While not as iconic as his Godzilla (1954), the always interesting—and generally underrated—Ishirô Honda created one of his best works with The H-Man (1958), a strange mix of sci-fi, horror and gangsters. In some ways, the film is largely of a piece with much of Honda’s work—especially his 1950s output—in that it’s grounded in fears of the result of nuclear radiation. That preoccupation isn’t all that surprising given the country of origin where the specter of a nuclear attack was something more than a “what if” scenario. The film gets down to this point in its very first shot—a hydrogen-bomb test. Rather than awakening—and transforming—some gigantic mythical beast (as in Godzilla), The H-Man concerns itself directly with the possibility of the effects of nuclear fallout on human beings.
In the context of the film, the fallout produces the H-Man—a kind of liquid, blob-like creation with the ability to simulate a vaguely human form and dissolve anyone it touches. (The literal translation of the film’s Japanese title is Beauty and the Liquidman.) It’s actually one of the most unsettling—and effective—monsters to come from Japanese cinema. This partly stems from the fact that it requires effects work that was more easily achieved than giant monsters. Not all of the effects are exactly convincing, but they come closer than those found in most Japanese sci-fi—and they’re easily the creepiest.
The film’s mix of science fiction and gangsters produces an atmospheric work. The H-Man might well be viewed as film’s first science fiction noir, an aspect that is particularly suited to the proceedings, since the film noir staple of rain and rain-drenched streets is central to the plot. It also allows the film to touch on the growing Western influence on Japan, with its nightclub setting that assimilates U.S. culture. Even the songs performed in the club are in English. Then too, the film’s climactic scenes in the sewers of Tokyo have more than a casual relation to Western movies, being obviously inspired by Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949)—with appropriate sci-fi embellishments. Altogether—and despite its limitations—The H-Man offers further proof that Honda is a filmmaker worth further study and reassessment.