Toho's Atragon is perhaps the last of their lavish 60s fantasies not to center on giant Kaiju monsters. It's based on a novel, which may or may not be an oddity in Toho science fiction; the eclectic tale of a giant quadro-phibian warship fits right in with long-standing trends in Japanese Manga and Anime. Although it was filmed in record time, Atragon represents the studio's fantasy output at its creative peak -- director Ishiro Honda had just re-opened the Godzilla series and had a big hit with a science fiction spectacle, Gorath. Toho's monster output was diversifying into family-oriented musicals (Mothra) and more adult-oriented horror (Matango)
The colorful Atragon also marks the entrance of post-war politics into Toho fantasy as an overt theme. Media Blasters' uncut original Japanese version restores the film's original attitudes about re-armament and military honor as a part of national identity. The film was Toho's big Christmas movie for 1963.
It's common for critics to see Japanese fantasy films as borrowing liberally from American Sci-fi adventures. In this view Godzilla is 'copied' from King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Mysterians is xeroxed from The War of the Worlds, and Gorath is cut 'n pasted from When Worlds Collide. But Atragon pulls in ideas from all directions before adding Toho's particular fascination with toys. The submarine and its mysterious obsessed commander is from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with a little of Robur the Conqueror/Master of the World thrown in for good measure. A submarine pursuit sequence is modeled after one in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and uses superior effects to depict a deep-sea implosion. The menacing Mu empire mimics George Pal's Atlantis, the Lost Continent by combining a seemingly barbaric nation with super-scientific technology and weaponry. The Mu warriors look like Phoenicians and carry spears, but have engineered a tremendous undersea empire.
Atragon opens up with an ordinary mystery. Photographer Tadao Takashima is doing a photo spread using a girl in a bikini (Akemi Kita) and a spy in dark glasses, a setup almost identical to one in George Axelrod's How to Murder Your Wife. The story then moves to the oft-repeated story of Japanese soldiers unaware that the War has ended still living on remote islands, something that was still happening as late as 1966. But the amazing Captain Jinguchi has not only survived, he's managed to secretly build an amazing ship with technology nobody has ever heard of, in a fantastic underground factory in a Jules Verne-like volcanic island. Nobody asks how Jinguchi has accomplished something as big as the United States space program without any resources. We just take it for granted when our visitors from Tokyo walk a few paces from a plantation house and ride an elevator down to a tremendous naval dry dock in a steel-braced cavern.
The whys of Jinguchi's personal armament program are made abundantly clear. Like John Ford's Ethan Edwards, Jinguchi never acknowledged the surrender on the Battleship Missouri and has constructed Atragon as a super-weapon to single-handedly win the war for his beloved Japanese Navy. He and his hardy group of soldiers and sailors still observe strict Navy formalities, as if MacArthur had never disbanded the Japanese armed forces and forbidden any sign of militaristic show during the occupation period (1945-1955).
Toho's fantasy films were among the first to address Japanese pro-militarist sentiments. The Mysterians is often read as a militarist fantasy in disguise, with the US-monitored Japanese Defense Forces enlarged into the prestigious Earth Defense Force, a military power that seems to be a wing of the United Nations. The Japanese title of The Mysterians is Chikyu Boeigun, or "World Defense Force." Battle in Outer Space and Gorath continue the idea of a united world with national Air and Space Forces aligned under the United Nations, whereas Mothra sees Japan as a relatively defenseless and peace-loving nation living in the shadow of an arrogant superpower called "Rolisica," an obvious amalgam of the USSR and America. The pushy Rolisica doesn't curb its opportunistic business profiteers, that murder indigenous natives and run roughshod over the rights of other countries.
Atragon sticks with a world similar to the one we know. Japan is militarily powerless while America's atomic submarines prowl the oceans. 1 The kindly, wise Admiral Kosumi is now an industrialist-shipbuilder, a respected icon of the post-war economic recovery. He and Jinguchi have a brief but telling difference of opinion. Jinguchi calls Kosumi a traitor for not sticking with the Emperor and Yamamoto, and refuses to use Atragon as anything but a weapon to reverse the Japanese defeat. Kosumi tells Jinguchi that he must think internationally, that the key to peace and honor for Japan is to build strong economic and diplomatic ties with former enemies. Their standstill leaves the future of Atragon in doubt.
