Geez, Louise...if'n it ain't a giant monster trashing Tokyo, it's some uppity, advanced civilization of war mongering peoples living on a continent that sunk to the bottom of the ocean long ago desperate to regain that which they lost, specifically domination over the entire planet...Atragon (1965), originally known as Kaitei gunkan (1963), directed by the legendary Ishirô Honda (Godzilla, Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, The Mysterians), features a strong cast of Toho regulars including Tadao Takashima (Son of Godzilla), Yôko Fujiyama (Dagora, the Space Monster), Ken Uehara (Mothra), Jun Tazaki (Destroy All Monsters), Kenji Sahara (Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster), and Yu Fujiki (Yog: Monster from Space).
The first half of the film introduces us to many of the main characters in the story, and also relates how an ancient civilization called the Mu empire has begun to try and regain control of the world, apparently something they had in the past (they claim all surface dwelling peoples are colonies of the Mu), but lost due to the fact the continent they were living on had the nerve to sink to the bottom of the ocean some 12,000 years ago. Okay, seems to me if these people were so advanced, they would have moved to another, more stable continent before or around the time theirs took a nose dive rather than go through all the trouble and effort to develop a vast, undersea city, but what the heck do I know? I'm just a gaijin...anyway, the Mu empire, perhaps tired of pruned fingers and smelling like fish, begin a campaign to subjugate the peoples of the Earth using their superior technology delivering destruction and mayhem, threatening to destroy everything unless the receive full compliance. To show they mean business, they blow up...a cargo ship...seriously...but then they come full on with the pain wiping out Tokyo utilizing underground earthquakes. Okay, that's a bit more impressive. Seems the only thing the Muans fear is a sophisticated submarine called the Atragon, created by a Japanese naval officer Captain Hachiro Jinguji (Tazaki) who ran off at the end of WWII rather than face the disgrace of surrendering, and has since been in hiding, developing this amazing vessel with the intent on returning someday and serving his country. Given the threat of global destruction, some of his fellow countrymen manage to locate the captain and his secret base, and try to convince him to come out of hiding to face the Mu threat, but he's too wrapped up in his own patriotism to care about what happens to the rest of the world, wanting only to return for the glory of Japan...or something like that. Anyway, all bets are off when the Muans kidnap the captain's daughter, threatening to feed her to their giant sea serpent called Manda if he doesn't agree to destroy Atragon. Captain Jinguji subsequently kicks it into high gear, unleashing the full power of Atragon against the Muans, with the fate of the planet at stake.
I had a great time watching this film, not only because of the amazing effects employed throughout, but also because it had a really solid story as a backbone. The first ten minutes or so might be a little confusing, as there's bits with various individuals being kidnapped by nefarious looking types, but things clear up soon enough once past the opening credits, as more of the story presents itself. Honda's direction is extremely strong, keeping things paced well, especially given the complexity of the story and the lack of real action in the front end of the feature...and this would probably be my only gripe that I wanted to see more of the super sub in action. What we do get is loaded up mainly in the last twenty minutes or so of the film. The battle scenes we do see are really impressive, so much so I lost sight of the fact most all of it was done with miniatures, given the apparent intense amount of detail and attention given to their construction. The effects work here, under the direction of Eiji Tsuburaya, is top notch, especially given the time the film was made, in the early 1960s. As far as the Atragon, it's a real piece of work, featuring moving parts, further helping to create a sense of realism. The sub was a wicked long, cylindrical tube with a giant drill bit on the front, along with various blades that deployed from the sides, allowing it the ability to not only cruise the seas, but burrow into the Earth. And not only that, but it could fly! It had a fairly normal complement of both offensive and defensive weapons, along with something called an instant freeze cannon, which does exactly what it sounds like it does...my favorite sequence in the film is when Captain Jinguji goes balls-to-the-walls attacking the Muans head-on by boring through the sea floor and busting through into the Muan core power center for some awesoma destruction. In a nice touch, Captain Jinguji did offer a chance for peace, but the Muans declined (good thing too, as otherwise the story would have died out quickly). The giant monster called Manda, whom the Muans saw as their deity's messenger, did look a little hokey, but given it's limited amount of screen time and the many strengths in this feature (the directing, the acting, the effects, etc.), this was a minor aspect for me. Another superior element of this film is the original musical scoring by Akira Ifukube, who seemed to have an innate sense in creating music befitting these types of films. I don't normally notice the accompanying music in films unless it's really poor and ill fitting, or unless it's really outstanding and right on the money, the latter being the case here. There were two things in this film I could have done without the first being that massive, Muan native dance sequence, which was impressive, but pointless, and the second being the photographer's comical assistant. There must have been a clause in some Toho contracts that forced the inclusion of at least one comically challenged comic relief in their films, one who manages to survive all the way through, much to my dismay. It wasn't as bad here as I've seen in other films, but the presence of such character didn't go unnoticed. Regardless, Atragon is a great film, especially if you enjoy early Japanese science fiction adventure films.
Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock provides an excellent release here, with a beautiful looking widescreen (2.35:1) anamorphic transfer. Also included are a number of audio tracks including Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in both English and Japanese, along with Dolby Digital mono, again in both English and Japanese (I'd recommend the Japanese audio with available English subtitles). Special features include an original theatrical trailer for the film, along with a feature length commentary track with Koji Kajita, who served as chief assistant director on the film. Also thrown in are previews for other worthwhile Media Blaster DVD releases like The Mysterians (1959), Varan the Unbelievable (1962), Dogora (1964), and Mantango: Attack of the Mushroom People (1963).