicate way he puts his hand over his heart before he transforms) and Yachigusa’s dancer suitably sincere. Tatsuya Mihashi and Keiko Sata get to have some fun with their characters and more importantly both couples convince us that there’s some genuine chemistry between them. That really pays off when we reach the explosive climax in which Fujichyio’s Kabuki recital at a local theatre prompts the cops to flood the theatre with gas in an attempt to kill Mizuno even as it puts the lives of both Fujichyio and Okamoto at risk. That Mizuno meets his fate won’t surprise anyone but the direction this comes from is completely unexpected and makes for a poignant end. As you might expect from Ishiro Honda, The Human Vapor’s special effects work is simple and clever with the effect of Mizuno dissolving created by pouring dry ice through his suit as it eerily crumples. For shots of Mizuno in his gaseous state or strangling enemies animated effects and optical overlays are effectively employed. The film also utilises the old Invisible Man imagery of a suited body moving about with no visible extremities (including one absolute show-stopper of a moment that comes right at the end). With its modest interest in character and backed up by typically solid production values, competent direction from Honda and the bonus of a splendidly melodramatic Kunio Miyauchi score, The Human Vapor is a pretty satisfactory effort for genre fans of this period.