Toho Studios released Kaitei Gunkan in 1963, based on juvenile fiction stories from the early 1900s. American International Pictures bought the rights to it, dubbed it into english and released it in late 1965 as Atragon. A.I.P. left the story unaltered. Unlike the more familiar kaiju film, starring a rubber-suit monster, the star feature is a machine, the super sub Atragon with its distinctive boring-screw nose. This epic tale introduces the undersea Mu Empire, intent on dominating all of the earth.
Quick Plot Synopsis
Some scientists are being mysteriously kidnapped. A pair of photographers become entangled in the mystery as they try to contact a beautiful young woman as a potential model. The woman is a "niece" of a shipping magnate, and former admiral. The agents of the underwater Mu Empire attempt to kidnap the Uncle and niece, Makoto, too. The Mu demand that the world submit to conquest, and destroy the super-sub Atragon. No one has heard of Atragon. Makoto's father, builder of Atragon, did not die in the war, but lives on a secret island. One of his lieutenants takes Uncle, Makoto and a party of others to his island. There, they meet Captain Jinguchi and see Atragon. Uncle asks for Atragon to stop the Mu. Jinguchi refuses to use Atragon against the Mu. He built it only to defend Japan. When the Mu begin destroying shipping, and Tokyo, he decides to stop the Mu. Makoto and the two photographers are captured by the Mu. The Empress of Mu sentences them to be sacrificed to Manda, the aquatic dragon they worship. The earth men manage to grab the Empress, hold her hostage and escape past Manda to the waiting Atragon. The Empress says she'll never surrender, so Jinguchi decides to defeat the Mu. The Atragon defeats Manda with its freeze cannon. It then bores through the underwater cliff and into the Mu power plant chambers. There, an away-team plants explosives. They leave and watch the huge explosions from a distance. Even the Mu sub is destroyed. The Empress runs away and swims into the raging fireball. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
As with most tokusatsu films, the model work is fun. Some of the special effects are still impressive (some not so much). The wonder-sub itself is very Jules-Verne-ian, but modern, not steampunk. Akira Ifukube's music is fun, and Ishiro Honda shows some artistic touches in his direction.
Cold War Angle
The spies and an evil (Mu) empire could fit into Cold War angst, but the writers' intent seems to be more of a reflection of Japanese imperialism confronting itself.
AIP's Version -- AIP did a fairly straight dub of Toho's Kaitei Gunken, following the original script closely. What footage was cut, to shorten the run time, was not significant. It came mostly in shortening scenes that were held a bit longer than necessary, or some redundant dialogue. It is interesting (amusing?) that the english voice talent tried to speak with japanese accents.
Real Sub -- When the "Reporter" (Mu Agent in beatnik guise) shows the Admiral a photo of a WWII sub, it is a real sub. It is of the I-400, taken from the US ship after its surrender. The Sen Toku class submarines, I-400 series, were the largest subs to date. They carried 2 (and later 3) torpedo planes in the tubular hangar on deck. I-400 and I-401 were sent to attack the American fleet, but the end of the war came before they got there. The 400 and 401 surrendered, were studied, then scuttled by the Americans, lest the Russians study them too. The I-402 was converted to peace-time use, to carry fuel, but it never did. It was scraped. The 403 was planned but never started, 404 and 405 were under construction at war's end. They were never completed.
Fictional Wonder Sub -- The super sub called "Atragon" (supposedly a contraction of Atomic Dragon), was called "Gotengo" in Toho's film. The flying-undersea-burrowing gunship, was actually created by author Shunro Oshikawa in 1899, as the prime gizmo in a series of juvenile fiction stories. Oshikawa's "Denkopan" bears a strong resemblance to Jules Verne's wonder-gizmos, "Albatross" and "Nautilus", etc. Oshikawa was inspired by Verne's work. The role of charismatic leader, / scientist / inventor-genius, is also very Verne-esque.
Toho's wonder-sub would be familiar to japanese audiences from Oshikawa's stories. In this, there is an interesting undercurrent. Oshikawa's disgruntled navy captain takes Denkopan on many missions, thwarting Japan's current enemies (Russia, France, Britain and the US) with bravado displays of japanese military might. The early 1900s was a time when Japanese militarism was growing and popular. The tide of bravado would eventually lead to them to WWII. This was a subtle point adult japanese audiences would know.
Dueling Imperialisms -- Note how Shinichi Sekizawa's screenplay pits two imperialisms against each other. Captain Jinguchi represents the "old" Japanese Nationalist (Imperialist) way of thinking. He hasn't accepted Japan's defeat and the "new" Japan. He finds himself pitted against the Mu Empire with exaggerated arrogance ( a parody of Japan's own mindset up to and during the war) Jinguchi's finally deciding to set aside his old priorities, to defeat a mirror image of his prior attitude, is a sort of poetic catharsis. We even have a sort of analog to the atomic end of Imperial Japan, with the fiery destruction of the Mu. The Empress choses to die with her empire -- a sentiment not lost on the Japanese. Yet, even within that literary device, are the seeds of irony. It was Jinguchi's ultra-military weapon (the Atragon) which prevailed. By 1963, it seems the Japanese were coming out of their penance for the war, and starting to take pride in their military potential again.
What's Mu? -- Toho and Sekizawa did not invent the notion of a "lost" continent of Mu with its highly advanced civilization. That idea started in the mid-1800s with traveler and writer Augustus Le Piongeon. He theorized that the similarities of various ancient civilizations implied a common source. His Mu was in the Atlantic Ocean. The idea of Mu was expanded upon by James Churchward, though he placed Mu in the Pacific. He felt that Mu explained many mysteries, such as Easter Island, etc. Churchward and Le Piongeon's Mu was more of a quasi-scientific conjecture than the legendary Atlantis, (described by Plato) though the literary expressions of both are quite similar.
Techno-Anachronisim -- It is interesting that movie makers like to depict an highly advanced, "lost" civilization still dressing, dancing, decorating their stone temples in bronze-age style. This, despite being techno-advanced beyond us. Perhaps their ancientness and being the source of our own ancient civilizations was too hard to depict without making them look Babylonian. But really, their white sub has a laser weapon, but all the guards carry spears?
A Touch of Honda -- Look for bits of directoral art from Ishiro Honda. Of special interest is the scene in which the Mu high priest is told of the Atragon's penetration of the power plant chamber. Honda has him positioned between the silhouette teeth of the (near foreground) statue of Manda. It's as if Honda is suggesting that the Mu are, themselves, in the jaws of their own false religion -- imperialism.
Token Kaiju? -- Many Japanese films of the 60s are disparaged for their ubiquitous rubber monsters. In some films, the giant monster appears almost superfluous, as if simply inserted for the sake of having one. The giant walrus in Gorath, the armadillo-thing in The Mysterians, and now the snake-dragon-monster Manda in Atragon. Consider many of the later (briefly appearing) Kaiju as visual metaphors -- much as Godzilla was a metaphor for nuclear war. The walrus for offended nature, the armadillo-thing symbolizing the Mysterians' hostile intent, Manda symbolizing the aggressive (monstrous?) spirit of the Muans. Those token kaiju may be visual literary devices more than producer gimmicks to sell tickets.
Bottom line? Atragon is, in many ways, typical of early 60s japanese special effects movies -- for better or worse. Yet, the visuals that Honda delivers and the subtleties beneath the basic plot, make it more entertaining. The AIP version is more available, and close enough to the original. Kaiju fans may be disappointed at the lack of screen-time Manda gets (and his simple puppet-ness).