Generally, when anyone thinks of Toho, they immediately go to images of Godzilla tearing up Tokyo. However, Toho also offered up some classic sci-fi flicks that didn’t always feature a big monster. With Atragon (1963), we are given a little bit of both but the monster of this feature plays second fiddle to the real star of the show, a flying submarine.
While I am quite well-versed in Godzilla and various other classics of the era, Atragon was one that never played on any local television stations. It was always on my radar but, admittedly, not high on the list. When Vince, Mary and Steve Sullivan from the B-Movie Cast podcast ushered in the New Year with a look at this one, it got bumped up the list. And what a fun ride it was. For starters, it was directed by the legendary Ishiro Honda. Honda was the mastermind behind countless Toho classics from the original Godzilla/Gojira in 1954 to Terror of Mechagodzilla in 1978. Special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya was also responsible for such films as The War of the Gargantuas (1968) and Latitude Zero (1969), which has also been covered on the B-Movie Cast way back in episode 94. So right out of the gate, you know you have experts behind the wheel.
The plot revolves around the resurgence of the lost Mu Empire. After disappearing some 12,000 years earlier, this group of underwater people (think Atlantis) have decided to reclaim their colonies on land. Sending agents to the land to kidnap engineers, they are eventually thwarted in their attempts to kidnap a former admiral and his goddaughter Makoto. The Muans steal a submarine, which contains plans for a new and superior sub called Atragon (or is it Goten-go). It seems Atragon is being created by a former World War II officer, Captain Jinguji, who just happens to be Makoto’s father. The admiral leads a group to confront Junguji and ask for his help, only to discover he wants to resume the war and restore Japan to its’ former glory. Meanwhile, the Muans continue their plan to reclaim the Earth.
As previously stated, the submarine Atragon is the real star of the movie. Not only does it do the usual underwater tricks, it can fly and is armed with a freezing ray. Now, it wouldn’t be a Toho flick without a monster and here we get Manda, who is essentially an underwater serpent. There are some cool sequences between Manda and Atragon but ultimately, Manda is a little disappointing. Supposedly, Manda was included after a suggestion by Honda and Tsuburaya as 1964 was the year of the dragon. While the concept was interesting, it really seemed like the primary budget was spent on Atragon. Not one of Toho’s better kaiju creations, in my opinion. However, where Manda is less than impressive, Atragon and the expansive sets more than make up for it.
Minimal stock footage from previous films was used, such as the destruction of buildings from Mothra (1961) and satellites from The Mysterians (1957). Manda would resurface briefly in Destroy All Monsters (1968) and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), which also featured the return of Atragon. Atragon was widely successful in Japan as well as the United States, which finally saw it in 1965. It would be re-released in 1968 as part of a double feature with Destroy All Monsters. There has also been much debate as to the real name of the submarine. The international title is Atoragon and the American International Pictures’ dub refers to it as Atragon. However, the original Japanese name is Goten-go. Whatever you desire to call it, Atragon was finally made available on DVD in 2005 and remains in print from the usual suspects, such as Amazon.
While I found it to be the usual high quality Toho production, it did seem to drag a little in the first hour. It does take a while for Manda to finally show up but once it does, the action seems to pick up. The adventure is an overall exciting one, very reminiscent of a Jules Verne story. Not surprising considering it is based on a series of juvenile Japanese novels by author Shunro Oshikawa. Well worth adding to your collection and, while you’re at it, check out episode 227 of the B-Movie Cast for a great discussion. I also highly recommend Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films by Stuart Galbraith IV. Readily available from Amazon, it makes for some fascinating reading and is a great companion piece to the novel and the podcast.