Ishirō Honda Double Feature: H-Man/Battle in Outer Space (Limited Edition) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (5th December 2020).
The Film

"The Masters of Cinema Series is proud to present two classics of Japanese sci-fi cinema, both directed by the great Ishirō Honda, for the first time ever on home video in the UK."

H-Man: A drug deal gone wrong results in a shootout and gangster Misaki (Destroy All Monsters' Hisaya Itô) running into the path of a car. Strangely, his body goes missing before the motorist can get out his car, with only the man's clothes on the rain-slick road. Police Inspector Tominaga (Sanjuro's Akihiko Hirata) and Sergeant Miyashita (A Taxing Woman's Eitarô Ozawa) believe Misaki is still at large and plan to use his nightclub performer wife Chikako Arai (Gorath's Yumi Shirakawa) as bait to capture him before his criminal cohorts can get to him. When gangster Nishiyama (Jun Fujio) roughs up Chikako trying to discover Misaki's whereabouts and then also vanishes leaving his clothes in a puddle, nuclear physicist Masada (Ultra Q's Kenji Sahara) is caught by the police trying to speak to Chikako and he tells them he believes that the men did literally dissolve into thin air after coming into contact with water. Masada has been treating two fishermen suffering from radiation poisoning who boarded the Ryujin Maru II freighter and found it abandoned and witnessed with their very eyes two of their shipmates dissolving after coming into contact with glowing green shadows. Masada reveals that the freighter had strayed in the path of H-bomb tests and that the log book reports six men dissolved but does not account for the other twenty-odd who are missing. He shows the police the effects of the nuclear rays on a bullfrog which dissolves in contact with water, but he reveals that the leftover substance is still alive and capable of consuming human life. When a life preserver from the ship washes up on Tokyo Bay, Masada is sure that the green shadow has made it to land is a menace to humankind.

In the seven years between his first two big monster films Godzilla and Mothra, Toho contract director Ishirô Honda helmed sixteen other films, only six of which were science fiction films and only two – Rodan and Varan the Unbelievable – featured the big monsters for which his name became synonymous internationally. H-Man is structured like a film noir if only because the criminals do not know enough to be afraid of the radioactive menace and the cynical police are bullheaded in their determination to sum up the disappearances as being the work of Misaki and imposing the "femme fatale" persona on Chikako who is actually not manipulating Masada into becoming a dupe. That something of those consumed and reproduced by the H-Man survive is what seems to draw the menace to target the gangsters whose milieu happens to be the nightclub in which Chikako performs – she seems to be on the verge of becoming a victim of the creature's blob form until yet another gangster is stupid enough to fire a gun at the liquid. While Mothra was targeted at female audience members and its sole human female character was plucky and proactive, Chikako is a damsel in distress who is tugged back and forth between cops and criminals with only otherwise driven scientist Masada differentiating himself by noting that everyone wants something from her but no one seems concerned about her needs. The H-Man opticals of Toho effects wiz Eiji Tsuburaya (Latitude Zero) are fairly conventional but the film does afford us some hints at the horror of the dissolving bodies, and the film does offer some indirect criticism of American nuclear testing in the South Pacific and the warning: "If this Earth were covered in radioactive fallout and humanity faced extinction, the next species to rule the Earth could very well be the H-Man."
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Battle in Outer Space: In the futuristic Japan of 1965, four inexplicable events – the destruction of the space satellite research station, a train crash caused when the bridge was lifted up into the air, an ocean liner destroyed by a waterspout in the Panama Canal, and another freak waterspout in the Venice canals that has destroyed several landmarks – lead the World Council to determine that there is life in outer space and it is attacking them. At an emergency meeting at Tokyo's Space Research Center, Professor Adachi (Tora! Tora! Tora!'s Koreya Senda), and American Dr. Richardson (Len Stanford) present the world delegation with a theory as to how it is possible for an alien intelligence to manipulate gravity and an atomic heat ray weapon to repel their enemies whom they soon learn come from the planet Natal after they try to compel delegate Dr. Ahmed (George Whitman) with an implanted radio wave device to destroy the weapon. Discovering that the radio waves emanate from the moon, Adachi determines that the aliens are using the moon as a base for their attack. The council's military commander (Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster's Minoru Takada) assigns Adachi and Richardson to command two spaceship crews to the moon on a reconnaissance mission. Among Adachi's six-person crew are lovers Major Ichiro Katsumiya (Chûshingura's Ryô Ikebe) and Etsuko (Kyôko Anzai) and their best friend Iwomura (Yojimbo's Yoshio Tsuchiya) who, unbeknownst to all, has been implanted and may ensure not only that they cannot use the weapon but that they may be cut off from any means of getting back to Earth.

