Monday, August 8, 2022

Atragon: The Super Submarine That Flies...and Drills!

Atragon's flying submarine.
The 1963 Japanese sci fi adventure Atragon is another one of those movies that played frequently on television when I was a youngster. Like many of those films, it seemingly disappeared into the ether for several decades before popping up unexpectedly on Amazon Prime Video. Except for a few images burned into my brain (e.g., a flying submarine!), I remembered very little about the plot--which is pretty wild.

The Empress of Mu and her minions.
It starts with the near kidnapping of Makoto, the daughter of a famous scientist/submarine commander who has been missing and assumed dead since the end of World War II. It turns out that the would-be abductor is an agent of the undersea Mu Empire, which announces--via a 16mm film--that it intends to conquer the world. The Mu are confident that no country in the world can stop them. Indeed, their only concern is a super submarine being developed by Makoto's father, Captain Jinguji, who turns out to be very much alive.

The disappointing Manda.
Jingjui is still bitter over Japan's defeat in World War II and has no interest in helping the rest of the world defeat the Mu Empire--despite even his daughter's pleas. Meanwhile, the Mu attack Tokyo and revive a giant serpent creature called Manda to wreak further destruction.

Atragon unfolds much like a 1940s serial with chapters devoted to the kidnapping, the rise of Mu Empire, Makoto's reunion with her father, the attack on the Mu, and so on. Even the film's "hero," a magazine journalist played by Tadao Takashima, reminds one of an intrepid protagonist from an old Hollywood serial. The comparison is intended as a compliment, for even though Atragon boasts a choppy narrative, it's rarely dull.

A sub that can drill through rock!
Eiji Tsuburaya, Toho Studio's special effects mastermind, created the often dazzling visuals in Atragon. Jinguji's flying submarine (which can also drill through rock) and the intricately-designed undersea Mu kingdom are the film's highlights. Sadly, the dragon-like Manda, the film's climatic "monster"--comes across as a disappointing afterthought. Its marionette movements lack fluidity and its fiery ray is too derivative of Godzilla's more memorable atomic breath.

Based loosely on the 1900 Japanese novel The Undersea Warship, Atragon performed well at the international box office. It was called Atoragon in many countries, which appears to be a combination of "atomic" and "dragon" (apparently in reference in Manda). However, in the U.S., its distributor American International Pictures, referred to the flying sub as Atragon in its publicity materials. That's confusing because the submarine's name in the movie is Gotengo. But, as often the case with movies retitled for their American release, the new title has persisted over the years.

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