Sunday, January 25, 2009

ATRAGON (Kaitei Gunkan, 1963)

Here's a Toho Studio special from the golden age of their monster and sci-fi films, but one that I'd never really seen before -- probably because it doesn't have any of the major monsters in it, and the monster it does have is pretty minor. But I was nearly won over immediately when we're introduced to two enterprising photographers, who are played by none other than Tadao Takashima and Yu Fujiki, who were the Abbott & Costello-like (or are they closer to Martin & Lewis) minions of Pacific Pharmaceutical in King Kong vs. Godzilla. That film is one of my all-time guilty pleasures, and it's a hoot to see those two as a team again. But it was unsettling, too, since they've been dubbed into English by different actors this time. I couldn't help feeling that these weren't their "real" voices, absurd as that may sound.

In any event, our heroes are quickly caught up in intrigue involving a mysterious attack by apparent aliens, mysterious stalkers of women and a beatnik-like journalist who asks too many questions. It turns out that agents of the undersea Mu Empire are after the daughter of Capt. Jinguji, a navy officer who fled with his advanced submarine just before the end of World War II. These Mu people are rough customers, as Agent 23, for instance, has "special energy" that makes him invulnerable to conventional attacks. In a movie reel intended for world viewing, the Mu folk reveal their obsession with Jinguji, whose abandoned sub fell into their possession. They're convinced that Jinguji is somewhere working on a more advanced sub, and they expect the surface people to put a stop to his scheme, or else face devastation. By the way, Mu intends to conquer the surface world in order to re-establish the rule they exerted everywhere until their continent sank. The United Nations are unimpressed by the threat, perhaps because the film includes embarrassing footage of Mu religious rites. For their disrespect, Venice and Hong Kong are destroyed.

The Japanese government puts pressure on Jinguji's former superior officer to account for his possible existence. Fortunately, the fellow who's been stalking Jinguji's daughter is, in fact, one of Jinguji's sailors, who can lead the admiral, the photographers, the daughter, and the beatnik reporter to a secret base where the great man himself reveals that he has indeed been building a super sub, which he unveils with the name of ... Gotengo!

Gotengo? Shouldn't that be Atragon? Well, it seems like another American distributor has pulled a "Godzilla" on us and slapped an entirely alien name on the project without really bothering to apply it to the submarine. As you'll notice, Gotengo isn't the name of the movie in Japan, either. The original label translates rather prosaically as "Undersea Warship." Said warship is equipped with a drill, an ice gun, and the power of flight. An ideal weapon against Mu, perhaps, but Jinguji isn't thrilled about saving the world in general, even if that means succeeding where an American super-sub had miserably failed. Speaking of absurd, Toho would have us believe that the U.S. Navy, at the height of the Cold War against godless communism, would name a submarine in their fleet the "Red Satan." The religious right, however, will take comfort in that ship's destruction under crushing undersea pressure. Jinguji, meanwhile, seems to want to hold Gotengo in reserve for a new round of imperial conquest. That gets put on hold, however, when the beatnik reporter proves to be another Mu spy and sabotages the sub.

Everything is building up toward an attack on Japan by Mu (including some cool model earthquake footage) and a showdown between the Gotengo and Manda, the vaunted god of Mu. This invincible creature is in fact a rather puppyish sea monster that frolics in the deep and tries to constrict ships to pieces. Once the sub is up and running (or flying) again, it manages to shake off Manda and freeze it. Then it's on to a genocidal attack on the Mu power center, Jinguji having realized that he's been a "knight in rusty armor" once he appreciates his daughter's peril. It looks like the captive Empress of Mu is going to be the empire's last survivor, but she is honorably allowed to jump into the ocean and swim toward the burning ruin of her city. And so we wish the Empress well on her long ... well, not so long journey home.

"Atragon" is really more of a fantasy film than anything else, and as such it's okay. Kaiju eiga fans will be underwhelmed by Manda. while sci-fi fans may get a kick out of the Gotengo's capers. Despite the appearnce of those two well-remembered performers (and several others from the Godzilla series), this movie never quite becomes the all-out fun experience that King Kong vs. Godzilla is -- in English, at least. Japanese genre fans should enjoy the widescreen DVD from Tokyo Shock, which does justice to Ishiro Honda's direction and Eji Tsuburaya's designs. It may be best appreciated on a camp level, or as a document from a certain historical moment of moviemaking. Either way, your time won't be entirely wasted.
Here's the Japanese trailer:
And you can see an American trailer here.

No comments: