Attack of the Molecular Men

The Japanese film poster for THE H-MAN (1958).

The atom bomb and its devastating after effects have served as the basis for some of the science fiction genre’s most popular and successful films and it’s no surprise that many of them hail from Japan where Gojira (1954, U.S. title: Godzilla) became the first in a long line of radioactive monsters bent on stomping Tokyo. Whether intended as metaphorical retribution for the A-bomb destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 or cautionary tales about the dangers of nuclear power, these sci-fi fantasies became Toho’s studios’ most profitable exports during the late fifties and early sixties and eventually spawned subgenres of their own, one of which was the “mutant” series. The masterminds behind Gojira and most of the Toho sci-fi releases were director Ishiro Honda and special effects technician Eiji Tsuburaya and their first effort in the “mutant” series – Bijo to Ekitainingen (1958) – still stands as one of their most unusual and distinctive films.

Released in the U.S. in 1959 under the title The H-Man (the original Japanese title translates as “Beauty and the Liquid Men”), Honda’s film was promoted with the tag line: “You’ll be Gripped By Unholy Horror When You Realize What H Really Means!” H, of course, means hydrogen and the title creature of the movie was the result of A-bomb testing. Although The H-Man was unfairly accused of being a Japanese ripoff of The Blob which was released the same year, the movie has little in common with the Steve McQueen cult favorite except for the oozing, jellylike substance that devours human flesh in both films. It is also true that Honda’s film was in production before The Blob was even released in theaters.

The victim of a car accident has disappeared without a trace. Could it be one of the molecular men on the prowl in THE H-MAN (1958).

The H-Man was actually a fusion of the sci-fi thriller and the gangster film with a plot that brought together such incongruous types as policemen, sailors, nightclub entertainers, scientists and drug dealers to fight a deadly menace. The movie opens with a robbery in progress and witnesses at the scene see one of the suspects emerge from a sewer grate, only to vanish beside the getaway car, leaving just his clothes behind. The mystery deepens when surviving members of a Japanese freighter report being attacked by liquefied, flesh-eating creatures aboard an abandoned ship they investigated. Scientists working with police on the case determine that the unfortunate trawler was caught in the middle of an atom bomb test and the crewmen were transformed via radiation into H-Men. Then they discover something worse. The “ghost ship” is now docked in Tokyo’s harbor and the deadly inhabitants have escaped into the city’s sewer system. Soon other people began to mysteriously vanish amid reports of a gooey substance that surrounds and liquefies its victims while the police and scientists race against time to contain and destroy the creatures in the sewer. (The climax bears some similarities to the finale of Them! (1954) which took place in the Los Angeles sewer system where the army battled giant, mutant ants).

Three survivors witness the demise of THE H-MAN (1958), a Japanese sci-fi/crime thriller from director Ishiro Honda.

While The H-Man is modest in its exploitation of the gelatinous creatures, the special effects are quite impressive and creepy for its era, especially during the attack sequences when victims are quickly dissolved and consumed. Supposedly, Columbia Pictures, who distributed the film in the U.S., edited some of these sequences due to their shocking nature. According to August Ragone in his book, Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, “The ingenious effect was accomplished using life-size latex balloon versions of the victims and filming at high speed while the air ran out of them, creating the illusion of a human being withering away. Other effects included special sets constructed to roll 60 degrees to allow the deadly ooze to threaten the cast members, miniature sequences of a ghost ship, and, for the climax, scale re-creations of the sewers under Tokyo, which are engulfed in flames to combat the H-Men.”

Another victim is consumed by a gooey mess of radioactive matter in the Japanese sci-fi thriller THE H-MAN (1958).

The H-Man may not have matched the box office success of Toho’s Gojira or Sora no daikaiju Radon (1956, U.S. title: Rodan) but it garnered better reviews from American critics than most of the Japanese sci-fi films. The reviewer for Variety wrote that the movie was “well made and seemingly more thoughtful than the company’s two other U.S. summer releases (Metro’s The Mysterians and Warner Bros.’ Gigantis).” The review also noted that the special effects were “skillfully and terrifyingly adept” and that “Yumi Shirakawa, as a delightful looking nightclub entertainer, is excellent, as are Kenji Sahara, as the chief detective, and Akihiko Hirata, as a scientist.”

A more contemporary assessment of The H-Man in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies confirms its enduring appeal: “The plot appears merely as an excuse to string together extraordinary scenes of hallucinatory images as bodies liquefy, enclosed within gelatinous blobs. Such scenes, together with the film noir aspects of the gangster plot, make this Honda’s most sensual film, a quality not usually associated with his work.”

The soundtrack album to the Japanese sci-fi film THE H-MAN.

Masaru Sato’s appealing jazz-influenced score with sci-fi overtones included two nightclub numbers spotlighting Yumi Shirakawa – “The Magic Begins” and “So Deep Is My Love,” both of which were dubbed in English by singer Martha Miyake. Shirakawa was often cast in films of fantasy and sci-fi and her genre effects include Rodan, The Mysterians (1957), The Last War (1961), and Gorath (1962) among others.

A French film poster of the 1958 Japanese sci-fi classic THE H-MAN.

Japanese monster fans will be interested to know that Haruo Nakajima, who played Godzilla and other Toho creatures in costume, appears here in a minor role as one of the ill-fated sailors. After The H-Man, other films in Toho’s “mutant” series included Gasu ningen dai ichigo (1960, U.S. title: The Human Vapor) and Denso Ningen (1960, U.S. title: The Secret of the Telegian).

The Japanese film poster for THE HUMAN VAPOR (1960).

Additional trivia: the premise of The H-Man was inspired by the famous Daigo Fukuryu Maru fishing boat incident of 1954. The trawler and its crew were exposed to and contaminated by nuclear fallout from the United States’ Castle Bravo thermonuclear device test on Bikini Atoll. The boat’s chief radioman died later that year as a result of the radiation and he is generally regarded as the first victim of the Bikini Atoll test.

The H-Man was first released on DVD in the U.S. in August 2009 when it was included in Sony Pictures’ Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection along with Mothra and Battle in Outer Space. The widescreen transfers were offered with Japanese or English language/subtitle options. In June 2020 Sony Pictures released a Blu-ray double feature of Battle of Outer Space and The H-Man, which included both the Japanese and English versions.

*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

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