Today I watched Ishiro Honda’s The Human Vapor (1960)
As the film opens we are shown a bank robbery, but it is shot from angles that do not show the robber. The vault seems to just open itself as laughter is the only sign of an intruder. As the strange villain escapes the police engage his getaway car in a high speed pursuit. This pursuit ends when the robber crashes off an embankment, but when the police investigate the wreck they find nothing. There is a house nearby in which a young woman and old man perform a traditional dance routine, but the police find nothing to be afoot. This is when one of the film’s more interesting elements crops up, while it’s main characters may be male, most of the action is driven by a female side character. While the police are scratching their heads, it is the female reporter Kyoko Kuono who presses them to investigate clues which will help them discover the titular Human Vapor and it is her who pushes her colleagues to uncover his story.
His story is the kind of classic pulp that serves as the origin of the superhero; though while he is certainly super here, he is no hero. Yet he is not a typical villain either, once his motivations are revealed they are understandable. His darker actions are villainous though but there is a tragedy in his guilt because he is still a relatable human who tries to think beyond himself. This sense of realism is not just reserved for his character though as the film plays out as a fairly typical police procedural/mystery type story; this not only grounds the work but enhances the sense of the strange by contrasting it with sensible modern existence.
I can’t think of many, if any, modern examples of this kind of story telling, the weird tale in which the weirdness is still a part of the film. Now most of these films are shot with a highly stylized eye, which is great and all, but it paints the world to be as strange as the unnatural elements of the story. Here the normal and abnormal are distinct from one another, it’s a clash of different worlds. The Human Vapor is not like normal humans, he has undergone a horrific transformation and is now something new and distinct which is incongruous with our way of life. 5/5