This will be a particularly difficult review to write - not due to the subject, but to other factors. First, there is not a whole lot of documentation easily available for Atragon - a Yahoo search reveals a lot of links to Super Atragon, an anime reworking, but not much on this 1963 live action movie. Then, there is the fact that I am not as up on my Japanese actors as I should be, and though there are many familiar faces present, I cannot, with any accuracy, point out who is who, nor can I even approximate proper spelling of character names - so I'm going to go all Generic on you, and hopefully I won't come off as too much of an Ugly American. Now shut up, Ho-John, and get me a drink.
There are a couple of scenes from Atragon that are indelibly etched in my memory, and they're both from the trailer - The title vessel flying over some trees, which to my young eyes appeared throroughly and magically realistic, and the obligatory monster getting zapped by the electrified hull of said vessel. I never did get to see it on its initial theatrical release in 1963. Dr. Freex was a tad young, then, and Made In Japan was still synonymous with Crap. How times have changed. So it was with some anticipation that I finally saw this unseen gem of my youth.
Japan is, once again, having trouble with an ancient undersea/ underwater empire. Not Seatopia, Lemuria or Atlantis, this time it's Mu, and they're preparing to invade the surface world, big time. Unfortunately, they also make the mistake of telling said surface world that they must "destroy Atragon". The United Nations says, "Atragon? What's that?" and proceeds to seek out Atragon.
The Muans, incidentally, announce their presence and intentions by shipping a reel of film to the investigating Police Inspector. When viewed, it proves to be a travelogue/puff piece on Mu, which resembles nothing so much as a sub-par episode of "In Search Of...", or perhaps a Sunn Classics film. Superior civilization, my patoot. At least they had the savvy to have Paul Frees do their voiceover.
The Captain, missing since World War II, has been working on a secret base in an uncharted island to build Atragon, a super submarine that also flies and burrows through the ground. His old friend the Admiral (who has been caring for the Captain's Daughter since his disappearance), tracks down the Captain. The Captain refuses to commit Atragon to the fight against Mu, as he intends it solely for "the prestige and glory of Japan!" This causes the daughter to run away tearfully several times.
Finally, though, the Muans make the mistake of kidnapping the Daughter and the Two-Fisted Photographer Love Interest, rousing the Captain from his jingoistic fog and bringing down the wrath of Atragon on their heads. The super sub bores into their central power complex, a strike team freezes everything with their awesome Zero Cannon, and the entire empire blows up (Guess they were right to be afraid of Atragon). The end.
I am, in light of similar experiences, willing to give Atragon the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the film was too Japanese and got cut by its American distributors, but the film remains far less than the sum of its parts. Directed by the great Ishirô Honda of Godzilla fame, everything is staged well, but curiously undeveloped, and at times, almost incoherent. There are the requisite number of fiery explosions, especially as the Muans make ironic uses of kamikaze bombers, and a tremendous special effect as Mu causes the subsidence of several city blocks in downtown Tokyo. But the Muan troops are always shot from a distance, so they seem rather tiny and unthreatening. The only closeup proof of Mu's superiority is a sleek submarine with a death ray (which sees a lot of use) and the Great God Manda, a truly disappointing wyrm-type Oriental dragon puppet. Disappointing in that most of the FX work in Atragon is so good - although every now and then they forgot to film in slo-mo, to give the miniatures a sense of scale.
The entire Captain subplot would make a lot more sense if the Captain were seeking to return Japan to its former militaristic glory - and perhaps it was, originally. I wish I could get ahold of a subtitled original cut. Otherwise, why doesn't anybody do the logical thing and point out that kicking the ass of a superior world-conquering race could do nothing but enhance the "prestige and glory of Japan"? A goodly part of this could also be due to the old literal-translation-versus-lip-synching problem. My favorite tortured line this time around is "A nuclear bomb attack is a.... nebulous possibility." But at least it matched the lip movement.
And why do these superior ancient civilizations always dress like it's still 500 BC? And take time out for massive dance numbers?
As it is, Atragon is kind of on the low end of OK, and one is haunted by the feeling that it could have been much, much better - less of a stately pace at the beginning, more time spent on the (very brief) war with Mu - and just a little more glue in a film that seems divided into three different story lines, when there is really only one.
The worst thing is, now I have a hankering to see The Mysterians again, and I'm seriously hoping that time hasn't tarnished the magic of that film.
The Mysterians instead.
- December 28, 1997