"This situation is so bad that it is the worst that ever has been!" – The Professor
So you may want to know who the Professor is, or more pressingly, what is the situation? The worst situation that has ever been! Well when you watch Infra-Man you won’t have to wait long to find out. Before the Professor can proclaim the direness of the event, some crazy shit goes down: a Giant Flying Lizard crashes into a children’s school bus, the Earth is ruptured, and Hong Kong erupts in flames. And that’s just the first 60 seconds.
The situation is this. After a several million-year slumber, a prehistoric monarch by the name of Princess Dragon Mom has awoken and is royally pissed to discover she no longer rules the world. So she decides to enslave the entire human race with the help of her monster minions. With Ice Age-old mutants sporting names like Plant Monster and the Giant Beetle Monster, it’s clear the Earth doesn’t stand a chance. Unless… (and this is where the Professor comes in), a cyborg human hero can be created to defeat them. Cue: Infra-man! The Professor just so happens to have blueprints and the required materials ready to create a bionic kung fu superhero with a mad backflip and death-doling weaponry. All he needs is a volunteer to become Inframan. That takes all of another 60 seconds when officer Rayma volunteers to transform into the high-kicking, laser-shooting, thunderbolt-fisting Inframan. From there, Infra-Man is a whirlwind of Chopsocky martial arts battles, Day-Glo monster costumes, and unrepentant cheesiness.
The over-the-top campiness of it all is fantastic– the blatant overuse of sound effects (ping!), the tenuous plot connections, and the vagueness of what kind of weapons the monsters are using all add to this Shaw Brothers solid gold chunk of cheese. There are times when it looks like the mutants’ offensive strategies are spraying water or even projectile vomiting, and for all we know, they could be. To watch Infra-Man is to take supreme delight in suspension of disbelief. You don’t ask questions like where does a legion of evil monsters asleep since the last ice age get high-top basketball shoes and motorcycle helmets? Or, what’s that zipper coming out of the back of Mutant Drill? Or maybe you do ask exactly those questions, and in any and all cases the answer is hysterical laughter.
We’re dealing with a movie whose protagonist must wrestle himself from the clutches of “liquid ice” and whose villain is a bullwhip-cracking dominatrix named Princess Dragon Mom in a gold metal cone bra and Viking helmet. Oh, and did I mention she can transform into a flying lizard? The only direction given to the actors in rubber monster suits seems to be something along the lines of “Flail your arms frenetically, jump around in place, and grunt as often as possible.” As far as knock ‘em, chop ‘em, kung fu action movies goes, though, Infra-Man has all you could ever want and more – damsels in distress, seemingly causeless explosions, scientists in shiny body suits, a dominatrix reptilian monarch, ice-age old robots (don’t worry about it) with go-go-gadget slinky arms and spiked clubs for hands, and administrative assistants named She-Demon.
Where could such absurdist genius come from? The movie was released in 1975 as, allegedly, the first Shaw Brothers production to use a storyboard. While Infra-Man is also referred to as the first Chinese superhero film, it was highly influenced by Japanese television series from the mid-60s and early 70s, Ultraman and Kamen Rider. Both shows were extremely popular and had a colossal cultural impact in Japan, an impact as far reaching as (wait for it) outer space! Akimasa Nakamura, astronomer and Kamen Rider super fan, actually named two minor planets as a tribute to the series (this is serious, see NASA listings for12796 Kamenrider and 12408 Fujioka). In case you’re wondering what cosmos-gripping plot inspired such galactic honors, Kamen Rider tells the story of a motorcycle-racing scientist turned grasshopper-man cyborg who battles against an evil brainwashing, terrorist organization, while Ultraman is the story of a man given transformation powers by a valorous alien which Ultraman then uses to battle monsters threatening the well-being of Earth. Any of this sound familiar?
That’s because Infra-Man was riding the superhero wave of henshin, a Japanese word meaning “transformation.” Typically, henshin refers to a drama where characters transform into superheroes, and with TV shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider, henshin became an immensely popular addition to the tokusatsu entertainment emerging in the mid-fifties. Tokusatsu is essentially a portmanteau of the Japanese phrase tokushu satsuei, meaning “special photography,” and generally refers to any drama hyped up on superheroes and abundant special effects. The style also generally includes kaiju, or monster movies like the dragon mom of the genre: Godzilla. Our little gem Infra-Man combines all of the above: strange beasts, human-cyborg transformations, and oh-so-special effects.
It’s almost no surprise, then, that Roger Ebert grants Infra-Man three shining stars and writes in his 1976 review, “When they stop making movies like Infra-Man, a little light will go out of the world." It’s true. Even if that little light is from the phosphorescent glow of rubber monster costumes or the laser beams shot from She-Demon’s eyeball-palms, without movies like Infra-Man there would be no reminders that sometimes superpower transformation requires only a cheap Lycra suit, that thunderbolt fists can defeat evil, or perhaps the world would simply be a much less amusing place.
Kristen Bialik works in public relations in Milwaukee, WI. When she’s not doing that, she’s trying to learn Korean, trying to write short stories, or trying to scheme up ways she can work for Conan O’Brien in Burbank. They’re works in progress.