Atragon – 1963, Ishiro Honda – Japan
Somewhere out in the far edges of the extended Toho Zilla-Verese lives Atragon, a cool little movie about a futuristic submarine that must save the world from an invading, undersea Empire. That’s right, while Atragon may sound like the name of a wicked sweet dragon, or maybe a giant spider or something, that’s actually the name of the flying, submergible war ship featured prominently in the movie- and that’s because Atragon isn’t a kaiju film at all, but rather an action/adventure movie with elements of mystery, science fiction, fantasy, and horror blended in. It’s a good mix, a good movie, and nice reminder that Toho has made plenty of solid films that didn’t focus on towering, menacing lizards.
Now, that being said, there IS a giant monster in here- Manda, a serpentine, dragon type creature which later makes an appearance in Destroy All Monsters, and who also gets a name drop in a few other Godzilla flicks. Manda is the connection between Atragon and Godzilla, but his role is actually pretty minimal in this film, and oddly enough, that’s not a problem. We have plenty of fun without him.
THE PLOT~ Weird, vaporous frogmen have been sighted in Japanese harbors, prominent scientific minds have disappeared mysteriously, and earthquakes continue to strike our cities with increasing regularity- just what the hell is going on? I’ll tell you what’s going on, business-as-usual, according to Toho. Apparently an ancient, highly advanced civilization from a long lost, Atlantis style continent called Mu has chosen this time to reclaim the surface world as their rightful property. Their message to we ignorant, non-underwater masses? Simple; “Return the surface world to the sovereignty of Mu and declare yourself our Imperial colonies, plus also make that guy stop building Atragon, we are not cool with that. No Atragon.”
No one has any idea what in the hell Atragon is. They soon learn, however. Apparently Atragon is a top secret, highly advanced, multi-terrain warship being built by a rogue Japanese Naval captain who revolted during the second world war. Captain Jinguji, believed dead by official record, didn’t revolt to avoid his responsibility to Japan, however, quite the opposite; Junguji is a fanatical hold out who still buys in to the rhetoric of pre-war Japan, and he and his men boldly maintain that while Japan may have surrendered, they never did. It is their intention to use their new warship Atragon to reinstate Japan to it’s former glory, and rebuild their once proud empire.
That’s all well and good, but we need to focus on whats important right now; clearly, Mu being so anti-Atragon is a indication that it’s more than likely our only defense against their invasion, so a small group of unrelated characters who have all been swept up into this adventure must seek out Jinguji, and convince him to use the mighty Atragon to save the world, instead of conquering it, as was his intention. Long story short, this hombre takes some convincing.
The subtext here is all about confronting the old Pre-war attitude of the Japanese culture, and embracing instead a less Nationalistic attitude toward your fellow man. That’s something that may have had more poignancy to a Japanese audience back in the 1960’s than it does today, but we’re not totally incapable of investing in Atragon or it’s characters simply because we’re so far removed from this context. The movie remains relatable somehow, and even without that connection, the spectacle, and the interpersonal dynamics of our characters entertain us just fine.
Atragon is really great, and it deserves attention. The thing is just slathered with intrigue from frame one, and actually, from the pacing, and how our mystery is explored through drastically rising stakes and continued revelations, the film feels more like Herge’s Tintin than traditional Toho fare, and that’s totally awesome. I love traditional Toho fare, but this is a highly enjoyable foray out of what I’m used to from them, and Ishiro Honda’s reliable expertise is appreciated here as much as it ever was with his monster films.
If I’m going to seek out any weak points in Atragon, it’s worth mentioning that it’s quite predictable. Double agents are obvious from their earliest appearance, and there’s never really any question as to if Jinguji will agree to use Atragon to save Earth, once the terms of our situation are laid out it’s pretty clear which ways things are going to go. Still, it remains an enjoyable trip.
The other problem here is with Manda. Frankly, he looks terrible. One would expect better monster effects from the studio behind Godzilla, but Manda is executed remarkably poorly, all things considered. He also could have been in the film a little more, but maybe the less we see of him the better, given that he looks like such a laughably unconvincing puppet… Which, of course, is exactly what he is.
Atragon isn’t very well known in the States at this point, but It’s a pretty good little adventure flick. If you’re a fan of Toho, or of Japanese cinema from the 1960’s in general, and if you can handle some time away from Godzilla, I would highly encourage you to check this movie out.