Atragon (Kaitei Gunkan, 1963)
This essay is part of the For The Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon 2015.
The sea boils as figures clad in futuristic swimwear lurch out of the black water. Masked men with scorching-hot skin kidnap hapless citizens in the middle of Tokyo. Bewigged Empresses of lost civilisations lord over spear-wielding submariners. Colossal war machines rise from the ocean and scourge the sky. Swarms of flying saucers rocket out of volcanoes to lay waste to cities. Pagoda dragon kaijus menace the shadowy depths. Atragon is a veritable visual and thematic encyclopaedia of Japanese screen science fiction, marshalled by Ishiro Honda. Akira Kurosawa’s former assistant director had suddenly and irrevocably defined his national cinema’s sci-fi generics for the next sixty years with the monochrome iconography of Godzilla (1954), and followed it up with The Mysterians (1957). Those two films provided much of the bedrock for both the kaiju and mecha strains of Japanese sci-fi, the nightmare spectre of the A-bomb in the former begetting the rise of a new super-scientific age and its ingenious wares rising to defend against such existential terrors. Atragon follows on from The Mysterians in contemplating humanity warring with an invasive force in a clash where only know-how can counter aggression. This time the evil power is the sunken continent of Mu, buried beneath the ocean waves for millennia, and now resurging to bully the rest of the world into submission with their power over earthquakes and tides. The source material, a novel by Shunrō Oshikawa, mediated via an illustrated version by Honda’s regular design collaborator Shigeru Komatsuzaki, doesn’t make for a movie as authentically bonkers as Honda’s later Matango (1966), which would conflate nuclear paranoia with drug use and a proto-Cronenbergian sense of body distortion. But Atragon is one of the best-made and most sheerly entertaining works of Japanese sci-fi cinema.
“This isn’t a thriller!” barks a photographer at his hapless model as she tries to model a leopard skin bikini with Kobe’s grungy docklands standing in for tropical paradise, only for her to ruin the desired effect pulchritude by pointing at the mysterious steaming being rising from the waves. A car carrying a kidnapped industrialist tears by them and crashes into the harbour, and the next day the car is hauled out without any bodies inside. In spite of the photographer's words, these early scenes strongly resemble the spy and urban thriller genres just taking off at the time, with a cold-open pre-credit sequence in the same year the James Bond team thought of the same thing, and more than a hint of burlesque aimed at the popular brand of superhero movies serials mushrooming on Japanese movie and TV screens at the time, the likes of Moonlight Mask and Prince of Space, with the same dashing blend of streetwise venturing and futuristic mystery, as well as Honda’s own more down-to-earth recent sci-fi thrillers The H-Man (1958) and The Human Vapour (1960). Something of the same spirit, too, of Feulliadian surrealism only slightly askance from Georges Franju’s Judex the same year. The photographers in the opening scene, Susumu (Takashima) and Yoshito (Yu Fujiki), are moonlighting reporters on the make, trying to please editors by providing sex appeal and pop thrills as Yoshito dresses up as a one-eyed gunman: is Honda’s tongue wiggling in his cheek in noting his own sturdy attempts to take his fantastic material seriously and mock producers interested in violence and sexploitation for a quick buck, whilst also managing to work both in?
The journalists gawk in daylight as the crashed car is hauled from the waters, but Yoshito is quickly distracted by a pretty girl, Makoto (Yōko Fujiyama), and leap to snare as a model. Makoto proves a player in the proliferating enigmas herself. Raised by shipping magnate and retired naval commander Kusumi (Ken Uehara, a stalwart actor and also father of Red Beard star Yûzô Kayama), Makoto is actually the daughter of his former subordinate, Captain Hachiro Jinguji (Kurosawa regular Jun Tazaki), who vanished along with an experimental Imperial submarine on the eve of surrender at the end of World War 2. Makoto proves popular with mysterious lurkers. A man calling himself “Agent 23” (Akihiko Hirata) tries to snatch Makoto and deliver her into the hands of more steaming frogmen. Another pursuer, Amano (Yoshifumi Tajima), is netted by the police and proves to be one of her father’s crewmen, sent to keep an eye on her. The kidnappings and incursions prove to have been early moves on behalf of the Mu people to clear away the one obstacle to their intended re-emergence and world conquest. Jinguji and his crew have been hiding out on a remote tropical island, building a new, ingenious and incredibly powerful war machine, the Gotengo (Atragon in the anglicised retitling), a submarine that can also fly, equipped with a drill nose that can cut through solid rock, and a freezing gun. Mu rocks the world with earthquakes and sends out its own submarines to attack shipping, whilst sending messages to the authorities demanding that the Atragon be destroyed. At the behest of the UN, Kusumi, with Makoto, Susumiu, Yoshito, and another journalist, Umino (Kenji Sahara) in tow, instead has Amano take him to Jinguji’s island: he intends to ask his old comrade to use the Atragon against Mu. Umino is another Mu agent lurks hiding behind a paste-on Beatnik beard and long junkie overcoat – like the other Mu-ites, he stores energy in his body that can be directed out and also makes him feel cold in normal conditions – and he attempts to sabotage the Atragon by blowing up its harbour. But the biggest impediment to sending Atragon into battle against Mu proves to be Jinguji himself: the Captain protests to Kusumi that he’s spent the last decade or so building the warship specifically to be used to fight a new war of Imperial conquest for Japan.
