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The late 1950's and early 1960's were an amazingly fruitful time for Japanese science fiction cinema, with Toho Studios producing a number of colorful and exciting films now regarded as classics. In addition to the kaiju (monster) films for which they are best known, Toho made a string of "mutated human" films (The H-Man/Bijo To Ekatai-Ningen (1958), The Human Vapor/Gasu Ningen Dai Ichigo (1960), The Secret of the Telegian/Denso Ningen (1960) and Matango (1963)) and a trio of space-themed adventures (The Mysterians/Chikyu Boeigun (1957), Battle in Outer Space/Uchu Daisenso (1959) and Gorath/Yosei Gorasu (1962)). For their big New Year's film for 1963, Toho produced another science fiction spectacle similar to the space films, but set entirely on Earth: Atragon (Kaitei Gunkan). The result was one of their very best efforts in the genre, a thrilling adventure fantasy that featured not only the expected dazzling effects sequences, but also strong characters and interesting themes. Seldom seen in the United States in recent years, and before that mostly in bad 16mm TV prints that were dubbed and cropped, Atragon has recently been issued on DVD by Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock in a splendid widescreen edition that promises to be one of the year's best science fiction releases.

The story: One evening during a photo shoot, photographer Susumu Hatanaka (Tadao Takashima) and his assistant Yoshito Nishibe (Yu Fujiki) see a strangely-dressed diver emerge from the ocean and then witness a stolen cab with a kidnapped scientist drive off the dock and plunge into the water. Trying to investigate the mysterious events, they cross paths with former Admiral Kosumi (Ken Uehara), now a shipping magnate, and his adopted daughter, Makoto Jinguji (Yoko Fujiyama). Kosumi and Makoto are themselves abducted by a man calling himself Mu Agent 23 (Akihiko Hirata), but the scheme is foiled by Susumu and Yoshito. Shortly thereafter, Kosumi receives a film from the Mu Empire, an Atlantis-like civilization that once dominated the world before it sank beneath the sea centuries ago. In the film, the Mu declare their intent to reconquer the globe, and demand that the nations of the world destroy the only force that poses a threat to their power: a super submarine named Atragon, built in secret by Makato's father Hachiro Jinguji (Jun Tazaki), a legendary World War II submarine captain long believed to be dead. With the aid of one of Jinguji's men, Kosumi, Makato, Susumu, Yoshito and a journalist (Kenji Sahara) travel to the Captain's hidden island base to implore him to use Atragon against the Mu. To their shock, Jinguji refuses; he plans to use Atragon to restore the glory of imperial Japan, and has no interest in a crusade to save the world. When the "journalist" turns out to be a Mu agent who detonates a bomb in Atragon's dock and kidnaps Susumu and Makato, Shinguji realizes the shortsightedness of his thinking and prepares his super-sub for an all-out assault on the Mu Empire and its dreaded monster guardian Manda.

Screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa adapted Atragon from two sources. The first was the 1899 novel Kaitei Gunkan by Shunro Oshikawa, essentially a Japanese 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with overt political themes focusing on nationalism in the face of Russian aggression. (Tensions between the two countries would soon spark the Russo-Japanese war.) The second was the illustrated story Kaitei Okaku (The Undersea Kingdom) by Shigeru Komatsuzaki, which dealt with the Mu Empire. (Komatsuzaki worked on the film as a conceptual artist and designed the super-submarine.) According to Ed Godziszewski's article on the making of Atragon published in Japanese Giants # 7, the film was something of a rushed production, with photography commencing on September 15, 1963—only three months before it was released to theaters. In spite of the short schedule, the film looks every bit as polished as Toho's other special effects movies of the period.

Much of the film resembles an old-fashioned serial, with lots of action, futuristic gadgetry and villains bent on world conquest, but the element that makes Atragon truly memorable is the character of Captain Jinguji and the conflict between his values and those of the other protagonists. Jinguji has never stopped fighting World War II; he's the personification of the militarism that dominated Japan during the war years. He's interested only in his country's honor and has no regard for the rest of the world. Kosumi, Makoto and Susumu represent post-war Japan, a country that has had time to reflect and has come to renounce war—an idea that appalls Jinguji. Both Kosumi and Makoto urge Jinguji to take a global perspective; when he clings to his misguided dreams Susumu calls him "a ghost in a rusty armor called patriotism" and Makoto denounces him as being as bad as the Mu.