Made just two years before Mothra as a Technicolor, Tohoscope, big-budget "space opera" before there were space operas, Battle in Outer Space is more optimistic than even that film about the world's ability to come together to fight a common otherworldly enemy (it is obvious from the start that Dr. Ahmed is being controlled by alien intelligence rather than trying to secure the weapon for his own nation), and even more so about the power of the people to influence their governments to cooperate with one another (perhaps a commentary on the Japanese government's reaction to the protests against American nuclear testing offshore). The story itself is rather ordinary and perhaps a bit influential – the scenes of humans being taken over by the alien intelligence bring to mind the "Alien Scotsman" takeovers on Monty Python's Flying Circus, although fortunately Anzai's Etsuko does not exist in the scenario solely to ask questions for the audience – but the first half of the film is necessary to get us back into outer space after the opening teaser and onto the moon where Tsuburaya's effects and space models are absolutely stunning even if the aliens of Natal are rather nondescript as if Honda and company were trying to live down The Mysterians (or to disguise some of the wardrobe and space models recycled from that film). The attack on Earth climax has more of the same city models we have come to expect, but the destruction of them by removing gravity and causing to crumble by being yanked upwards (along with cars and people) is novel. While it seems unlikely that either film in this set is as convincing as Godzilla or Mothra in establishing Honda as a "Master of Cinema", this double feature should expose more viewers to his filmography beyond the giant monsters.
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Video

Released theatrically in the U.S. and U.K. by Columbia Pictures in an English-dubbed version (78:58) running seven minutes shorter than the Japanese original (86:04), H-Man was available for the longest time in English-friendly form as a panned-and-scanned VHS release from RCA/Columbia, with the only alternative being the Japanese original on a widescreen Japanese import from Toho until Sony's Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection triple-disc set with Battle in Outer Space and Mothra featuring anamorphic widescreen transfers of both the English and Japanese versions with Mill Creek giving the Sci-Fi Double Feature a Blu-ray upgrade earlier this year. Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray utilizes the same Toho and Sony masters both looking equally colorful despite the latter using materials a couple generations down from the negative, with healthy skin tones, inky shadows, and some nice saturated greens during the H-Man scenes even as the opticals look a bit coarser overall (which is to be expected and not really a detriment for fans of old school opticals).
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After its Columbia Pictures theatrical release and television release – the 16mm prints o which reportedly letterboxed the space and Earth battle scenes in the latter half of the film – Battle in Outer Space went unreleased on VHS and was only available in letterboxed form as a Japanese Toho laserdisc import until the aforementioned Icons of Sci-Fi set which included both Japanese and English cuts of the film and the Mill Creek Blu-ray bump-up mentioned above (itself preceded by a Blu-ray in 2018 that only featured only the American cut with the Japanese track synchronized). Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray utilizes the same masters for both cuts (90:22 and 90:23, respectively) and it is fitting that this higher-budgeted film is also the overall better-looking presentation in both cuts. That the seams and strings of some of the effects and the brushstrokes of the city models are visible is indicative of the clarity of the transfers which may not be new 4K masters – the booklet and Eureka's sight offer no information about the transfers – but more than suffice until Toho and Sony get into UHD.

