Atragon (1963)

Class: Staff
Author: Miles Imhoff
Score: (2/5)
February 22, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

All right, I'll be perfectly honest: it's not my cup of tea. Atragon is far from the most exciting Toho Sci-Fi film I've seen. The plot is uneven and strangely paced; the enemy monster shows up in only very dark, brief, and inglorious sequences; the main characters fall flat; and the title vessel, the Gotengo (aka Atragon), is used all too ineffectively. The music is probably the best aspect of the film, but then again Akira Ifukube is hard to beat. All in all, it's pretty ho-hum, and its greatest claim to fame is probably the simple fact that it did introduce Gotengo and Manda, two fan favorites, to the kaiju eiga genre.

The massive Mu Empire, an Atlantis-like civilization that sank to its supposed doom millennia ago, has suddenly made itself known to the world again. Wishing to reclaim its glory and colonize all the nations of Planet Earth, the underwater Mu Empire sent earthquakes and disasters on the world's cities. The advanced civilization feared nothing, except for one solitary wrench in their works: Captain Hachiro Jinguji and his flying battle-submarine Gotengo. Jinguji was a recluse, however. He was a patriot, filled with an unbending honor toward his country; for he had revolted against the surrender of Japan. He planned only to introduce his war machine when his nation would ultimately remobilize, and didn't show concern for the plight of the planet. When his daughter, long kept ignorant about her father's safety following the war, was kidnapped along with her allies by the Mu Empire, Jinguji finally realized it was time to attack.

Meanwhile, the kidnapped Japanese slaves of the Mu Empire rebelled and captured the Empress of Mu. The Gotengo, equipped with a powerful drill and Zero Cannon, pierced through the indigo depths on its mission to thwart the plans of the Mu Civilization. Little did it realize, however, that a ferocious monster guarded this undersea world...

Perhaps the biggest problem for the plot is that there really are no surprises. It's very straightforward and predictable, perhaps with the exception of the speedy capture of the Mu empress (a strike against the easily-bamboozled Mu people). It just seems that the Mu Empire is the equivalent of the Crankor civilization on Prince of Space (MST3k fans, you know what I mean). Despite the supposedly superior intellect of the Mu-an race, they seem to prefer good ol' spears and knives as opposed to anything that would actually effectively work in modern warfare. It's not as though they aren't advanced in this area, as the little Manda-shaped beam cannon on their flagship seems to be a potent weapon of mass annihilation, but they seem unable to use that technology for the all-important purpose of guarding their Empress, for example. Unfortunately, in this regard, the filmmakers don't really make the Mu-ans out to seem all that threatening. Sure they can devastate cities through some form of seismic control, but that and their single beam weapon appear to be the extent of their power.

Acting falls flat, as does character development. Everyone, I'll just say it right now, is deadpan. Yes, they've all fallen victim to the acting cliché of this genre, not one has escaped. Even the groan-worthy I'm-going-to-repeat-what-you-just-said-as-a-question dialogue has found its way into the film (you mean you're going to repeat what I just said as a question?). Of course, that doesn't mean that of the actors, there isn't a performance that is at least better than the others. Yoko Fujiyama (Makoto, Jinguji's daughter) has a pronounced ability to display emotion, separating her from her fellow actors for the most part. Her character is one of a tragic nature with whom the audience can sympathize; she was a war orphan who suddenly realized her father was alive, only to find him so hardened by old-fashioned patriotism that he seemed to barely even care. Jun Tazaki's character (Captain Jinguji) is at first seen as severely gruff, hardened by his old principles. But in that one scene where he reveals to Susumu a picture of he and his daughter from before the war, his character begins to soften and the audience warms up a little, despite his craggy exterior. Tadao Takashima's character (Susumu Hatanaka) is, well, um... he's a photographer. And he's apparently the hero of the story... and he's... okay; there really isn't too much development here, even despite his receiving top billing. The love aspect between his character and Ms. Fujiyama's character takes the casual first-time viewer off guard a little, as the development of this relationship is certainly a subplot I must have been grossly overlooking. Who else is there? Yu Fujiki! Always a good sign, as he is usually great comic relief. The filmmakers do attempt to use him in this way, but there really isn't anything memorable at all about his performance (a very-far removed trend in comparison to his laugh-out-loud role in King Kong vs. Godzilla [1962]). There's also Hiroshi Koizumi, a soon-to-be veteran of kaiju flicks in general. Though normally given a deadpan role, he is especially underused and underdeveloped this time around, even compared to his fellow actors. Even the incomparable Hideyo Amamoto is underused; and his is certainly a unique role, which he could have easily sunk his teeth into, were he used more prominently. One can definitely find oneself at a loss to find any other actor worth mentioning. Tetsuko Kobayashi, the Empress of Mu, is probably the only one left. Her bitter tones and furious expressions add greatly to her performance, but the lack of development even on the main antagonist of the film is another flaw worth noting. It is clear she has a deep bond with her culture and people, to the point of belligerence, but that's about the extent of it.

As for the effects themselves, they are mostly a mixed bag (and unfortunately, rarely on the "better"-side). First, let's start with Gotengo. When it rises out of the water and soars through the sky, the realism is actually relatively uncanny. However, it pretty much ends here. Most other scenes involving the Gotengo, either in the subterranean base, underwater, or drilling through the heart of the Mu Empire, are pretty ineffective. The prop looks like what it is: a small plastic ship. There isn't anything awe-inspiring about the ship past its ascent from the island's bay, which is kind of sad, seeing as how it is the focus of the film. Then, there's Manda, Gotengo's enemy. The Manda prop has an organic appearance in the neck-and-up shots, and its glowing eyes add to its eerie persona. However, its movements are a little too jittery in the full body scenes, and the zoom on the head (in the case where we see the creature from the Mu view port) is pretty goofy and unrealistic. The remaining miniatures are pretty much a mix too. The scene of a section of Tokyo caving in on itself is actually rather superb for the time, as is the background in the "heart" of Mu. However, in most other cases (i.e. the underground base), this is clearly not the case. The lapping waves in the clearly tiny set look like water at a small scale, which it is, but it is very jarring to see the water rise a centimeter and realize a character somewhere is yelling that the water has risen however many feet/meters. The major problem all around is simply that almost everything looks like the size that it really is, and it doesn't help the illusion in the least.

Concerning music, this isn't Akira Ifukube's best score, but it is still an excellent listening experience nevertheless. The themes spread throughout the film are fairly similar to each other, and there aren't any that stand out. Still, they accompany the action of the scenes in which they're featured very well, adding a chilling and eerie tone to compliment the atmosphere of the movie. Also, here is a treat for some of you avid Godzilla fans (especially fans of Godzilla vs. Gigan [1972]); you will probably notice a few recognizable themes that find their origins in the Atragon soundtrack.

When it comes right down to it, there's nothing all-too-special about Atragon. It brings a famous mech and a famous monster to Toho's sci-fi roster, but beyond that, it is a film that could leave the viewer a little bored. It seems to be another early 60's cookie-cutter sci-fi film, not something out of the ordinary, but not something that really stands on its own two legs very well. Should you see it then if you haven't? Of course! It's definitely a landmark in Toho sci-fi if only for the mech/monster origin aspect. In closing, however, it should be mentioned that this film is seemingly highly regarded by others more so than by me, so you might actually have a much different opinion altogether upon viewing it. Always give a movie a chance, despite (or in spite of) the reviewer.