Captain Jinguji's clash with modern values is another variation of a subtext that recurs in many of director Ishiro Honda's science fiction fantasies: the need to set aside differences and work together in a world in which mankind's very survival is at risk due to nuclear weapons, metaphorically represented by a monster, alien invader or some other form of global threat. (Note: Toho's effects films are clearly collaborative efforts and it would be wrong to consider Honda an auteur in the tradition of a Bergman or Fellini, but judging by interviews, this motif reflects his interests.) In Gorath, for example, the threat is symbolized by a planet on a collision course with Earth, and every nation must work together to save humanity. Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster (San Daikaiju: Chikyu Saidai No Kessen, 1964) contains the silliest iteration of this basic idea: Mothra must convince Godzilla and Rodan to unite to save the Earth against intergalactic invader King Ghidorah. By contrast, Atragon has perhaps the richest development of Honda's favorite theme, since the conflict isn't merely with the aggressive Mu Empire, but with the specter of Japan's own past as represented by Captain Jinguji. Furthermore, the painful reunion of Jinguji with his daughter gives the conflict an emotional aspect generally absent from the kaiju films. If Atragon doesn't entirely succeed as an anti-imperialist film, it's because the super submarine feels like a fantasy of Japanese omnipotence, and we eagerly look forward to seeing it crush Japan's enemies. Honda's desired message may have worked better if the Mu had killed or kidnapped most of Jinguji's men, forcing him to go into battle with an international replacement crew.

Of course, no one watches a film like Atragon for a political message. The action and special effects are the stars, and in this regard the film definitely does not disappoint. Toho special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya is often described as having a childlike imagination and a love of toys, and these qualities come through in the film. Atragon (or Gotengo, as it is called in the Japanese version) is itself like a wonderful, gigantic toy with nifty gadgets attached. It can dive underwater, fly through the air at Mach 2, drill through the earth and freeze objects instantly with its "zero cannon." According to Godziszewski, models of the craft were built at five different scales, with the largest measuring 5 meters (over 16 feet) and the smallest 30 centimeters. Most of the model work is very good for the era, and even when it isn't perfect, the colorful design elements capture our imagination. The Mu have submarines of their own that fire laser beams from a gun shaped like their god Manda, and have mastered the ability to create powerful earthquakes. In one of the film's most striking scenes, several city blocks of Tokyo suddenly collapse. Yes, the buildings look like models, but the sequence is so audaciously conceived, so unexpected and so spectacularly executed that one wants to break out in applause.

First-time viewers are invariably disappointed by the scant screen time devoted to the giant sea serpent Manda. Many Japanese monster fans expect Manda to be the star attraction, especially since the creature was prominently featured in advertising and often appears in stills reprinted in books and monster magazine articles. Making things worse, Manda is one of the film's weaker special effects, always looking like the marionette it was. It's a minor weakness in a film that offers many other pleasures. After Atragon, Manda returned for a brief cameo in Destroy All Monsters (Kaiju Soshingeki, 1969) and then did not appear again until a rematch against a new, modern Atragon in Godzilla: Final Wars (Gojira: Fainaru Uozu, 2004).

The cast, featuring many familiar faces from Toho's "stock company", deliver solid performances that don't get lost among the special effects. Jun Tazaki conveys the emotions behind Jinguji's stoicism with admirable subtlety, and Ken Uehara as his former superior effectively expresses his character's thoughtfulness as circumstances force him to reflect upon the past. Kenji Sahara and Akihiko Hirata, usually cast as heroes, deliver enjoyably hammy turns as Mu agents, but top prizes for villainy belong to Tetsuko Kobayashi as the imperious Empress of Mu. By now a genre veteran, Honda directs with a sure hand, keeping the pace brisk but not rushed, and making good use of the wide Tohoscope frame. Takeo Kita's production design for the Mu Empire, incorporating influences from several different cultures (Egypt, South America, South Sea Islands) to hint at the influence they once wielded over the world, creates the proper pop science fiction atmosphere. Particularly impressive is a large throne room packed with extras engaging in Mu ritual dances. Contributing immeasurably to the mood is Akira Ifukube's magnificent score, highlighted by a stirring march theme for the super submarine. Listening to the score so soon after Ifukube's death is a vivid reminder of just how much he contributed to Toho's fantasy films.

Media Blasters brings Atragon to American home video for this first time in a handsome DVD edition featuring an excellent 16 x 9 enhanced widescreen transfer. Color is vivid and the source element is in impeccable condition. Even the shots with opticals, usually problematic in early Toho films, look clean and sharp, making one wonder if perhaps some digital cleanup was used to remove dirt and scratches. Contrast and black levels are slightly lower than ideal, but viewers can easily compensate by adjusting their monitors. The disc offers a choice of Japanese or English dialogue tracks in either the original mono or a new 5.1 Surround mix. The Japanese track is preferable, both for the original vocal performances of the cast and the superior sound; by comparison, the English dub sounds shrill. (The English track is one of Toho's "International" dubs created in Hong Kong, and not the more familiar dub created by AIP.) The 5.1 mixes fortunately avoid gimmicky, artificial-sounding directional effects. For extras, Media Blasters has included an interesting (subtitled) commentary track by Assistant Director Koji Kajita, who worked with both the live action and effects staffs, a Japanese trailer, and trailer for their other Toho kaiju and science fiction releases.

Atragon is enthusiastically recommended for fans of Japanese science fiction and anyone who enjoys an old-fashioned Saturday matinee fantasy adventure.

For more information about Atragon, visit Media Blasters. To order Atragon, go to TCM Shopping.

by Gary Teetzel