Submarines and sci-fi stories go together like fish and chips, as anyone who’s read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea already knows. And if you thought that book hit it big in the English speaking world (I’m not even going to try and count how many times it’s been adapted to film) you should see the influence it had on Japan. Once Jules Verne hit the home islands his books sparked an SF craze that, in most respects, has never really gone away.
Local rip-offs were inevitable, the most important for us being Shunro Oshikawa’s Kaitei Gunkan (“Undersea Battleship”), published around 1900. The first in a series of what we’d now call “young adult adventure novels,” Undersea Battleship followed the crew of its titular device through a futuristic version of the Ruso-Japanese War that was, in reality, just around the corner. Like a lot of Japanese fiction at the time, it was enthusiastically imperialist, fiercely nationalistic, and (one would think) completely anathema to a post-war movie audience raised under the Constitution of 1945, with its explicit “wars are bad, m’kay” stance.
And yet…the popularity of Oshikawa’s books managed to survive both his death and the death of Japan’s imperial ambitions. Why wouldn’t it? They’re all about manly men doing manly things in service to manly causes. To a movie studio struggling to establish itself internationally as the age of James Bond dawned, that sounded like a recipe for success. And who better to bring all that to the silver screen than the people who brought you Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, Varan and The Mysterians? That’ll make for a guaranteed-great movie…right?
We open with Working Class Hero Susumu Hatanaka (Tadao Takashima, whom you might remember as Sakurai from King Kong vs. Godzilla; or as Dr. Kawaji from Frankenstein Conquers the World; take your pick), a commercial photographer on location in the dead of night. Because shooting in studios is for chumps. Oh to be a professional photographer in the age of leopard-print bikinis. It’s a dirty old man’s job, but that’s why you get young men in there to do it.
Susumu and his assistant, Yoshito (Yu Fujiki) pause the shoot to note the cloud of steam rising from the docks in their background. As the Akira Ifukube score rises we see a figure clamor onto dry land, just as a taxi cab drives past them into the ocean. Clad in what looks like armored scuba gear, I feared this joker (and the Bad Guys he represents) would turn out to be radioactive. Hang on, let me skip to the end of the film…nope. Sorry. It’s never brought up. Forget I mentioned it. In fact, forget all of this since it’s all of this is rather pointless, establishing a mystery the movie will solve for itself in less than fifteen minutes.
Meanwhile, Retired Admiral Kosumi (Ken Uehara) is having to deal with a nosy reporter from True Story Magazine (the unrecognizable – due to his ever-present sunglasses and fake-looking beard – Kenji Sahara) who seems a little too interested in one of Kosumi’s former officers, submarine Captain Hachiro Jinguji. Jinguji went MIA shortly before the end of The War, leaving Kosumi’s to raise Jinguji’s daughter, Makato (Yôko Fujiyama), as his own. So when another mysterious weirdo starts tailing Makato through the streets, Kosumi’s naturally more than a little suspicious.
He (and we – and Makato, and Susumu, who’s hanging around Makato ‘cuz…she’s hot, I guess) get some answers in the form of Agent #23 (an almost-as-unrecognizable Akihiko Hirata in a rare villainous role), who attempts to kidnap Kosumi and Makato by posing as a taxi driver. Susumu wrestles the Agent’s gun away, allowing Kosumi to get the drop on him…for about five seconds. The Agent escapes into the Sea, swearing either he or others like him will return, leaving our heroes standing around the beach with dumb expressions on their faces. What the hell is going on around here, anyway? What could possibly clear this up?
How about an Emergency Exposition Dump? Those are always good in a pinch. And what form will it take? A worldwide simulcast transmission? A Villainous Monologue from that other guy who seemed to be stalking Makato earlier? No…instead the Exposition comes in form of a 8mm film strip, hand-wrapped in a tasteful gift box with the word “MU” printed on the side and delivered to Our Heroes c/o Tokyo’s police department.
Mu, it turns out, is the Pacific Ocean’s answer to Atlantis: an ancient empire of technologically advance sea-fairers who stood astride the world about twelve thousand years ago…before their continent sank into the sea. Somehow, Mu survived and even thrived down there, using geothermal power to raise its standard of living up from “paleolithic” to “pre-Columbian Americana.” But now…for whatever reason…the Muians have decided to announce their return, demanding the nations of the Earth become “colonies” of the restored Mu Empire. Oh, and one more thing – they must destroy Atragon.