Audio

Although Toho has not released either of these films on Blu-ray yet, their DVD suggest that they have materials for remixing, including 2.1 Sensurround and 5.1 tracks on their DVD of H-Man and a 3.0 approximation of the Perspecta track as well as a 5.1 mix for Battle in Outer Space. Both the Mill Creek and Eureka discs understandably only get an LPCM 2.0 mono track for the English version while Toho does not seem to have made either the original stems or these DVD era remixes available for the Japanese cuts of both films which are also offered in LPCM 2.0 mono only; however, there is nothing technically wrong with the tracks for viewers who do not require a surround experience to accompany their space operas (in the case of the latter film while mono better suits the overall feel of H-Man (although the fiery climax could have used some spread). The Japanese cuts include optional English subtitles while the English cuts include optional English HoH subtitles (the latter missing from the Mill Creek edition).
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Extras

While the Japanese version of Battle in Outer Space includes an isolated music and effects track and ports over the audio commentary by authors and Japanese sci-fi historians Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski from the Sony disc while the two have recorded a new track for H-Man, and both films each include a brand new audio commentary with film historian and writer David Kalat. On the Japanese cut of H-Man, Kalat discusses how the American version was altered to downplay the association of the ship with the Lucky Dragon incident which was also referenced in the Japanese version of Godzilla, and also tries to classify H-Man as part of a subgenre of Japanese monster films known as the "insubstantial man" films or the "mutant cycle." He notes that the significance of the translated Japanese title and the American title in how it depicts the menace as either a collective or as individuals, as well as the contributions of story author Hideo Unagami – an actor who died before he could see the film realized – and screenwriter Takeshi Kimura whose later works included Matango and some of the seventies Godzilla entries. Ryfle and Godziszewski cover a lot of the same ground in discussing the "hybrid monster film and police procedural" while also noting some subtle points of the Japanese original lost in the translation that makes the police seem even more closed-minded and intolerant about the investigation, calling an early associate of Misaki a sangokujin, or "third country person," who were often scapegoated in the aftermath of the war for Japan's increasing crime rate among other things.
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Kalat's commentary appears on the Japanese version of Battle in Outer Space discussing the film as an achievement of Toho's "dream team" and being ahead of its time as a space opera, with the only antecedent being the science fiction films of George Pal (When Worlds Collide) which he opines are comparatively boring next to Honda's film. He also reveals that the film was conceived by story author Jôjirô Okami as a sequel to The Mysterians but that was vetoed by scenarist Shin'ichi Sekizawa (Godzilla 1985) – although Tsubaraya did reuse some props like the saucers – and that the later War in Space was initially conceived as a sequel to Battle in Outer Space. Ryfle and Godziszewski on the American version cannot help but deliver some of the same information, however, they do spend more time on Honda's reputation as a director unappreciated in Japan and overseas because of his association with commercially successful monster pictures as opposed to other directors more synonymous with Japanese arthouse cinema.

Packaging

Packaged with the discs in a 2000-copy limited O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling is a collector’s booklet featuring essays by Christopher Stewardson and Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp. The essay on The H-Man by Sharp covers a lot of ground from the commentaries but also provides some background on Honda's non-genre pictures, the author behind the pseudonym of Takeshi Kimura. In "A Very Pleasant Way to Die", Stewardson focuses on the cultural effects of the H-bomb tests and the parallels between the H-men and the "hibakusha" (survivors of the atomic explosions at Hiroshima or Nagasaki). There is also an extract from "Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa" by Ryfle and Godziszewski that refer to early drafts of the script, Honda seeking consultation with scientists, as well as an appreciation of the film. Sharp also provides an essay on Battle in Outer Space in which he places the film in the context of Japan's science fiction antecedents including Shintoho's Super Giant series of films, themes of the film, links to The Mysterians, and the in-joke of the aliens decimating a Cinerama theater during the climax. Another extract from the Ryfle and Godziszewski book notes some of the film's unintentional laughs and some of its deficits as well as its strengths.
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Overall

While it seems unlikely that either film in this set is as convincing as Godzilla or Mothra in establishing Honda as a "Master of Cinema", this double feature should expose more viewers to his filmography beyond the giant monsters.

 


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