Super Atragon (1995)

Class: Staff
Author: Anthony Romero
Score: (1.5/5)
December 6th, 2005 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

As the name of the film would imply, Super Atragon is a remake of Shunro Oshikawa's novel Undersea Battleship, and the 1963 film Atragon that it inspired. However, this 1990's entry opts for an animated approach to the story, while placing most of the events in a more modern setting. The title craft has also undergone a thorough redesign, as this battleship, dubbed the Ra, features a much more elaborate concept compared to the Gotengo. Unfortunately, it would seem that Toho, and the other companies involved, didn't have a great deal of faith in the project. As opposed to being released theatrically, Super Atragon was instead sentenced to the direct-to-video route, something which is termed as OAV (Original Animated Video) in Japan. To maximize profits, the story was also broken into two different episodes that would retail separately, with one being released in 1995 and the other in 1996. To further confuse matters, each of the chapters was given to a different director to produce, with Kazuyoshi Katayama getting the first episode and Mitsuo Fukui the second. The ending result is a story that fails to properly develop in the first half, while the pacing is marred by the different directional approaches. Through out it all, the voice acting is merely acceptable as well, while the characters come out hollow and unlikable; in fact, the only genuine praise that the movie earns comes from its wonderful soundtrack.

For a quick synopsis of the plot, the events in the movie are set in motion by a series of meteorites that collide with the Earth in the 1930's. It's discovered that these objects harbor a new form of energy, which the Japanese use to construct the battleship Ra while the Americans construct their own ship dubbed Liberty. Unfortunately, the meteorites were part of a test being conducted by a civilization living inside the Earth called the Subterraneans. The race also sent two of their spies, Annette and Avatar, to the surface to monitor the energy's use. If utilized as weapons, their race's objective would then become to destroy humanity. In the mid-1940's, with World War II in full swing, their use for war is unavoidable. Eventually, Annette defects to side with humanity, and takes up residence inside the Ra so she can reveal their race's intention with the meteorites. Avatar then decides to side with the Americans, although with the plan of destroying the Ra and Annette so their mission to crush humanity can begin. However, the confrontation leaves both Anne and Avatar in a suspended state, while the Liberty and Ra destroy one another.

50 years later, Avatar awakens and utilizes the Subterraneans' technology to wage her war against humanity, destroying cities and decimating all military forces that oppose. However, a small group has been preparing for this day, as the Ra, rebuilt over the years, is placed back into action. During the impending battle, Go Arisaka is swept up by the crew of the new battleship, who reunites with his father, the current commander of the undersea battleship who was presumed dead. The fight to stop Avatar eventually leads to the Ogsawara area, where a final battle with the Liberty, reconstructed and under complete control of the Subterraneans, goes underway.

All in all, the story is simple with minimal setup. Despite this, though, the first part of the movie, under director Katayama's helm, wastes away without moving the plot along in any significant way. It would seem that Katayama had the distinct notion that he needed to confuse the audience as much as possible to ensure they purchase the second volume so they can wrap up the many plot points that are only brought up in the first. This gives director Fukui, who handled the second chapter, an unfair number of responsibilities. In total, the director had to: clear up the origin of the Ra; explain the Subterraneans and their motives; make the audience care about the relationship between Annette and Go; resolve the father son conflict between the captain of the Ra and Go; and give some sort of climax to the movie that resolves the invasion. Now it might not seem like a daunting task, until one realizes that Fukui only gets about 40 minutes, not counting the credits and main title, in which to make all of this unfold. This results in sequences like a displaced flashback before the second chapter begins to explain the origin of the Ra with the meteorites; furthermore, the second part also relies on lengthy monologue sequences to try and resolve the relationship issues between Go's father, himself, and Annette. These do manage to remove any plot holes that might have developed, but fail to give the audience any sort of enjoyment as they are revealed so quickly and, for the most part, cumbersomely. Still, Fukui isn't innocent here. For the second chapter, the director opts for a face off with the Ra and the UN, in a side plot where they attempt to take control of the battleship, which really wasn't necessary.

This tug and pull between the different directional visions doesn't just hurt the overall story, though, as the pacing of the movie is also marred. At times, Super Atragon is frustrating to watch, but more frequently it's just dull. The first chapter of the movie is expectedly slow in its pacing. As previously mentioned, this time should have been utilized to better develop the story and characters, but instead it focuses solely on the might of the Indra, a weapon of the Subterraneans. The pace of the story picks up tremendously once a UN party, investigating the cylinder shaped Indra, is destroyed. What follows, though, is an orgy of UN vs. Subterraneans sequences that feel disjointed as they quickly progress from one to the next without any sense of how much time is passing between each attack. This pads out the first chapter until the Ra appears and does battle with a Bell-Fortress. Given the two chapter format, this should have been exciting sequence to act as a mid-point climax, yet the Ra spends most of the time inside the enemy craft while everyone is acting calm and doing calculations. Now I realize this battle was merely intended to show off the power of the Ra, but would it have been taboo to speed this battle up and at least make it interesting to watch?

Thankfully, Fukui is much better at handling action sequences, and proves this right out of the gate as the second chapter starts with a nice battle, over a decimated city, between the Ra and a group of Bell-Fortresses. This sense of excitement doesn't last, though, as the fight is short and the movie now has to tie in and resolves all the plot lines. Really, I would like to blame Katayama for leaving this burden on the second episode, but the entire movie was handled by the same writer, despite the fact that it feels like the two directors where going though a tug of war match to see what direction they would take the film. Regardless of where fault should be placed, the middle portion of the second episode drags on in a rush job to tie everything up. Once these aspects are out of the way, with things like the Subterraneans being explained incredibly poorly, Fukui starts up another action sequence. Unfortunately, the UN skirmish with the Ra is uninteresting, but does lead into the climax: Ra vs. Liberty. For what's its worth, the climax is a nice and enjoyable scene as it should be, with riveting moments like seeing the Ra's drill finally pierce through the American warship. It is a little on the short side, and is hardly enough to salvage the general flow of the movie, but it doesn't overstay its welcome either.

To change gears and look at the voice acting in Super Atragon, it's really a mixed bag. Most of the performances here are merely decent. There is nothing praise worthy, but it's serviceable. The large exception in the film would have to be Junko Iwae, who portrays Annette, one of the lead characters. Specifically, she has a tendency of screaming out things in a shrill and annoying manner. Unfortunately, the writing also calls for her to scream the same thing several times in a row on more than one occasion in the film. The biggest offender in this regard is easily her “Avatar! Avatar, Stop! Please stop, Avatar! Avatar! Stooop!!!” speech that she does near the start of the movie. How someone could write that out in a screenplay and not see a problem with it is beyond me, but after hearing Iwae scream that line out I can't even begin to fathom why no one asked for a rewrite. I feel a great shame just being in the same room when that line is given. I do feel bad, though, for dogging on Iwae so much here, but she really was the only performance that stood out in the film, and in this case that wasn't a good thing.

As for the characters that the voice acting inhabits, they are severally underdeveloped to the point of being unlikable. The movie has a tendency of trying to introduce as many characters as possible, such as Storner the captain's aid, Bogart the admiral, and the modern day Tachibana who is the… well I have no idea what he does. He's the first to find Go when he awakes near the Ra, and the movie sets it up like he might be important to Go and his relationship with his father, but he vanishes after the first chapter. He does show up in Anne's mind when Avatar is looking through all of her memories, but this only prompts the audience to go “who?” at this point in the film. What's really sad, though, is when the movie banks on some audience reaction in relation to the supporting characters, such as when Mitsugu Kageyama, the only survivor of the original Ra, confronts the captain of the modern day incarnation. The soundtrack swells at this point while the movie does a slow reveal by traveling up the character's feet to his head, as if it's supposed to be a monumental moment. In actuality, we know nothing about Kageyama or any hint at what type of character he has become in his old age, and it's very hard to get chocked up about seeing him being reunited with the Ra considering the audience only saw him on the vessel during the first five minutes of the film.

With so many names being tossed around and characters that never amount to any importance, or simply vanish altogether, it's very easy to get bogged down in simply discussing the supporting cast. However, the movie does have three main characters that most of the action revolves around. They are Go, Annette, and Magane Hyuga, captain of the Ra. A case could probably be argued for Avatar, the film's antagonist, but she is given so little screen time and no motivation beyond the fact that she, for some unexplained reason, hates “surface dwellers” and wants to eliminate them. However, because Avatar is so vague and underdeveloped in design, this really hurts Ann's character as well due to the fact that the two are supposed to be childhood friends that are now turned against each other. Furthermore, the two are the only inhabitants of the Subterraneans seen on screen, despite the fact that there is supposed to be an entire subspecies living in the Earth's core. This gives the movie a restrictive budget type feel, even though it's animated and there is no good reason for not showing some more of their race. Annette's history with Avatar isn't the only thing poorly explored in this regard, though, as Anne's relationship with Go feels like it was tacked on as well. In fact, most of the development of their feelings toward each other is shown in a single sequence where the two interact back and forth on a beach just before the UN's fight with the Ra. The result of this relationship is supposed to signify that Anne has discovered that love, an emotion that the Subterraneans no longer deem necessary, has merits of its own. However, it's never given enough time to develop or feel genuine, and this whole idea falls flat. Still, it's not handled as poorly as the resolve of the father and son issue between Hyuga and Go. The film, specifically the first half, places a lot of emphasis on this as it brings up that Go's mother died waiting for her husband to return, causing Go to hold a grudge that his father, who he assumed dead, had been alive all this time and working on the Ra. Director Fukui, on the other hand, seems to have deemed this side plot unimportant in the grand scheme of things, as Go quickly shifts to respecting his father without any signifying event or strong justification.

Thankfully, there is one sole light at the end of the tunnel for the movie, which is Masamichi Amano's incredible soundtrack. To be completely honest, I have always enjoyed Amano's work, and find his Super Atragon score to be one of my all time favorite soundtracks. For his work here, Amano teamed up with the Poland National Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, allowing for his themes to come to life with a far more powerful composition not normally heard in the limited orchestras most Japanese composers utilize. The result is something extraordinary, not unlike the success composer Michiru Oshima created when she conducted her Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002) score utilizing the massive Moscow International Symphonic Orchestra. What's even more surprising, though, is that outsourcing to these larger, out of country, orchestras is far cheaper than scoring the soundtrack inside Japan. This, coupled with the better results composers have been able to generate, makes it surprising that this isn't outsourced more often. To backtrack to Amano's themes, though, the composer manages to create numerous memorable cues for the movie, while the score as a whole is solid without any lackluster themes. Overall, his best work in Super Atragon would have to be the main title and his “Ra vs. Liberty” theme. It's a shame, though, that such a wonderful soundtrack found itself in this entirely unmemorable film. The music here is so good, in fact, that I would highly suggest one opt to buy the soundtrack, which has been released in the US by ADV films (CSA-001).

Soundtrack aside, Super Atragon is a very sloppily realized film. One would have hoped that revising Ishiro Honda's 1963 classic, and the novel that was its inspiration, would have afforded this movie a more illustrious production, as opposed to the OAV route that it was subjected to. I can only imagine that this film would have been a far greater product had it not been made so haphazardly with the two chapter format in mind.