Everyone in the audience for this the Muian filmstrip (which plays more like a promo reel from Mu’s Imperial Department of Tourism than an announcement of world domination), scratches their heads and asks the person to their right, “What the fuck’s an ‘Atragon’? Any a’ you jerks ever heard of an ‘Atragon’ before?”
Kosumi reluctantly (and figuratively) raises his hand. Turns out, back during the end of The War, then-Admiral Kosumi looked the other way when Captain Jinguji decided to ignore the whole “end of the War” thing. Jinguji took his submarine solo and has basically been farting around for twenty years…until Mu’s forces captured his sub a few months ago. They’ve made it their capital city’s premiere tourist attraction. No, I’m not kidding: it features prominently in their capital city’s town square.
Lucky for everyone, Cap’n Jinguji and his crew had already drawn up plans for a new and improved warship – the Goten-go. Or the Atragon. Whatever. There’s some dispute about that in the fan community, owing to the fact Toho sold this film to international distributors under the title Atoragon, while its American distributor, AIP, chopped the or out of the word for reasons known only to them. Hell, for years I thought that was the actual title of the film and name of the submarine. I still have to stop myself from pronouncing it in what my brain considers the “correct” way.
Our Heroes learn all this from Makato’s stalker, who turns out to be one of her father’s officers, assigned to special daughter-guarding duty. A few words from the ol’ Admiral convince him to lead a select group (consisting entirely of our leads, including that dude from True Story Magazine, because “he would’ve written up the story otherwise,” silly) to Jinguji’s base…on a Mysterious Island. Of course. Where else would it be?
That Reporter from True Story might as well have “traitor” written across his forehead in neat block calligraphy. He never takes off his red beret! Or his fake beard! Or his sunglasses! All the while, he drops sonic bread crumbs for the Muian submarine slowly stalking Our Heroes. Things get worse once Captain Jinguji (Jun Tazaki) refuses to lead the charge against the Mu Empire. He built Atragon for the glory of Imperial Japan, by God, and it won’t move an inch out of dry dock until Japan reclaims her Imperial ambitions…or something like that. It’s never really clear what conditions would actually drive Jinguji into action, the better to make his eventual Personal Stake in the Action a surprise.
Makato’s obviously nonplussed about her father’s disdain for cooperative, international military actions, and runs away crying. She does his far too often, though not often enough to make a real drinking game out of it. More’s the pity. Jinguji, Makato and Susumu proceed to fart around for another fifteen minutes while we wait for the journalist from True Story to sabotage something. Presently, he does, kidnapping Makato and Susumu in the process. With a shinny new Personal Stake in the Action, Captain Jinguji commands the Atragon into its one-and only action sequence, which are the only thing anyone ever talks about when they talk about this film.
That’s unfortunate, because it builds up an expectation in the minds of idiots like me, who’re driven to watch every Japanese SF film Godzilla’s creators ever made. This one has more than enough talent to be the “classic” everyone labels it, but what’s on screen never amounts to much beyond “average.” They can’t all be winners, folks. I don’t want to call Atragon a complete loss…but damned if you don’t have to work hard to enjoy it.
It’s certainly structured like an Ishiro Honda-directed daikaiju movie with a Shinichi Sekizawa script (like those four I mentioned back in paragraph 2), even though there wouldn’t be a monster in this film without special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya’s suggestion that sticking one in would make Atragon more marketable. He was right, but “more marketable” and “better” arn’t synonymous. The back half of the film, for all its problems, is pure, uncut Tsuburaya at the top of his game. Ships blow up real good, the Empire manages to undermine an entire block of downtown Tokyo (presumably via earthquake machine), and Atragon defeats Manda. But after all that waiting around, I expected more than a thirty second fight with a monster. Just like I expected more from the civilization that worshiped him.
Speaking of lame things, Venice and Hong Kong get destroyed off-screen. Thought I’d just mention that in a casual, off-handed comment. The film uses spinning newspaper headlines, so that’s a little more formal…I suppose.
But you know what isn’t lame? The name of the atomic submarine the U.N. deploys against Mu as a stop-gap measure -“the worlds newest atomic submarine ” – the Red Satan! Seriously. There are no words to describe my disbelief in that name…even though I freely admit it’s pretty damn awesome. Rather metal, don’t ya think? A name focus group-tested to make world leaders crap their pants. “Wake up, Mr. President: it’s...the Red Satan!” Who’s the captain, Anton LaVey? Along with XO Charles Manson? How cool is this world’s version of the U.S. Navy that they slapped that name on their flagship? I’m not even all that comfortable with saying they “christened” it. Yeah, I know they say it’s a U.N. sub, but it’s crewed entirely by Token Anglos who speak fluent ‘merikan, so there you go. All these guys need are some American flag do-rags and sunglasses.
