Ishiro Honda Double Feature Blu-ray Review
If you think of iconic images of Japan that are known internationally, alongside Samurai, Geisha, and the flag itself, you're likely to think of Godzilla - an impressive feat considering the kaiju has only been on our screens for less than 70 years. We can thank Ishiro Honda in part for this, the director of the original 1954 Godzilla film and himself an icon in the world of Japanese cinema. Though he is known primarily for his kaiju movies in the West, his tokusatsu or 'special filming' movies that place emphasis on cutting edge effects were hugely popular in his home country. Two films that can be placed in this category are The H-Man and Battle in Outer Space, two sci-fi films restored and re-released by Eureka as part of a double feature deal. While they don't quite pack the thrills you may associate with Godzilla, they're still entertainingly corny, with some genuinely impressive visuals and interestingly bizarre ideas that reflect twinned thematic concerns.
The earlier film, and the first of the double feature is The H-Man (1958), which doesn't really follow a man at all, instead focussing on a new 'creature' created by atomic bomb tests - a pile of blue goo that disintegrates those it touches, absorbing them into the mass. This predates The Blob by a couple of months, and does manage to produce some creepy moments - watching people recoil in horror and disgust as they slowly shrink down into their own clothes is a disturbing sight, especially as almost all the gooey, gelatinous effects are practical. However, this isn't the full story, as much of The H-Man plays out more like a noir, with a sceptical cop, a potential femme fatale, and a missing man.
Frankly, this is to the film's detriment - although the creepier moments pack more of a punch when given time to stew between less exciting scenes, the plot often meanders around night clubs and police stations, stalling for when the story actually kicks in again. The characters are thinly written, mostly because you almost certainly haven't decided to watch it for emotional realism or drama - you're here for the goo, and the film excels when it delivers on this absurd promise, my favourite scene being a boat investigation that turns into a bloodbath (goobath?). Still, there's definitely some campy fun to be had with Yumi Shirakawa's melodramatic turn as Chikako, including her largely unnecessary but nonetheless entertaining nightclub performances.
The second film of the double feature, Battle in Outer Space, is in my opinion the weaker of the two, but its space effects are incredible for a film made in 1959, and it reminded me just how much George Lucas owes to this moment in Japanese cinema, and to Honda in particular. From the opening moments we're plunged into a retro-futurist world of flying saucers, aliens on the moon and shiny silver spacesuits - once again, the moments that focus on the sci-fi elements are a delight, where the scenes on Earth sometimes leave a little to be desired. But there's still some wonderful kitsch to be found in these moments, with another over-the-top female lead in Kyoko Anzai and some scenes of famous landmarks being destroyed that foreshadow disaster movies from decades to come.
Obviously, these films share a preoccupation with fantastical science fiction iconography, and are fascinating on some level for these images alone. But they also share a darker mood under the surface that gives them a strange uncanniness - their implicit references to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The wounds were still fresh at this point in time, with just over a decade since the initial disaster, and as with Godzilla, it's clear to see the impact that this had on Honda's filmmaking style. The H-Man is more overt and pessimistic, even opening in the international version on a literal atomic explosion, with the sudden disappearance of people into dust feeling almost violently reminiscent of the destruction these weapons can cause - a voiceover even reminds audiences of the horrors of these weapons should they return. Battle in Outer Space is optimistic in tone, displaying the destruction of landmarks and lives as an evil to band against as a collective rather than to passively dread. In these tumultuous times, it was actually rather inspiring to watch a film where all of Earth gleefully joins forces to protect their own.
As previously implied, both the original Japanese and dubbed international re-releases are made available here, and this is more than a mere translation - each one is essentially a unique recut, so you're really getting four for two with this set. Audio commentary from Japanese sci-fi experts is a brilliant extra for those interested in the genre, and if you want some reading material the included booklet contains some additional essays that are definitely worth a read. You can tell just from the menu screens that bringing these films to home video was a labour of love for Eureka - no sci-fi fan should go without them.
While these films are by no means perfect, often meandering and dull when they aren't entrenched in full sci-fi cheese, there's no denying their aesthetic significance and creativity. Honda is a legend of cinema, and it's telling that even with two clearly flawed films his unbelievable talent and sense of fun shine through.
The Ishiro Honda Double Feature Blu-ray is available to buy from November 16.