A civilization that disappeared over 10,000 years ago; has reappeared, and is threatening the whole world with total destruction. All hope now rests on a an old submarine Captain and his new secret weapon. But he has an ulterior motive in mind!
Released in 1963 and directed by Ishirō Honda; Atragon is a science fiction film, based on The Undersea Warship: A Fantastic Tale of Island Adventure by Shunrō Oshikawa, and The Undersea Kingdom by Shigeru Komatsuzaki. Although the film could also be considered a Monster Movie; the only real giant monster in the film; Manda, does not make an appearance until the film’s final act. This was the feature debut for Manda, who would later appear in two Godzilla films (and two others as stock footage. Ironically Manda shares it’s screen debut with the battleship Gotengo, a battleship which Manda would fight again 41 years later in Godzilla: Final Wars.
The lost Empire of Mu has reappeared, and is threatening to reclaim the world it once ruled. The lost continent is now an advanced civilization, which harnesses the energy from the centre of the earth to power it’s empire. Agents from within the empire have kidnapped a few scientists, where as a mysterious reporter is asking questions about the captain (Jun Tazaki) of a lost submarine built at the end of World War II. As the threat from the reborn empire increases, the authorities are able to track down the lost submarine captain, and discover his incredible new submarine: The Gotengo!
Atragon was released during a time that is widely considered as Toho‘s golden period of making Monster Movies. This period of film making comes after the success of Godzilla of course, still less than a decade earlier. Since then several other notable Monster films have been released such as Rodan, Mothra, and King Kong vs. Godzilla to name but a few. By the early 1960’s, Toho had only just begun, and a whole wave of Monster Movies would follow in this period, as well as decades to come.
Atragon though is slightly different, as it’s more of a straight up science fiction movie, rather than a full blown monster movie. It just sort of includes a monster in it. It has an interesting idea for a story, and an interesting level of build-up. But it does have quite a few issues. These issues are mostly continuity based, but there are some effects issues too. For instance; the use of miniatures is a hallmark trait of Toho; but when using miniatures in the far off distance, they are blurry, and very hard to make out. If you are wanting to convey things in the distance, why are they demanding the use of miniatures which are hard to see. Only when they are close up do they make any visual sense. The film’s backdrops are pretty weak, the effects of adding people in the foreground to a giant back drop are occasionally blurry too, and the film regularly features repeated and long sequences which seem to be there for the whole purpose of increasing the film’s running time!
The continuity errors though are the things that will haunt you the most. For the most part they are rather subtle, but the more they happen, the more they haunt you. It’s little things like when the Mu Empress (Tetsuko Kobayashi) is forced to put on a swim suit, she takes off her pink robes, but a few minutes later when she steps aboard the Gotengo, she is back in her full pink robe attire, which we just saw her rip off! Also, why does the Empress of Mu have a sense of self preservation when the airlock is flooded, but then chooses to die at the end of the film through an act of suicide? Then there’s the case of the lost island the Gotengo is situated on. An Island which takes forever to find, but is large enough to have both dense jungles, and large open ash ridden areas. Then there’s the time when the Gotengo breaks into the lost empire’s base, which it access’s through water, breaks through a wall, and can then attack; but without gallons of water flooding in (it’s basic liquid physics)! Then there are moments which go unanswered, such as a bit where the lost empire feels an earthquake; and rubble falls around them, but then no answer is given for it! OK, maybe they’re not necessarily continuity issues; but they are still errors which just take up quite a bit of your attention.
They are basically errors which don’t make sense. There are others too; such as why does a highly advanced situation, with access to flying vehicles, powerful submarines, and scuba gear; persist on dressing up like Aztec warriors, and carry Aztec like weapons? It’s like the producers are telling you one thing, but then don’t back it up with anything coherent, and instead show you another thing to confuse you. These issues are attention grabbing; which is a real shame, as the rest of the film, is actually rather clever.
It’s a very cleverly designed film, as whilst it does feature a lot of science fiction, it also features a great deal of drama. It’s sort of hard to describe, but by placing in some notes from history, it really helps to create drama and intrigue, as well as puzzles for the characters to solve. Firstly it makes mention of the I-400 class submarines. These were submarines built by the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II, which were Submersible Aircraft Carriers; and were the largest submarines ever built until the construction of Ballistic Missile Submarines in the 1960’s. The clever thing with including one of these in the film, is that (according to Wikipedia), boat number I-403 was cancelled. This piece of knowledge means that the producers could make this Submarine however they wanted to, but throw a wrench into the situation by suggesting that this one perhaps wasn’t cancelled, rather re-designated, and redesigned.
Also, the film sort of hints at something which has been used as a plot device and made reference to in the years that followed. Creating a submarine captain, who is still fighting after World War II. It is no secret that many Japanese soldiers who fought in the war, continued to fight for Japan up until at least 1974. So, the film therefore creates an interesting puzzle of drama, by including one in this film; one whom also is the film’s hero; as he holds the power/secret that could help save the world; but his intentions are else where. It’s a clever plot device which may have been too early for this film to use to it’s full effect, but if remade today; would be something you couldn’t ignore. In hindsight, maybe the Mu Empire shouldn’t have been highly advanced? instead they could have stayed in a state of ancient culture, as this would greatly complement the submarine captain’s story, as it wouldn’t be one man still fighting the war, but two still fighting their own wars?
It is a clever film, it does have it’s issues as raised above, but it also has it’s merits. The battleship Gotengo is definitely one of them; although it is a bit confusing that the film is called Atragon. In the releases I have seen, this name is only used in the film’s titles, and no later reference is made. But glossing over that; the Gotengo is an amazing craft, featuring a cool drill at the front. And whilst it is technically a submarine, allowing it to fly adds an extra spicy titbit surprise.
The film carries a real whose who of recognizable stars from Toho’s Golden Era. Stars such as Tadao Takashima, Yû Fujiki, Kenji Sahara, Hiroshi Koizumi, Yoshifumi Tajima, Hisaya Itô, and Akihiko Hirata to name but a few. But it’s not just it’s stars which are a whose who, as the film’s soundtrack does feature pieces you will have heard from other Toho productions too. But, the film’s main theme (composed of course by the great Akira Ifukube) is such a unique, and outstanding piece. It features large and powerful notes, arranged in such a way, that it sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Personally I think it’s one of Ifukube’s best (if not the best) pieces outside the Godzilla series.
Atragon is a superb film, and provides something different for people who at the time at least were starting to get a bit sick of all the Monster Movies. But at the same time; it provides modern viewers an insight into the earlier productions of Toho’s golden era. But it’s not just that; as it provides audience members old and new, that it wasn’t just Monster Movies that Toho made, and that they were also capable of creating amazing science fiction movies, with ideas that were neither thought up (in movies) before, or amazingly replicated, since!