Every jingoistic fantasy needs an implacable enemy (The Mysterians, the Natals, a giant planetoid) to oppose, and Atragon's Mu empire fits the bill. They're a pack of pagan savages with multicolored hairdos, yet they cruise the Pacific in porcelain submarines with ray guns mounted in dragon sculptures! 2 This is the best statement of Raymond Durgnat's thesis on Pulp culture in his critical book Films and Feelings, a potent trend in post-atomic fantasy that combines high technology with barbaric cultures.
Just when we're getting tired of listening to Jinguchi argue with Kosumi and apologize to his daughter Makoto, she's kidnapped by pesky Mu agents. They're easy to spot - they're the only characters with beards. Sabotage explosions bury Atragon in rocks and steel girders. Jinguchi narrows his eyes and issues terse orders to clear the debris and get under way -- the Japanese macho version of Popeye's "That's all I can stands, 'cause I can't stands no more!"
The Mu Empire has already manifested itself with kidnappings, submarines, weird flying bombs and a platoon of those silver-suited frogmen, posed on the ridge of a crater identically to the Ninja spies in the Bond film You Only Live Twice -- I wonder if Toho loaned Eon the same assistant directors. Now Mu shows why they kidnapped the scientists, as they proceed to hit Tokyo with an underground sneak attack: Half the city's center collapses, undermined from below. The high priest's flagship surfaces in Tokyo Bay and proceeds to set ships aflame with its heat ray. But Atragon comes to the rescue. The super-sub changes configuration like a Transformer toy and drills its way out of its own ruined dry dock; it levitates into the sky on hovercraft-like air jets and rockets through the air at supersonic speed. Jinguchi wastes no time in attacking the Mu Empire's undersea, underground power center, but first Atragon must fend off a colossal underwater dragon monster, the "messenger" of the Mu deity Manda.
Manda is sort of a dorky marionette cousin to Reptilicus, a traditional pop-eyed Chinese dragon shoe-horned into the proceedings to give the movie a monster, like the octopus in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea or the wonderful giant walrus in Gorath. But the rest of Atragon's special effects are exemplary. Seen in Tohoscope, the ship looks appropriately huge in many shots, especially its initial appearance rising into the air from the surface of a lake. Stop motion animation is used for some shots of it breaking through rocks and rubble. Its fanciful drill-head nose and crawler tractors are reminiscent of the digging vehicle called the Cyclotram in the old science fiction film Unknown World.
Toho apparently 'threw the film together' in just a few months, but the quality of their effects has not suffered. Atragon flies into a previously filmed miniature above burning oil tankers by use of an excellent traveling matte. We can still see the matte lines when human figures are added to some shots, but the composites are a distinct improvement over similar work in, say, Mothra. Flying bombs, colorful animated rays and matte paintings do not add visible grain to the image, and there is little if any dirt. The Atragon sub is perhaps a little too much like the perfect bathtub toy, but the way it is photographed underwater (some of it might be dry-for-wet filming with filters) compares favorably with the "push the model and see what happens" method used in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Disney's Nautilus remains unchallenged, but the good ship Atragon is not at all bad.
Savant did pick out some stock shots of army maneuvers and street panic that seemed lifted from earlier Toho fantasies, but they're well integrated into the flow of the cutting.
If haste shows anywhere in Atragon, it has to be in the blocking of the character scenes. Jinguchi, Kosumi and Makoto are the only roles with depth; when shots become overpopulated director Honda has a habit of spreading superfluous characters horizontally across the screen. The large cast eventually becomes unwieldy - there's enough plot here for a two-part saga. For instance, the loyal soldier Amano captured by the Tokyo police (Yoshifume Tajita) could have been a conduit to tell the back story of exactly how Jinguchi and fifty lost sailors managed to build Atragon with their bare hands -- we're surprised to find out that shipbuilder Kosumi didn't underwrite Jinguchi's plans.
Even though the spy subplot is fairly unexciting, Atragon moves at a cheerful clip and never becomes boring. The last third of the show gets a big lift with the entrance of the Mu Empress. With her red hair and cross attitude, she's like an irate valley girl. (And who's that six-foot Viking woman to the left of the Empress at the throne? She looks like Herman Goering's sister.) Captain Jinguchi doesn't get to battle his preferred enemy, America, but he's granted a victory over an upstart bunch of primitives living at the bottom of the ocean. When the whole shebang goes up in flame and bubbles (as in Our Man Flint, no tears are shed as an entire civilization is wiped out) Jinguchi gets to play the generous conqueror by letting Tetsuko Kobayashi's Empress leap into the burning sea, like that princess of old in Kwaidan.
