I love a movie with mini models, and Atragon is filled to the brim with them. Models of: cities, jeeps, buses, cargo ships, submarines, underground bases (x2), and the
sock puppet dragon Manda. None of them look remotely convincing, but that, ultimately, is part of the charm of Atragon. Made by Ishirō Honda for the Japanese film company Toho, Atragon is pretty typical of Toho’s productions in the 1950′s and 1960′s (such as Godzilla, Mothra, monsters et. all). It has the usual cast of characters, including a pair of super-sleuth reporters, a wizened older gent, and a naive and somewhat tragic young woman. Oh, and as usual, a global threat which Japan must resolve. Atragon also promotes a specific political message, which is usual for post-war Toho films. It flirts with notions of patriotism and nationalism in Atragon’s Captain Jinguji–a Japanese Naval officer who has been hiding out for two decades to avoid the surrender–and the relationship he has with his estranged (by her definition “war orphaned”) daughter. Others simply call him “war crazy.” Either way: consensus! This dude is pro-killing shit. Still, there are some differences between Atragon and its fellow Toho productions. Prime among them is the fact that the film’s only monster, Manda, barely plays a role.
The plot of Atragon is pretty straight-forward. The underwater kingdom of Mu (basically Atlantis inhabited by Japanese extras) is ready to return to its past glory of colonizing the rest of the world after millennial of undersea exile. However, they have a problem: Atragon. They have other problems they aren’t really aware of yet, such as: They find summer in Tokyo to warrant heavy winter clothes (used to the depths of the Earth). Their only weapons are spears and a stolen, WW2-era Japanese submarine armed with a dragon statue that shoots a…laser? I guess? They are also hopelessly stupid, as illustrated by how they project to the whole world their fear of Atragon when they threaten the Earth with earthquakes unless they force Captain Jinguji to stop building it.
It seems Mu is also suffering from brain drain, as the Empire spends the first hour of the movie capturing Japanese civil engineers because…well, the movie will get back to us on that. It promises! In the meantime, the audience has to watch dudes dressed in mufflers and shades kidnap officials and engineers via taxi cabs. As such, the first hour of the film is a bit slow between the odd-kidnapping or two. Most of the time is spent with exposition about Mu, Captain Jinguji, and Captain Jinguji’s daughter (who everyone has the hots for, apparently). Also, the two intrepid press reporters I mentioned earlier? Actually smut photographers! And they are best bros. (Presumably they watch smutty films together?) Naturally the stumble into this wacky caper for comic relief and so they can stare lecherously at Jinguji’s daughter (whose name I don’t remember) and provide a “liberal” counterpoint to Captain Jinguji. And by “liberal” I mean “not balls-to-the-walls crazy.”
They, along with a former Japanese Admiral turned fishing magnate (who is also the surrogate uncle of Jinguji’s daughter) and a shifty-looking “True News Reporter” (worst attempted cover identity ever) end up being drawn into the mysterious kidnappings by the local police department. This subplot is quickly forgotten when the Admiral recives a reel-to-reel film from the Mu Empire in a lovely engraved metal container. It’s basically a tourist video, except with threats. They tell their “former colonies” the Empire is returning and that they should just surrender. Oh, and, by the way, if you could be so kind, stop the long-presumed dead Captain Jinguji from building Atragon. It could totally fuck up our plans. Oh, you didn’t know about Jinguji? Or the sub? Or that it is our crippling vulnerability? Well, just ignore that last bit then. Also, we hear Jinguji’s daughter is a total babe. And all the Japanese Navy guys go “muttermuttermutter.” And the former Admiral goes “*sharpintakeofbreath* ooooh!” And Jinguji’s daughter isn’t there because, lolz, she’s a woman.
Eventually they get over their collective shock and decide to…send an old retired guy, his adoptive niece, two smut photographers, a highly-suspicious reporter dressed in a muffler and topcoat in summer, and a half-mad Japanese soldier who claims to be under the command of a long-dead captain to Jinguji’s secret submarine base. Oh, and only the crazy guy knows its location. But hey everyone! Let’s get on that boat! The boat trip actually passes without incident (a minor miracle) and they find themselves on the secret island. There’s a sit-down dinner that devolves into an ugly, but ultimately sad, display of Jinguji’s martial craziness vs. the smut photographer’s practiced ignorance of anything remotely nationalist. The smut photo guy wins this round by throwing out a quick insult and disappearing with a shouted “Excuse me!” before Jinguji can respond. After this, the movie finally gives us a glimpse of Atragon (with about a half hour of the film left to go). And Atragon is pretty cool because….HOLY FUCKING SHIT IT CAN FLY????
It’s no wonder Mu is terrified, its basically a giant flying battleship. Yes, that’s right, Atragon is as big as a battleship. It also has a giant drill on the front, massive saw blades, cannons, and a cold gun which (claims) to freeze things to absolute zero (lol science fail). But I’ll overlook how preposterous this is because HOLY FUCKING SHIT, FLYING SUBMARINE WHAAAA???? It’s pretty much the greatest thing ever and quintessentially Japanese. Its hard to imagine any culture other than that of post-war Japan coming up with this. (And no, that is most certainly not an insult.) Anyway, you can probably guess where this movie is going, but I’ll throw a SPOILER alert up here anyway.
Atragon ends with a 60′s Bond-esque massive underground base fight. There’s a bunch of mini-models involved, as well as a ton of matte paintings (some good, others painfully bad). While this part is kind of badass, its also a bit anti-climactic because the Mu have absolutely no way to effectively fight back after Manda gets freeze-rayed. They’re dressed like Amazons, armed with spears, and led by a bearded priest who looks like the main bad guy from Big Trouble In Little China (an aside: I fucking love that movie). The Japanese have a flying submarine, armored troops, and a bunch of freeze guns. So there’s really very little tension here, which is a shame because the plot was intriguing up to this point (albeit a bit slow in places). The end, though, is a foregone conclusion (despite the best efforts of the suspicious-looking reporter, a Mu spy, and his grab-bag of pyrotechnic tricks) and is disappointingly brief as well. Still, I found the film enjoyable. The concept is utterly fascinating, and there is no way I wouldn’t love a giant, flying submarine. At the end of the hour and a half, though, I felt the concept had been wasted. Ultimately a great premise marred by missed opportunities, Atragon is still a must-see for any fans of Toho and Honda.