In Ishiro Honda’s science fiction film Atragon (1963) the Earth faces the threat of a hidden underwater empire, but all things considered it is a somewhat middling threat – and a fairly mediocre movie.
Honda absolutely holds the pedigree to pull off this effects-driven ‘tokusatsu’ adventure. He directed the original Godzilla in 1954, Rodan in 1956, The Mysterians in 1957, and Battle in Outer Space in 1959. Atragon, which was released in 1963, shows a well of creativity beginning to run dry. The pace feels less urgent, the visual effects seem a little rote and underwhelming, and a general pall of disinterest hovers ominously over the film. It is fun to an extent, but that extent did not exist for his earlier and much more effective science fiction thrillers.
The ancient Mu Empire, lost beneath the Pacific Ocean 12,000 years ago, attacks the surface world with a series of engineered earthquakes. They demand the surrender of Captain Jinguji (Jun Tazaki) and his experimental submarine Gotengo – except Jinguji has been missing since the end of the Second World War, and may not even be willing to help.
The Gotengo submarine was a popular one with Japanese audiences, and even today remains available via collector’s toys and model kits. It even appeared in subsequent Toho Studios features, such as The War in Space (1977) and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). While an impressive piece of 1960s design, it is by no means enough to save the film around it. Atragon suffers terribly from a lack of energy. There is extensive model and effects work, as always, and there is even a brief appearance by the giant monster Manda for ‘kaiju’ enthusiasts, but everything underneath these highlights fails to perform.
That includes the cast, whose performances for the most part feel woefully understated, even wooden. One exception is Yoko Fujiyama, who at least manages to portray some emotion and heart as Captain Jinguji’s estranged daughter Makoto. Many of her co-stars struggle with a weak screenplay and under-developed characters. The nominal hero, photographer Susumu (Tadao Takashima), feels woefully out of place once the film turns to a military focus.
The shifts in focus weaken the film. It begins rather intimately, with a fashion shoot on a Japanese harbour and a police investigation into kidnapped engineers. Then it shifts to a sort of global catastrophe epic, before narrowing its focus back to military action with the arrival of Jinguji and his loyal crew of sailors. When the action moves to the Mu Empire it is an incredulous civilization where everyone is dressed in primitive attire yet clearly possess vastly superior technology to the humans. There is no internal consistency, weakening them as antagonists and further holding back the movie. Tetsuko Kobayashi is rather eye-catching as the Mu Empress, but with her specific make-up and bright red wig really does not match the aesthetic of her own people.
At least Akira Ikufube (Godzilla) has composed an excellent musical score, which while rather typical of his style manages to throw in a few unexpected and effective melodic instrumentations. It is a highlight of an otherwise moribund film.
As I noted above, there is always an element of fun to tokusatsu – that specific Japanese genre of effects-driven science fiction and fantasy entertainment. Atragon is perfectly acceptable as cheesy, mid-afternoon fare for a nostalgic audience. Honda has directed far better, however, and unless you are a completist for watching his body of work there is much better entertainment to be found in his justly more famous works.