From an American point of view, it's curious that Captain Jinguchi is intent on destroying an ancient Empire ruled by an Empress worshipped almost as a goddess -- a nation with similarities to Jinguchi's own semi-medieval militarist Japan. The Mu congregation even shouts "Manda!" identically to the Japanese cheer of "Banzai!" Jinguchi's repeated pledge is actually given only to the Japanese Navy, a detail that, if taken literally, makes Atragon into a fanciful fable about the rehabilitation of an intransigent militarist to help Japan face new challenges. The underlying message is that Japan isn't 100% comfortable being a pacifist bystander in the new Cold War between neo-barbaric superpowers.
Atragon might have a slightly different feeling if, at the end, Jinguchi told his crew, "So much for those seaweed-eaters! Lock and load, and set a course for the Golden Gate Bridge!"
Media Blaster's DVD of Atragon is a beauty, a colorful enhanced transfer with little or no visible damage. Savant watched five blurry, greenish pan-scanned minutes of it on television twenty years ago and gave up; it looked horrible. The Toho laserdisc had the correct screen shape, but its transfer also looked a little peaked. This new transfer must be from a restored element as the colors pop and the effects match much better than they once did - we can barely see the traveling matte lines, and the blends between live action, painted mattes and miniatures are greatly improved. Even the still paintings representing the Mu warriors frozen by the Atragon subzero spray now look reasonable. On the other hand, the increased sharpness finally allows us to see the wires holding the craft in the air. But only if one looks for them ...
Again, for a rush job Atragon comes off as high-quality adventure. Akira Ikufube's thunderous martial score is one of his best. Atragon is represented by a heavy-duty march theme that transforms a floating toy into a colossal juggernaut. Audio is offered in both mono and 5.1 Dolby for both English and Japanese. The English track is not the original 1965 AIP dub job; Arkoff cut the show by about seven minutes for American release.
The disc comes with an "Exciting!" trailer, but the real treat is a good Japanese commentary subtitled in English, a professional interview with Ishiro Honda's chief assistant director Koji Kajita. He worked on just about every Honda assignment from 1954's Gojira to 1966's War of the Gargantuas and tells a number of interesting stories. The Japanese/American gap is still evident; we wonder if the provocative shot where Tetsuko Kobayashi drops her Mu tunic to don swim gear was that big of a shock in Japanese cinemas ("It was a family film!') or if Mr. Kajita was just personally impressed!
American-International commissioned terrific artwork for their import release. Atragon blasts through the walls of the undersea kingdom while exotic dancers and ray gun-toting soldiers compete for poster space. I remember staring at the newspaper ad for about an hour but didn't get to see the picture when it was new because it was only playing at San Bernardino's Baseline drive-in. The DVD cover illustration copied from the Toho Japanese release resembles a promotion for one of the newer anime Super Atragon shows; the attractive Manda monster at the bottom is a dead ringer for the furry flying dragon in The Neverending Story.
Media Blasters /Tokyo Shock has done it again! Let's hope that other Toho fantasy epics are released in versions as good as this one. Some great titles (Battle in Outer Space, Mothra, The H-Man) are tied up at Columbia, while certain others may be set free for this label, as was Atragon. A couple of years ago it still had some legal ties to Sony/MGM. A similarly entangled title on Savant's mind is the superior astral-collision saga Gorath, which floated around some small outfits before being released to television by American-International. The Japanese laserdisc was in stereophonic sound and had a road show-like orchestral overture -- I hope Toho is preparing it for export as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Atragon has an amusing sequence on board a Polaris-type submarine. What look to be Americans plucked off the streets of Tokyo play sailors speaking English, awkwardly directed by Ishiro Honda's interpreters. Their dialogue reminds one of old Sansui stereo instructions. One of the sailors is obviously a Frenchman who fooled the filmmakers into thinking he was a Yank ... his accent is hilarious.
2. The 200 or so massed dancers in the court of the Empress are said to be dance students. The crowd can't have been given more than 20 minutes of prep time, as it never gets fully into step. At any given time half of them are going in the wrong direction, and a few can be seen struggling to avoid being tripped up by their unfamiliar costumes. Some of the dancing looks like a slowed-down version of the Hully Gully! But the Mu revelers have almost as much spirit as the blood-drinking fertility dancers seen worshipping a giant Egg in Mothra.