On to the titular sub, which has a much better name in Japanese. Best I can tell, it’s something like Roaring Heaven, which only seems appropriate for a flying submarine with a pneumatic drill for a nose. Nothing Freudian about that. No siree. Nor is there any reason to look askance at the fact that pneumatic drill/nose shoots a stream of white vapor that freezes everything in its path.
I make fun, but seriously, he idea is certainly much more badass than the execution. But in a world where undersea empires thrive for thousands of years (in secret) I’ll buy the flying, and the Absolute Zero cannon, and the fact that Jinguji managed to build it in secret. I won’t buy the fact it sits in dry dock until over an hour into things because that hour isn’t nearly as interesting as it should be.
Let’s talk about that structure I mentioned, that’s so much like Honda’s other monster movies. It takes too long to get to the real heart of the matter: that generational conflict the Jingujis (father and daughter) represent. This could’ve been a whole movie all by itself, stripped of its SF elements, if Jun Tazuka didn’t have to share Yoko Fujiyama with two other leading men. Or their story didn’t have to share a film with the half-baked mystery opening and a one-sided curb-stomp conclusion. Instead of building up the mystery of Mu (which Mu solves), the movie should’ve built up to the father-daughter confrontation. That’s (presumably) the compelling human conflict everyone behind the camera wanted to talk about.
Instead, they shove it into the center of this, which feels like an unfinished Alien Invasion flick…which is really an Undersea Invasion film…but ask any Star Trek fan: spaceships and submarines are easily interchangeable. Why do you think this one flies? Being ridiculously huge and well armed with Mr. Freeze’s technology isn’t enough: you have to have a ship powerful enough to save the world all by itself. You can get away with any kind of insubordination, so long as you save the world before you come back home.
Not that Mu is any real threat. They seem more concerned with putting on dance numbers for their Empress than contributing to the war effort…though maybe that’s just the local public university dance troupe doing their part, selling war bonds or something. If not, then the Mu are all show and no go, empty spectacle for its own sake. There’s a five minute dance number in the middle of the climactic action scene for no reason, other than the fact that you could put it in the trailers and it’ll look cool.
But at the end of the day, these are the dumbest bunch of world conquerors ever. Photographers and a “ghost in rusty armor” take them down with one ship and and some freeze cannons. I guess I should be rooting for these intrepid soldiers and their brave fight for the freedom of the surface world…but I can’t shake the feeling that their beating up on a vastly-inferior foe. Aside from the one ship of their own what do the Muian’s really have? A pet god-monster that gets taken out in under a minute. Ho-hum.
I think I understand why Atragon is the way it is, though. Everyone involved got their marching orders in September: Toho needed a Big Movie for the Winter holiday season (which was then what Summer Blockbuster Season is now). So they all rushed even more than usual, and released some damn sloppy work into the world. This isn’t even very interesting sloppy work, like King Kong vs. Godzilla, which at least had the novelty of being a vicious car-crash between two incompatible types of movies (namely, Godzilla’s and Kong’s). This is something else: Honda purging all the Military Pornography out of his system in time for the new year by pouring it into a December release. And I challenge you to find me a more honest piece of military pornography than the Atragon. It’s perfect: a penis extension for all the guys; the ultimate vibrator for all the girls. Or vice versa, as you like it. It embraces all your needs, so long as they’re base and easy to satisfy.
Like this movie, which feels like the first part of an unfinished Atragon serial. Part Two should’ve been a dark tragedy, where everything went to hell, Atragon‘s own Empire Strikes Back. Instead we had to wait until 2004 before we see the Atragon reappear on screen…unless we found the anime they made in 1986. Did anyone? It took me this long just to find a decent copy of the film…
But that probably says more about me than it does about Atragon. I did not grow up with it, and I’m sure someone will dismiss my opinion of the film because of that. For many, it’s a nostalgic kick that never goes out of style. For me, it’s a strange afterthought, a half-baked effort from everyone involved, all of whom have done better work elsewhere. I’d suggest it for die hard fans only and direct the rest of you to that other Ishiro Honda movie from 1963, Matango…a.k.a. Attack of the Mushroom People.