Atragon (Japan 1963)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 12/1/12
Director: Ishiro Honda
Music: Akira Ikufube
Cast: Yoko Fujiyama

A big budget fantasy action film featuring a flying submarine called Atragon. The submarine is so powerful that it makes the subterranean dwellers of the sunken continent of Mu declare war against the world. Of course, no one on the surface knows that Atragon even exists, as it's being developed in secret by a disgraced Japanese naval commander who intends to avenge Japan for the loss of World War II. With the Mu Empire threatening to wipe out civilization and enslave Mankind, Captain Jinguji reluctantly decides to use Atragon against the greater common enemy. In the process of completely wiping out the Mu Empire, our heroes also have to deal with a goofy looking sea serpent called Manda, which is no match for the super sub.

This is classic Honda all the way, and it's interesting to see how deeply and profoundly the war affected Japanese culture. It tackles some difficult issues regarding global unity and patriotism, and serves up some surprisingly poignant social commentary. Once again the hero is a photographer, who obsessively stalks the lovely Yoko Fujiyama until he gets the opportunity to rescue her from the agents of Mu and foil their plans for world domination. Seeing this male/female dynamic is rather shocking in this day and age, but I guess that's how courtship used to work. Chase a woman like a savage animal until you catch them, or they surrender from exhaustion.

The visual effects are superb, although the film heavily favors unconvincing matte paintings and rear projection. The miniature work is excellent and the scenes of destruction are very satisfying. Like many Japanese super battleships, Atragon itself is overly silly, and its ability to fly like a rocket is needlessly absurd. It's unclear why it doesn't just stay in the water, especially when there are no aerial combat scenes or narrative reasons to justify its need for flight. The film is a slow starter, but the story is engaging and consistently interesting. Unfortunately, the big pay-off of Atragon finally going into battle is disappointing, and the film ends on a somber note as the cast ponders the price of war and the annihilation of an entire race and culture.