HCF REWIND 118:ATRAGON AKA KAITEI GUNKAN, SUBMARINE WARSHIP [Japan, 1963]
RUNNING TIME: 96 mins
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
While on a magazine photo shoot one night, photographers Susumu Hatanaka and Yoshito Nishibe witness a strange human-like figure coming out of the sea and a car containing a kidnapper and his victim driving into the ocean. Meanwhile Makoto Jinguji is informed that her father, Imperial Captain Jinguji, who supposedly disappeared after World War 2, is still alive. A mysterious taxi driver almost abducts Makoto and the Admiral but is foiled by the photographers, but not before claiming to be an agent of the drowned Mu Empire and fleeing into the ocean. A package arrives containing a film about the undersea continent which sunk into the sea over two thousand years ago but still thrives and now demands that the surface world capitulate. Earth’s only hope? Jinguji’s flying supersub Atragon, but they have to find it first ….
A seemingly juvenile fantasy actioner with some surprising mature concerns, Atragon is generally regarded as one of Toho’s best non-Godzilla science-fiction pictures. I like it a lot, but don’t think it quite comes up to the standard of, say, Mothra or Battle In Outer Space. It suffers from a very draggy middle section and a really unconvincing monster that doesn’t need to be in the film at all and was, as with Meguma from Gorath ,written into it as the behest of producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. The action is rather a long time coming in this one, though Atragon is really more about characters than special effects, with the result that there’s a slight dichotomy between the bonkers main storyline and both the intense personal emotions of some of the characters and their relationships, and the themes of nationalism and pride.
Shinichi Sekizawa’s script was based on both a series of juvenile adventure Kingdom novels called Kaitei Gunkan by Shunri Oshikawa and the serialised illustrated story Kaitei Okoku [The Undersea Kingdom] by illustrator Shigeru Komatsuzaki, who became an un-credited visual designer in the film. The role of Jinguji was written, rather optimistically, for Toshirô Mifune, but his prior commitment to Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard made it impossible for him to participate. The three-month production period, far less than normal, meant that that two units rather than one were allocated to special effects, in a rush to meet the start of the winter holidays. A big hit, it was picked up by American-International Pictures in the US, probably the leading maker and distributor of independently-produced, low-budget horror and science-fiction films of the time as well as the studio that brought more the most non-American genre titles to the screen, including later on some more Toho picture. The US version is virtually the same, and, aided by good dubbing from Titra Studios [the best of its kind], is almost as good a watch as the Japanese version.
There’s a real sense of intrigue and mystery in the first third, as odd things happen and various strands are slowly brought together. Then everyone sets out to find Jinguji, and the pacing almost grinds to a halt. Honda really takes his time with scenes like Atragon’s test-run, which especially seems to be drawn-out, but the personal story keeps the interest, and eventually we get a final third of spectacular action in Toho’s best style. The Mu’s attack Japan, so we are treated to bomb-like things flying through the air causing things to blow up, Tokyo being swallowed in a huge earthquake [jaw-dropping, this bit] and the Mu submarine destroying the Japanese navy. The lower budget means that these scenes are shorter than normal, and the keen-eyed will spot brief stock-footage from Mothra [buildings collapsing], The Mysterians, Battle In Outer Space [surveillance satellites] and another film called The Last War [montage of some of the world’s cities]. Then Atragon finally goes into action, battling Manda the giant serpent and attacking the Mu Empire, the ending of which has has always struck me as being rather callous with everyone in the Mu Empire obviously paying the price for belonging to it. Given that the Empress is given some dignity when she perishes, it’s something Honda and Sekizawa were probably aware of.
Yes, you read just now that there is a giant serpent in the movie, but he really lets the film down. Despite the laudable attempt to give him the face of an oriental-style dragon, he never once looks actually alive, and the laughably unconvincing puppet moves like a costume in a Chinese New Year parade. He only appears in the final third thankfully but the film could have easily done without him. Kenji Sahara also creates some chuckles as a Mu agent disguised as a reporter, but an absurdly conspicuous one with fake bread, sun glasses and raincoat which he never takes off [where it’s obviously hot]. Set against this is the maturity of the Jinjugi story. Patriotic to a fault [he’s built Atragon not to be used but to restore Japan’s national pride] and barely reacting when he first sees the daughter he abandoned twenty years before, he’s played with immense dignity and foolhardy strength by Jun Tazaki, and I can’t really see how Mifune would have done any better. There’s a beautifully photographed dialogue scene between father and daughter on a beach, the sparkling blue water contrasting gorgeously with the green trees, which is superbly written and full of emotion, Tazaki brilliantly showing his character trying to hold back showing his feelings. You don’t expect to find this kind of stuff in a film like this, and it’s welcome even though the first time I just wanted the film to get on with the action it promised! The film is clearly showing how extreme nationalism can be a dangerous thing, with Jinjugi almost letting the world be destroyed, and the Mu Empress, who is a mirror image of Jinjuki, nearly doing the destroying.
Atragon, which can both dive and fly, and is equipped with a freezing weapon and a drill which can smash through walls, is very cool and it’s a shame it only appeared again in an anime and the very last Godzilla film. The Mu Empire and its inhabitants are very much designed to evoke our imagination of what we think Atlantis could be [actually this aspect of the film seems influenced a bit by Atlantis The Lost Continent]. Greek, Babylonian, Egyptian and even Renaissance influences abound, though it’s a shame the budget didn’t allow for a detailed miniature showing the whole Empire. A lengthy sequence where they dance and gyrate about in their colourful costumes to a thrilling piece of Akira Ifukube tribal-style music with weird female chorus on top, is almost a masterpiece of gaudy kitsch, and what’s with so many of Sekizawa’s scripts having ‘primitive’ people who worship a monster god, something which began with King Kong I suppose? Despite the budgetary restrictions, there are some very clever effects like the seamless dissolves into matte paintings when people are frozen by Atragon’s weapon. It’s interesting how Honda likes to usually downplay the violence, with one odd bit where one guy is pierced by the back end of a spear, though the most illogical bit concerns the film the Mu’s send, which contains narration, titles, the lot!
Hiroshi Koizumi does well in his usual dogged detective role and it’s fun to see Akihito Hirata and Kenji Sahara as villains. Yoko Fujiyama, though beautiful, lets the acting side as Makoto, not really showing the character’s intense and conflicting emotions well enough. Akira Ifukube provides a typically fine score with a rousing theme for Atragon [which has shades of his second Godzilla theme in parts], descriptive undulating patterns for Manda, and a plaintive theme for Makoto which is truly beautiful. Unlike many fans, I wouldn’t quite place Atragon near the top of Honda’s and Toho’s achievements. The fantasy part of the story could have benefitted from more action, while the human side could probably have worked better in a more realistic context. Good it certainly is though, confident, audacious and actually quite thought-provoking when it comes down to it.