And You Call Yourself a Scientist!

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"At first I could not understand the terror in Dr Sano's eyes.  Then I knew: I had been transformed into something terrifying. Something repellant...."

Director: Ishiro Honda

Starring: Yoshio Tsuchiya, Kaoru Yachigusa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Keiko Sata, Bokuzen Hidari, Fuyuki Murakami

Screenplay:  Takeshi Kimura

Synopsis: Mizuno (Yoshio Tsuchiya), a mysterious figure known as the "Human Vapor", recounts his story to members of Tokyo’s press…. A former astronaut, Mizuno is forced to give up his work after contracting tuberculosis. While working in a library after his release from a sanitarium, Mizuno is approached by Dr Sano (Fuyuki Murakami), who asks him to take part in an experiment. Hopeful of being able to resume his true occupation, Mizuno agrees, allowing Sano to inject him with an experimental drug and subject him to strange electrical forces. Although he is unaware of it at the time, Mizuno undergoes this treatment for ten days. When he emerges, he finds that Sano is regarding him with horror, and realises that the experiment has gone horribly wrong. Attacking Sano, Mizuno forces him to confess that there had been other such experiments, and that the rest of the subjects all died. Then Mizuno discovers that he has gained the power to transform at will into a vaporous form. Doing so, he kills Sano by asphyxiation. Realising both that he is now a freak, but also that he has gained almost limitless powers, Mizuno resolves to turn his back upon humanity, with one exception: Fujichiyo Kasuga (Kaoru Yachigusa), a classical dancer with whom he fell deeply in love while they were both in the sanitarium. Knowing that Fujichiyo needs large sums of money to resume her dancing career, Mizuno uses his new powers to rob a bank. After stealing a car, he is pursued out of Tokyo by police led by Detective Okamoto (Tatsuya Mihashi). Running off the road near Fujichiyo’s house, Mizuno escapes by vaporising, leaving behind an empty car. Soon afterwards, a second bank is robbed, with a guard left dead at the scene. The police are stunned to discover that, although the safe has been opened and the money is gone, the gates of the vault are still locked and the key on the body of the guard, found within them. Okamoto begins to suspect that Fujichiyo is somehow involved in the robberies, a suspicion he shares with his reporter girlfriend, Kyoko (Keiko Sata), who starts investigating the dancer herself. Meanwhile, an autopsy reveals that the bank guard died of gas asphyxiation….

Comments: First the bad news: The Human Vapor is badly hurt by jerky editing, a voiceover narration in the place of dialogue, poor dubbing and an overly melodramatic screenplay full of inappropriate Americanisms (during a clash between the press and the police, Detective Okomoto responds to a reporter’s complaint with, "Ah, go peddle your papers!"). However, lurking behind these sometimes painful shortcomings is a story that, at times, reaches levels of genuine pathos and tragedy.

While the original film, Gasu Ningen Daiichigo, was constructed as a mystery story, the video/TV print has been re-cut and restructured so that its anti-hero, Mizuno, tells his own story in flashback. The opening sequence shows Mizuno falling into the hands of "eminent biologist" Dr Sano and agreeing to act as an experimental subject. Dr Sano is one of science fiction’s most discreet and elusive mad scientists. We learn precious little about him, not even what he is trying to achieve with his experiments, let alone where his previous subjects came from, or why Mizuno survives while none of the others did. Possibly much of this was clearer in the non-narrated print.

But mad Dr Sano certainly is, and in very short order has met his demise at the hands of his creation (a rare violation of one of science fiction’s strictest rules: everyone knows that the "mad scientist gets what he deserves" scene is supposed to come at the end!). Mizuno then escapes from Sano’s laboratory, and the true "science fiction" portion of the film is over.

From there, The Human Vapor settles into a plotline that is part crime story, part character study. The former, to be honest, does not work very well, mainly because the restructuring means that it lacks suspense. Too much time is spent on police and newspaper investigations into things the audience already knows.

As a character piece, however, The Human Vapor grows steadily more interesting. At first, Mizuno is not at all sympathetic. Despite his myriad woes, his rapid descent into psychosis and the unvarying note of self-pity in his recitation make it difficult to identify with him. As the film progresses, so do Mizuno’s homicidal tendencies and his megalomania. His callous disposal of anyone standing in the way of his robberies, and his increasingly arrogant speeches about the unimportance of the rest of humanity and his own invincibility, seem merely to be setting him up for an almighty fall. But then the mood of the film changes with the introduction of Fujichiyo, who lies at the heart of the story.

Played by the lovely Kaoru Yachigusa, Fujichiyo is introduced in a beautiful, almost surreal, scene when she is spied upon by Okamoto, who finds her practicing her dancing in full costume, including a traditional Japanese mask. (Warning: for those familiar with Kaneto Shindo’s marvellous and terrifying Onibaba (1964), it is a version of THAT mask!).

At first, Fujichiyo is a deeply ambiguous character. We are not sure whether she knows where Mizuno is getting the money he gives her, whether she was in on the plan, or even whether she loves him, or is simply using him for her own benefit. Slowly, the truth about Fujichiyo emerges, and it becomes clear that in her own way, she is as much an outsider as Mizuno. Living in solitude, dressing in the traditional manner, fighting to keep classical dance alive, Fujichiyo has been left behind by the twentieth century; and indeed, a clear contrast is drawn between her and the thoroughly modern Kyoko.

Nevertheless, the film clearly supports what might be regarded as Fujichiyo’s "outmoded" moral code, demonstrated in her refusal to free herself from police persecution by turning on her lover. The emotional and spiritual isolation of Fujichiyo is further underscored in the scenes of her imprisonment with a group of prostitutes, and in her rejection of Mizuno’s attempt to free her illegally. As the nature of Fujichiyo’s relationship with Mizuno becomes more explicit, the film itself becomes more emotionally complex; and the compassion for Mizuno that was missing in the earlier scenes begins to develop. By the time Fujichiyo’s beautiful and delicate dance recital is invaded by a group of yobbos yelling out, "Bring on the strippers!" the film’s sympathy shift is complete.

And yet the story can only end unhappily. While Mizuno’s trials have left him bitter and violent, Fujichiyo’s have not affected her love of humanity. It is this difference that finally divides the two, and forces Fujichiyo to make a tragic decision. The final scene is both sincerely moving and a genuine shock. Unfortunately, the abruptness with which the film ends undercuts this sequence, and robs it of some of its resonance.

In contrast to the doomed lovers at the heart of The Human Vapor, Okamoto and Kyoko come off a very poor second, their absolute normality making them distinctly uninteresting by comparison. The detective and the reporter were stock characters in Japanese films of this era, making the jobs of Tatsuya Mihashi and Keiko Sata even harder. Worse still is that these two are on the receiving end of a great deal of the film’s bad dubbing (apart from the "papers" line quoted above, there is an inadvertently funny moment when Okamoto approaches Mizuno’s crashed car and tells one of his subordinates to "cover for me". Ah, that’s "cover me", guys!).

The only real shading to the characters of Okamoto and Kyoko is that they, like the audience, slowly develop real empathy for Mizuno and Fujichiyo, even while realising the extent of the threat posed by Mizuno, and that he must be stopped. The special effects in The Human Vapor are minimal, confined to Mizuno’s occasional dissolution and reassembly. However, the film does benefit from real location shooting in Tokyo, which comes as a pleasant surprise of many years of seeing the city appear – and be destroyed – only in miniature.

Footnote: There is "Immortal Dialogue" for The Human Vapor, but of a rather specialised kind. Share it with a librarian you love!

Check out all the details of this movie on the IMDB