by D. A. Miller
From Film Quarterly Winter 2009-10, Vol. 63, No. 2
I remember seeing The H-Man on television one late evening in early adolescence; it was a silly specimen of an already cheesy 1950s genre, the “made in Japan” sci-fi/horror film. As usual, the hydrogen bomb served as fons malorum, but this time, it didn’t produce giant monsters that terrified entire populations; it merely turned a few sailors into modestly scaled streaks of watery slime that went about melting people, one by one. It was as if the threat of atomic holocaust were being carried out by a small gang of serial killers. No self-respecting teenager, especially if he were also a young gentleman cinephile who considered the movie below his station, could resist pouring scorn on its feeble conceit—along with its trite characterizations, stilted dialogue, absurd science, and just pitiful special effects.
But a DVD explosion has caused The H-Man to mutate into a beautiful and genuinely harrowing new form: its original one as Bijo to ekitainingen (Beauty and Liquid Human, 1958).† The film now runs to its full length in proper Toho-scope proportion, has thrown off its black-and-white rags for regal technicolor (who knew?) and speaks fluent Japanese instead of cartoon English. In the metamorphosis, Liquid Human may have also become recognizable as one of classic cinema’s great fantastic tales. But if I can’t say so with certainty, that’s because a curious mental deliquescence overcame me as I watched it; the film’s conceit, to which I had once given a stony welcome, now affected me to excess. I found myself absorbed in the film, and yet unable to concentrate on it. It compelled me, but only to stand by and watch as it dissolved the normal organization of my attention. References commingled, categories blurred, and standards collapsed in confusion; among other casualties, the distinction between a frog and a prince had ceased to be watertight.
To begin with, I hardly knew what kind of film I was watching as Liquid Human slithered from one genre to another. This nominal sci-fi/horror successively absorbed the gangsters, girls, and detectives of a film noir; the deserted ship and melancholy blue specters of a ghost story; even the chanteuse and dance troupe of a musical. Perhaps the generic fluidity was part of what triggered my vivid, quasi-hallucinatory sense that other films were being streamed into my viewing, including some that lacked any serious or even sensible relation to Liquid Human. Amid the flux, I found myself seeing Ozu’s Early Autumn for no better reason than that I recognized Yumi Shirakawa from that film as Chikako Arai, the chanteuse in this one. And in the eerie twang that composer Masaru Sato used to herald Liquid Human’s approach, I heard his earlier score for I Am Waiting, a 1957 “Nikkatsu noir.” With still more slickness, the ghosts in Liquid Human conjured up Ugetsu and Throne of Blood, while the sewers extended all the way back to The Third Man and Raymond Bernard’s Les Misérables. At the beginning, when heavy showers drenched the Tokyo streets, the title number of Singin’ in the Rain was also being performed; and next to the too-traumatized-to-be-heteronormative couple at the end, there were Mitch and Melanie from The Birds. These dubious collations presented themselves to me as peremptorily as sidebars spring up on a webpage. Liquid Human had my attention “running,” without rule or propriety, all over the place.
Such intertextual association, of course, lies latent in every viewing; an implicit sense of a film’s resemblance-and-difference to others is a very condition of its intelligibility. Normally, though, a viewer keeps the process within bounds; having winnowed the deliberate from the fortuitous, and the meaningful from the irrelevant, he lets the chaff be still. What felt odd to me was not the capricious or contingent character of my associations, but my incapacity to keep them in their rightfully marginal place. And even less did I know what to do with the undeniable gratification I took in all this. After all, Liquid Human was granting me what my favorite art films were too special, too distinctively themselves, to have ever allowed: a deliriously glib vision of virtual cinema: an endless flux of images from all the films I had ever seen, or could imagine. Yet though I liked my new fluidity, I didn’t like liking it. It had taken away my critical discrimination, and I regretted no longer being, as they used to say, a man of parts.
In the cruelty of youth, I deemed The H-Man as vacant of substance as those overcoats, suits, and uniforms that the H-Man, having dissolved a man’s flesh, left lying behind. But youth can be cruel in many ways, and I also found the film, despite my best sarcastic intentions, intolerably sexy. What particularly inflamed my mind, and threatened to dissolve my too-solid flesh into a goo (incredible as this must sound to those unversed in the fanatically discreet ways that 1950s cinema ministered to sexual fantasy) was precisely those same overcoats, suits, and uniforms. For they are vacant because—or so the police at first suppose—the gangsters fleeing in them have “run away naked.” Left lying first on the street—then on the stairs—then on the futon—they are thus placeholders for the male body imagined to have just slipped out of them: not only the dissolved body, invisible because it cannot be seen, but also the denuded body, invisible because it cannot be shown. The film soon takes this provocative double-ness into its very plot: the cleverest gangster, Uchida (the beau-laid Makoto Sato), throws his clothes into a heap and, while the police conclude he has been liquefied, waits tensely in the shadows, packing nothing but heat. As for the liquefaction process itself, Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects render it in yet more suggestive terms. He replaced the actors (for Liquid Human’s victims are almost exclusively male) with balloons, giving the flesh an added turgidity and making its detumescence all the more spectacular as the air—along with the juice—pours out of them. This, in short, was what my adolescence had shamefully discerned in The H-Man: a homosexuality hidden in the respectability of suits and ties, and practiced under cover of a large mushroom cloud responsible for all sorts of abnormalities.