Taking on this fascinating, surely touchy theme marks Atragon as Honda’s most direct and forceful follow-up to Godzilla as a contemplation of the post-war era’s impact on Japanese life and the nation's world-view. Honda references real-life cases of former Imperial soldiers refusing to surrender and contemplates the nation’s new, officially pacifistic stance. The age of “patriotism” as Kusumi and Jinguji understand it has given way to a conveniently internationalist struggle. The young generation, embodied by Makoto and Susumu, are appalled by Jinguji’s chauvinism and the thought of meaningless further conflict. Makoto, initially injured by Jinguji’s refusal to acknowledge her when the party of strangers enters his jungle realm, storms out in tears as she realises how wedded her father is to his dream of restored militarist glory. Susumu berates the Captain for his rigidity, but the Captain reveals his human anguish suppressed under his hardened soldier’s exterior, having held on to his one keepsake of Makoto since the war and sent Amano to keep an eye on her. His dedication to duty is ultimately celebrated whilst he is stirred to think of the world in different terms. If Godzilla articulated the dread and victimisation felt by many ordinary citizens after the war via monstrous metaphor, Atragon is surprisingly overt in confronting related issues, even resembling a new manifesto for a nation moving out of an era of shame and tragedy. The Atragon itself encapsulates all of the technical virtuosity that would soon make Japan a superpower of technology, whilst the plot carefully reanimates a sense of proud invention and active gutsiness that can only be wielded after divesting the past and its illusions, whilst also repurposing some of the old militarist iconography for a new age (as would Space Battleship Yamato, almost certainly influenced by Atragon).
Equally easy to read Mu as a fantastically veiled but critical depiction of historical Japan, an autocracy with a nominally powerful monarch, the Empress (Tetsuko Kobayashi), but actually controlled by a Shogun-like High Priest (Hideyo Amamoto), emerging from isolation to make war with a mismatched blend of antiquated culture and super-technology, and then meeting its comeuppance in terrible annihilation. Of course, such readings, whilst all but unavoidable, do make for lopsided appreciation. Atragon is chiefly a straightforward, cheery adventure yarn, but with a scale, speed, and ambition to its storytelling that anticipates the modern SFX blockbuster school far more than any other movie of its time. There’s a swathe of influences in its genetic make-up, mixing Verne’s Nemo and Robur with dashes of She (1935) and any number of space operas, except resituated in inner space. Honda’s pictures, captured in the elegant expanse of Tohoscope, have just the right mixture of conceptual immediacy and fervent, comic book-like strangeness – the Mu aquanauts rising from the sea that steams around their heated bodies, the colourful rituals in the Mu city with its soaring Cyclopean vaults and idols, the death rays fixed on the bows of their submarine shaped like coiling serpents, or the blazing, fulsome hues of the wigs worn by the Mu Empress and her consorts, a touch that makes me wonder of Jacques Rivette saw this before making Duelle (Une Quarantaine) (1974). To sell the film to fans of the already well-defined Toho formula, the producers had Honda and screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa add a monster to the original storyline, and in doing so created one of the genre’s stalwarts, Manda: worshipped as a guardian god by Mu’s citizens, Manda, snake-like and spiny, resembles an intriguingly classical Asian idea of a dragon, and represents perhaps a deliberate attempt on the filmmakers’ parts to consciously meld more localised fantastic folklore with the storyline’s recycled tropes of Victorian scientifiction. Manda is glimpsed memorably first as a mass of giant scales through the window of a Mu cell, but the beast is dispatched of a tad easily, as indeed are the Mu-ites in general. Manda however would come back in later Toho extravaganzas as a member of the Godzilla troupe, whilst the idea of sending a super-weapon up against a kaiju was also about to become a genre staple, echoing through King Kong Escapes (1967), Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1974), and on to Pacific Rim (2013).
Akira Ifukube’s score is also perhaps his finest moment, whilst, of course, a very big part of the film’s form and charm was provided the special effects, staged by Toho’s maestro Tsuburaya. The effects occasionally graze hokey, as with Manda’s assault on the Atragon where he’s rather too obviously a puppet, and some effects shots are recycled from other Toho films like Mothra (1962). But there’s still some impressive spectacle in the climactic scenes as the Atragon drills through into the heart of Mu’s power supply, drawn from geothermic energy, to sabotage colossal generators – sequences that must have been grand on a massive scope movie screen. The film’s second half sees Susumu and Makoto captured by Mu, but breaking out with the Empress as hostage, thanks to some conveniently mislaid explosives, whilst the Atragon buries Manda under ice. The apocalyptic final images turn unexpectedly poignant and bear out again the curiously insistent weight of Honda’s parable, as Mu disappears in an explosion that rises from the sea and swamps its ships like one of the Bikini tests, and the Empress, stricken by the sight of her homeland’s destruction, leaps from the Atragon’s deck and swims into the smoking maelstrom to die with her people, leaving off with the tragic final vision of the Empress’s red hair fading to a tiny dot as she heads into oblivion. It’s a vision that gives deeper meaning to usual “there but for the grace of God” note of many such final vistas of calamity that regularly came at the end of lost civilisation dramas, because it’s clear Honda has envisioned the awful alternative if the nuttier extremists in the Imperial cabinet had gained their way, and boiled his concept down to one powerful image, looking forward twenty-seven years to Honda’s return to collaborating with Kurosawa, for Dreams (1990), and its hauntingly similar refrains and invocations of guilt and extinction.