21 December 2007

Movie review: Atragon

Atragon (1963)
Directed by Ishiro Honda. Starring Tadao Takashima, Yoko Fujiyama, Yu Fujuki, Kenji Sahara, Ken Uehara, Hiroshi Koizumi, Jun Tazaki, Yoshifumi Tajima, Akihiko Hirata, Setsuko Kobayashi, Eisei Amamoto

Quick . . . when you think of live-action Japanese science-fiction movies (tokusatsu), what first comes to mind? Giant monsters (daikaiju), of course. I can’t fault you for that; I love daikaiju films, and unlike the usual condescending Western critic, I also know that many daikaiju films are superlative cinematic works. But the classic era of Japanese science-fiction and fantasy cinema, the mid ‘50s through the ‘60s, featured some non-kaiju-centered SF epics that deserve more attention. In particular, four films directed by Ishiro Honda (and all of which I have on DVD): The Mysterians (1957), Battle in Outer Space (1959), Gorath (1962), and today’s topic, Atragon (1963). Honda was Toho Studio’s top SF director, and responsible for most of the legendary daikaiju films, including the original Godzilla, which launched Japan’s science-fiction revolution.

Three of the four films listed above actually do feature a giant monster, but only as a supporting element. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka insisted on wedging monsters into the films to beef up the market value. Atragon got a giant serpent/dragon named “Manda,” who looks astonishing but moves clumsily. Apparently, Toho’s official English title for the film was meant to be a contraction of “Atlantis” and “Dragon,” but AIP’s American dub changed it the name of the super-submarine under the control of Captain Jinguji (which is called “Gotenko” in Japanese) and kept “Manda” as the monster’s name.

The Japanese title, Kaitei Gunkan, translates roughly as “Undersea Battleship.” The story combines the alien invasions from The Mysterians and Battle in Outer Space with the classic submarine thriller. World War II-themed action movies were a popular staple of Japanese cinema in the 1950s and provided the vehicle for much of the visual effects work produced by model-making wizard Eiji Tsuburaya. In Atragon, Tsuburaya works his usual magic with miniature military vehicles and his colorful science-fiction inventions. Some of the matte work and optical effects are among the best in Tsubaraya’s career. Some are, uh, not. The movie was produced on a quick schedule of only three months, and in a few places stock footage appears (mostly from The Mysterians). There’s also noticeably fewer FX set-pieces than in previous year's Gorath, which hit critical mass as far as VFX in Japan at the time.

Fortunately, director Honda has plenty to do in the time away from effects extravaganzas. What makes Atragon stand out in the Toho canon is its developed screenplay and character drama. The surface premise sounds like a standard SF epic. The violent lost civilization of Mu (a Pacific version of Atlantis; thanks Theosophy!) wants to return to the surface, so they declare war on the terrestrial nations and unleash their super-technology. The only hope for the surface dwellers is the super-sub Atragon! But, in an ingenious turn-around, the script throws in another obstacle. Atragon was built by Captain Jinguji, a Nemo-like recluse who only wants to use the submarine for the glory of the vanished Japanese Empire. It’s up to the heroes, including Jinguji’s daughter Makoto and his former admiral Kusumi, to find Jinguji and convince him to use Atragon for the good of the entire world.

Atragon contains top-notch dramatic sequences: Kusumi confronting Jinguji for the first time; Jinguji trying to explain his position to his daughter; and the loony Mu Empress face-to-face with Jinguji on the bridge of the submarine. Honda shows a deft handling of the theme of Japan dealing with its post-Imperial legacy, embodied in the contrast between Kusumi, now a peaceful and modern Japanese man, and Jinguji, a nationalistic relic whose adamant insistence on the blood-soaked past threatens the fate of the world. Honda’s films often feature humanity bonding together to face a universal threat, and this is his most character-centered exploration of that idea.

The cast helps out immensely with Honda’s potent dramatics. Fans of Toho movie have a Murders’ Row of great Japanese acting talent and familiar faces. Jun Tazaki, who frequently played military figures and government officials in supporting roles (and the newspaper editor in Mothra vs. Godzilla) gets the role of his career as Jinguji—and he’s utterly convincing. Other classic Toho faces abound: Kenji Sahara as a beatniky Mu agent, Tadao Takashima as the romantic lead with comic support from Yu Fujuki (they were paired in previous year’s smash hit King Kong vs. Godzilla in nearly identical roles), Hiroshi Koizumi as a stalwart police detective, Yoshifumi Tadjima as Jinguji’s right-hand loyalist, and Akihiko Hirata as sinister and smarmy Mu Agent 23. Testsuo Kobayashi steals her scenes as the lavender-haired Mu Empress.

Great actors, script, and direction . . . but what about the groovy submarine and the models blowin’ up reeeel good? Forgetting that Atragon can fly (unnecessary for the story and rather strange behavior for a submarine) the super-weapon is a beautiful piece of work from Tsuburaya that he executes in exquisite preparation scenes. Its best sequence involves barreling into the dome of the Mu headquarters so the soldiers can detonate a bomb that will take out the Muvians’ power supply. The matte work here is stunning, seamlessly combining the human figures into the model of the station to give a sense of enormous scale. Tsubaraya also conjures the astonishing effect of ten city blocks of Tokyo collapsing into the ground when the Mu Empire makes good its threat against major Earth cities. How the Mu Empire achieves this I don’t know, but if you don’t mess around with a society that dresses in Bronze Age Assyrian clothing, uses nuclear reactors, and has a pet dragon.
Speaking of the dragon, Manda’s big scene is the least effective of the VFX action sequences. Manda has a wonderful fantasy design with elements of the classic Chinese dragon, but it moves stiffly when attacking Atragon. The sub dispenses with him fast and moves on. Manda would come back, minus the horns, feelers, and short orange mane, in the monster-mash Destroy All Monsters in 1969, where it would get to take on Tokyo. It would re-do his battle with Atragon via CGI effects in 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars. Atragon would wipe it out quickly then as well.

Atragon is available in an excellent DVD from Media Blasters, in Japanese with English subtitles. There is also an English dub on the DVD, but it’s a far inferior dub to the 1965 AIP release. Both the Japanese and English versions are available in 5.1 sound, but I would stick with the mono option, which has less distortion. The 5.1 re-mix sounds artificial and sparse.