In Beauty and Liquid Human, the very title announces the dominant heterosexual orientation that I had overlooked, but now find as obvious as I did the homosexual subtext. As one character tells us straight out, every man in the film—gangster, detective, or scientist, young or old, handsome or homely—is “after” the titular beauty, Chikako. And in the course of absorbing many of these admirers, Liquid Human comes to be after her too as its last, best prize. The coded homosexuality would be neutralized accordingly as a sort of male bonding, the gradual elimination and consolidation of rivals in preparation for a final attack on “the” woman. At the film’s climax, Uchida drags Chikako down into the sewers, where he offers her an ostensibly stark choice: be his girl, or be dissolved by Liquid Human. But it’s the same difference: mauling this beauty and melting her seem equivalent sexual aims. They also appear to be the only ones where she is concerned. Though Dr. Masada (Kenji Sahara) wins Chikako by protecting her from both outcomes, this boyish hero hardly counts as a mature male. Even as it is, he must be wounded on his chivalric quest, his blood let on the same principle by which leeches were formerly applied to cool down the febrile body, or calm down the overexcited one; unsurprisingly, his first act on rescuing Chikako is to put more clothes on her.
All this is the very stuff of mainstream representation, but something has polluted the stream. Much of what I missed the first time around was in fact missing: the American version had been censored. Columbia Pictures, the U.S. distributor, didn’t simply change the film’s title, so as to eliminate its luridly mythic opposition between female beauty and a bestial human liquid; it also edited out some of its most intense images, which only now, fifty years later, we can see.
The main object of this censorship was, curiously, the liquefaction of Liquid Human’s only female victim: Emi (Ayumi Sonoda), the “cheap” Chikako-proxy who is the club’s lead dancer. Two shots were eliminated. Like the male victims, Emi leaves her clothes behind, but what remains on the floor in her case is not a boxy suit or coat, but the sequined bra-and-panty costume she performs in. The deletion of this image perhaps requires little explanation; given the targeted audience of normal American boys, it was doubtless considered too precise an evocation of female nudity. The more puzzling case is the shot of Emi’s actual liquefaction that was removed as well. For this, Tsuburaya created a unique special effect. The outline of Emi’s body, instead of collapsing, remains intact, as a freeze frame insists we notice. At the same time, through the introduction of animation into this frame, the flesh is shown being gradually replaced, from the bottom up, with a bubbling green liquid. This may indeed be the sexiest moment in the film, but it is certainly the weirdest as well; what its sexiness consists in is by no means easily assimilable to conventional paradigms. And though 1950s Japanese horror films suffered a variety of indignities before they were released in the U.S. (such as, famously, the replacement of the Japanese reporter with a white American in the 1954 Godzilla), the removal of a gruesome special effect was not among them; such horrors sold the movie.
The shot, then, needs to be looked at more closely (chapter 18). Right before it, we have seen the greenish Liquid Human puddling at the feet of Emi’s lover (himself just liquefied), then surging up her legs. Perhaps, with this implicit heterosexual allegory in mind, the Columbia censors saw the subsequent special effect as spelling it out; they saw, in other words, Emi’s body being filled up, like a glass, with the Liquid Human that was pouring out of her lover. But that is not in fact what we see here. Emi’s body is not filled up, but covered over. In this sense, it is all the odder that the shot was censored because the covering-over is already censorship of a classic kind; we see much less of Emi’s body than before, and the uniform green ooze blots out the erogenous markers central to heterosexually organized excitement. The trouble with Emi’s empty costume was merely the overexplicitnesss of thus “undressing” her; the more serious trouble with Emi’s liquefaction is the indefinition that results from a certain way—neither modest nor “provocative”—of dressing her.
We should not dismiss this image as a technically primitive special effect that Tsuburaya, with today’s CGI, would have corrected so that Liquid Human came unmistakably in Emi and not on her. The disturbing—and disturbingly sexy—quality of the image lies precisely in the fact that neither the attack nor its object is heterosexual enough. The green caress does not penetrate Emi’s body, which in turn becomes nothing more than an effervescent surface. Her new skin—but can we call it “hers,” or even “his”?—does not recognize genitalia, erogenous zones, or even different body parts. The costume’s sequins seem to be sparkling everywhere on this skin, whose only variegation is provided by the shifting patterns and intensities of its ebullience. In this garish but gripping light, the bra and panties left behind seem the useless cast-offs of a libido that has ceased to recognize them as the metonyms of its sole theater of operations. Emi’s liquefaction might be thought of as visualizing what Gilles Deleuze calls “the body without organs”: a body released from the grip of sex organs and orientations, and transformed into a field of radical perversity whose multiple excitements can be entertained anywhere, anyhow.
Here, of course, Deleuze’s utopia of sexual disintegration wears the aspect of horror—the feel is sexy but does anyone want to look like this? Yet in a horror film, the horror can never be just horrible; its repellence is the royal road to our absorption in it. Thus, though we are grateful to see the cutaway shot of Chikako in a strapless gown putting on lipstick—a quick reaffirmation of the classically partitioned heterosexual object—we are more grateful to see Liquid Human again, now of ambiguated gender, as it slides up the powder-room wall to threaten her with Emi’s fate.
This continual wavering between classic sex and libidinal virtuality finds its objective correlative in Liquid Human itself. Though the creature typically appears as a sort of slime torpedo, it also takes two other forms that isolate its polarities. On the one hand, it appears as, simply, human. Those doleful blue specters, featureless of face, but definitely anthropomorphic in body, whom we see on board the abandoned ship are elegiac reminders of the mutant when it was still imaginable as having an ennobling human quality. On the other hand, it also appears as, simply, liquid. The slime torpedo not only finds its natural habitat in water, but also requires sea, sewer, river, and rainstorms to get about in the world. It thus turns every watery substance into a potential extension of its being. (Even “liquid refreshments” such as the vaguely sinister cocktails consumed at the club seem possible carriers; Uchida’s clothes are found in a subterranean liquor storeroom, and the ship captain has disappeared in the midst of drinking a glass of whiskey that remains suggestively half-full on his table.) Such “mere” liquid no longer has any connection with the human at all; no ghost from the human past, it is the wave—upon wave upon wave—of an unhuman future.
The point is most forcefully made when, to demonstrate the origin of Liquid Human, Dr. Masada bombards a frog with radiation; the resultant froggy liquid is then put into a dish with a still-normal fellow amphibian, which melts on contact. But the liquid per se, familiarly green and bubbling, no more allows us to tell Liquid Frog from Liquid Human than the film lets us distinguish genre cinema from art-film intelligence. Ultimately, the film’s monster of dissolution, not even species-specific, is perhaps better named just Liquid. As such, it stands in total opposition to the eponymous Blob in the American film also from 1958. The Blob, the poor man’s Sartrian nightmare, mires its victims in the viscosity of things; Liquid, Deleuze’s wet dream, does not murder, but melts; here human dignity is lost to going—or is it coming?—with the flow.
In the end, Liquid is a problem requiring resolution. “The only way we can fight it,” says the Scientist in charge of the operation, “is with fire,” water’s symbolically antithetical substance. Appropriately, gasoline is released into the sewers and set ablaze. As the spreading conflagration gives Tokyo’s waterways a blistering new skin, its efficacy at first seems straightforward; we see the slimy form of Liquid being seared, and the humanoid form being shrunken. Yet, as we eventually realize, we do not see the virtual form (as “the watery”) misting away. (And if this did happen, we would only have got a sneak preview of The Human Vapor, the horror movie that Ishiro Honda, as if cycling mutancy through the four elements, made a year later.) The Scientist pronounces Liquid “as good as dead,” but it looks more like Liquid has mutated into a river of fire that—as fire—will never be extinguished and that—as river—will never dry up.
With flames leaping over bridges and tall buildings, Liquid finally acquires the dimensions suitable to the Monstrous; and as these flames take possession of the entire visual field, it also finally offers a worthy image of the atomic holocaust that, in slime form, constrained to proceed by one body at a time, it had signally failed to represent. To clinch the point, Sato’s juicy jazz track lapses into the shrill military march already heard during the H-bomb explosion that begins the film. We are being summoned back to attention. And attention must now again be paid as, over the final image of flames, the Scientist solemnly warns us of the possible extinction of humanity by the H-bomb.
Strangely, though, his warning feels too late, coming amid apocalyptic imagery that doesn’t allow us to distinguish between atomic annihilation and anti-radioactive weaponry, or between a spectacle of Liquid Triumphant and a scene of Liquid Being Brought to Order. The conflation is the Liquid effect intended to end all Liquid effects. For if it does not succeed in eliminating Liquid from Earth, it does manage to eliminate the libidinal from Liquid. In youth, I protected myself from the film’s over-palpable excitements with sarcasm; censors had already done something similar through excision; but such expedients are pale fire compared to the far more drastic option now taken by the film itself. This is the “nuclear option” of fusing Liquid to a single all-embracing devastation that would annul libido in every form. To render Liquid even figuratively (“as good as”) dead, overkill is literally the order of the day; as the Scientist insists, “Any suspicious areas must be burned.” In this Hiroshima of Sex, libidinal mobility is tolerable only as the permanent mobilization against it.
D. A. MILLER is John F. Hotchkis Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.
† The new DVD gives us the choice of watching either the English-language version of The H-Man or the Japanese original. With a strange contempt, though, Sony has retained the export title for the DVD menu of both versions, and has not even subtitled the Japanese title when it appears on screen in the original version. Here I’ve chosen to use its literal translation, in the shortened form of Liquid Human. To Anglophone viewers, the “H” in The H-Man is no doubt quite expressive (of the Homo, the He-man, the Human, and the H-bomb, not to mention Horror and Hell); but Liquid Human, in suspending the antitheses between definite/indefinite, singular/plural, and male/female, names something more fundamental to the film.