Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky thinks the world needs more flying submarine movies.
"Atragon will now sail to destroy the Mu Empire!"—Captain Jinguji's philosophical statement of purpose
When I was quite young, every Sunday morning, like millions of Americans, I worshiped at the altar of my choice. For me, this was "Creature Feature," a Sunday morning staple as I was growing up. I never knew what glorious adventures I would have as I turned on the television. Some days, it was some irradiated monstrosity from the 1950s, enormous insects or lizards tramping through the American southwest. Or a Japanese rubber monster like Gamera or Godzilla, friend to children in short pants everywhere. If I was lucky, it was Atragon.
For decades, the plot stuck with me as like a strange recurring dream. Invaders from the underwater continent of Mu (Japan's version of Atlantis) threaten humanity. Our only recourse: a marvelous flying submarine with a drill on the front. I dare not speculate on what Freudian impulse has kept this memory fresh in my mind for all these years. But here I am, with Media Blasters' DVD release of Kaitei Gunkan ("Underwater Battleship"), the film I knew in my youth as Atragon.
First thought: The film, a product of Toho's fertile early '60s kaiju factory, looks gorgeous on DVD. This was obviously a prestige project for 1963. It was shot in full-color Tohoscope, and the print for this DVD is free of apparent defects or scratches. The mono soundtrack has been remixed in 5.1, although it stays pretty much in the front channels.
The plot borrows from tales familiar to American audiences. Marauding undersea kingdoms are standard pulp fare, and the titular super-sub owes a clear debt to Jules Verne, even down to its curmudgeonly captain (although this one is quite hawkish compared to Nemo and his anti-war rants). Indeed, the premise works so well that Gainax would pit the Nautilus against invaders nearly thirty years later for Nadia of the Mysterious Seas.
My second thought about the film is that the submarine really only sees action for the last few minutes of the film. It really seemed like a lot longer when I was a kid—which is perhaps a reflection of how powerful the film's concept is even beyond its actual execution. In reality, the plot of Atragon follows the standard Toho kaiju plot in several ways, only with the giant monster (the kaiju of note) showing up only as a minor antagonist and all the focus going towards the science-fiction gadgetry. In the first act, strange things are afoot in Tokyo—as if Tokyo ever gets a quiet week without some monster or alien stomping around. Anyway, burning hot creeps are climbing out of Tokyo Bay and kidnapping civil engineers. Meanwhile, a pushy reporter (Kenji Sahara) with a suspicious goatee prods retired Admiral Kosumi (Ken Uehara) about an enigmatic sub commander who disappeared at the end of World War II.
The apparently disjointed narrative (exactly what was the point of the girl in the bikini—other than cheesecake appeal?) comes together when agents of the evil Mu Empire reveal their intentions, prompting the missing Captain Jinguji (Jun Tazaki), who has been secretly constructing a marvelous submarine in a secret base, to make contact with his daughter Makoto (Yôko Fujiyama) and Admiral Kosumi. But here is the twist: Jinguji has no intention of using his submarine (he calls it "Goten-go," but we know it as "Atragon") against the Mu invaders. He wants to use it to reestablish Japan's own lost military power.
Of course, it is up to our heroes to convince Jinguji that World War II is long over and that Atragon must be used in the service of all mankind, blah blah blah. Still, in Jinguji's stubborn nostalgia for Japan's faded glory, I detect something a little reactionary in the politics of all kaiju movies. Jinguji is an unreconstructed hawk, in hiding since the Japanese surrender, building his submarine in anticipation of an inevitable conflict against a foreign enemy. He might be characterized as "a ghost wearing rusty armor" by refusing to join the new world order. But he turns out to be right in one respect: Japan does need to take the lead in saving humanity from the Mu Empire. There is a note in Ishiro Honda's monster movies of despair at Japan's inability to defend itself, time and again, from assault, whether by Mu or Godzilla or some less metaphorical enemy. The Defense Force always seems too weak to stop the threat, and we must turn to superscience (usually in the hands of some slightly paranoid character like Jinguji) to save us. Lots of lip-service is given to pacifism and environmentalism and the like, but in the end, the only thing that defeats the bad guys is firepower. Lots of it.
And while Atragon's second act spends a lot of time debating the ethics of using a giant submarine, the third act delivers all that firepower, set to the thundering minor-key march of composer Akira Ifukube (cribbing from his own score to Godzilla). Japan sends its giant phallic symbol to battle Mu's giant phallic symbol, a sea serpent named Manda, who gets talked up a lot in the movie but is beaten pretty handily. Goten-go, or Atragon, or whatever the hell you want to call it is just too much for one evil empire to handle: it is a submarine; it is an earth drill; it can fly; it makes delicious smoothies. In fact, the entire Mu Empire is crushed in about ten minutes—rather anticlimactic considering the long build-up. Perhaps if they spent more time building weapons and less time performing dance numbers in outfits left over from Disney's Polynesian Luau show, the battle might not have been so one-sided. I suspect Toho was hoping to use Atragon as the first installment in a franchise, with the promise of more flying submarine action in future installments.
It would not have been difficult to make more Atragon movies, judging from assistant director Koji Kajita's excellent commentary track on this disc. Toho "special effects movies" (as Kajita calls them) had a remarkably fast production time. Atragon began production in September 1963, and the film was released that December. Smoothly coordinated preproduction, an adept team of recurring actors (most of the cast members named above were Toho veterans), and a sense that these movies were meant to be fun—Ishiro Honda and special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya built an efficient movie-making operation that ran from the late 1950s right into the 1970s, cranking out everything from Godzilla sequels to the warped Matango: Fungus of Terror.
Atragon was probably just another quickie production to these guys, a crazy romp with an amazing submarine that was easily forgotten when they moved on to the next production. But in spite of its flaws, I still hold a place in my childhood memories for Atragon, bolstered by Media Blaster's fine DVD release. I mean, giant earth-drilling, flying submarine? How cool is that?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Media Blasters
• Commentary Track
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