Yes, Atragon at nine -- years old, that is. Not the age of the movie, but rather the age I was when I first saw this Toho tale of super-submarines and nefarious undersea empires. Back in 1965, when American International Pictures (AIP) released Atragon on a double bill with the American-made The Time Travelers, I had read no advance information on the movie at all.
Of course, in the sixties, it was typical that when a Japanese SFantasy movie rolled into town, I had never before heard of it! In addition to Atragon, such was also the case with such Toho monster epics as Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster (Continental, 1965) and Destroy All Monsters (AIP, 1969). In those days, the two main sources of Japanese monster information were Famous Monsters of Filmland and Castle of Frankenstein, but the films themselves often appeared in theatres long before they appeared in the pages of those or other monster magazines.
Which brings us to Atragon. It was in the late winter/early spring of 1965 when I spied the double-bill movie ad in the Amarillo Globe-Times for two "picture shows" with neat titles -- The Time Travelers and Atragon. All I knew about them were the newspaper ads; I never saw the TV or movie trailer for Atragon. I was nine at the time, and my older brother Frank was twelve. We both decided this would be a good double-bill to take in, as The Time Travelers promised (what else?) time travel thrills while Atragon appeared to feature a futuristic submarine bursting through the dome of an underwater city.
From our parents, we asked and received permission to see the two movies on Saturday. (I should probably point out that Frank was a voracious science fiction reader at the time, and his stamp of "probable good SF movie" always gave any film a certain status in my eyes.)
Well, Saturday afternoon, Mom dropped Frank and me off at the walk-in Esquire Theatre. The Esquire was built in a quasi-art deco style, and featured beautiful painted murals on the inside walls. I also recall the plush red carpet that seemed to extend all the way from the concession stand into the auditorium proper; then, of course, there was also the balcony, which always seemed neat (though I never sat up there). Of course, the Esquire was already pivotal in my life because only months earlier, this was the theatre in which I'd seen Godzilla vs. The Thing!
As Frank and I quietly found seats in the darkened movie house, we realized The Time Travelers had already been running for about twenty minutes or so. Since this is an article about Atragon memories and not Time Travelers' nostalgia, I won't dally on the latter movie. But I will say I enjoyed The Time Travelers; to my nine-year-old eyes, it was well-made sci-fi, and I found the time loop ending original and challenging.
Well, after The Time Travelers, it was intermission time -- which meant that kids of all ages inundated the concession stand to buy up Cokes, popcorn, and hot dogs. I took a lobby break myself, and I didn't get back to my seat until Atragon had already been running for a couple of minutes! But I made it in plenty of time to see the car crash into the sea, followed by the opening credits. I'd seen enough to know two things -- this was a Japanese movie and, more importantly, a Toho sci-fi flick! That great theme music behind the credits let me know that I was in the same trustworthy hands that had given the world Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra. Now up to this point, I hadn't realized Atragon was a Toho movie, and suddenly knowing that it was heightened my expectations. (Yes, if I'd looked hard enough at the newspaper movie ad, I would've noticed the small "A TOHO CO. Ltd. Production" above the title).
Blanketed in the enchanted atmosphere only a "real" walk-in movie theatre could provide, for the next ninety minutes or so I found myself transported to nine-year-old sci-fi heaven. I sat enthralled as, one by one, Atragon's major set pieces passed before my eyes:
- The Mu Empire film strip shown to the Japanese authorities;
- the merciless Mu annihilation of an ocean freighter;
- the destruction of an American nuclear sub chasing a Mu submarine;
- the first majestic appearance of Atragon rising from the island lake;
- the Mu detonation of a passenger ship as it is boarding;
- the spectacular night-time devastation of Tokyo;
- the Mu submarine's laser blasting ships in Tokyo Harbor;
- Atragon's battle with the sea dragon Manda;
- the super-sub drilling into the Mu Empireˇ¦s power chamber;
- the Atragon crew's freeze guns turning hapless Mu workers into immobile statues of ice;
- Atragon itself using its freeze cannon to shut down the Mu energy reactors;
- and the huge and amazingly convincing explosions arising from the sea as the Mu Empires perishes.
In addition to the wonderful visuals, Atragon was clearly not just another "monster picture" (though of course I loved monster pictures); instead, it had a more serious theme, and a story more akin to juvenile science fiction novels than your standard creature feature. At the time, I found the plot of Atragon's proud commander first refusing to aid in the battle against the Mu Empire and then changing his mind quite compelling. I appreciated this more "adult" angle, as I perceived it then as a preteen who didn't like "cutesiness" in his sci-fi movies.
Far from cute, one scene in Atragon actually approached genuine creepiness. Two of the protagonists, locked in a Mu jail cell, are told that they can see Manda behind a nearby gate. One of them opens the gate, and in the open doorway we see dark, massive, snake-like scales breathing in and out -- more than one audience member went "Oooo!" However, the illusion is quickly spoiled when Manda's dragon head appears in the doorway. Though Manda looked okay, its face wasn't particularly scary.
Of course, even then, in 1965, I realized that not all of Atragon's effects were "up to par". Sometimes the miniatures clearly betrayed themselves as just that -- miniatures; a good example involves the twisted girders and other wreckage in the dry dock from which Atragon frees itself. But then (and now) I usually found the "obvious miniatures" a charming and welcome aspect of Toho moviemaking. I loved the sharp, clean color of the submarine Atragon and the majority of the models in Toho films I had already seen and would see in the future.
Still, I thought most of Atragon's visuals were quite good, especially the shots of the super-sub rising from the water and cruising under the sea. Also impressive were the Mu-created earthquake destruction of Tokyo and those great gouts of flame and smoke arising from the ocean as the Mu Empire is rocked with a series of internal explosions. I also liked watching the Mu workers frozen on-screen (done via matte paintings, as I was later to discover). The movie's special effects were about as skillfully handled as anything done in the West at the time, and they were certainly ambitious.
In fact, the only effects scenes that got a laugh from the mostly teen and preteen audience with whom I saw Atragon involved Manda confronting Atragon. I especially recall that as the super-sub trained its freeze cannon on Manda, the sea dragon's heavy eye lids drooped as though the beast were sleepy, and several kids in the audience howled. Significantly, however, NONE of the other scenes were chortled at, and audience babble whispered at a bare minimum, meaning that you could easily hear the dialogue -- and meaning that this "adolescent" audience was paying attention to the characters on the screen, despite the paucity of monsters!
Well, as the movie closed with a return to the "submerged" red dots moving against a black screen while that great Atragon theme music again played, I felt as though I'd been given a tremendous and totally unexpected gift -- I'd had no idea that my trip to the Esquire Theatre that afternoon would allow me to see another great Toho sci-fi movie!
I was also pleased that my big brother Frank gave Atragon his official nod of approval -- this was quite significant, given that Frank thought that most Japanese SFantasy movies were silly stuff. (I recall him quipping all through Frankenstein Conquers The World that "This is so dumb!" -- but that was still a year and a half away.)
After the movie, in the restroom two of Frank's sixth grade chums joked about the "Pew Empire" (in Atragon, Mu is pronounced "mew" instead of the more correct "moo"). But I could tell from their and Frank's patter that they seemed to have enjoyed the movie. And that was all right with me!
To digress a bit, Frank and I stayed to watch the opening of The Time Travelers, which we'd missed earlier. But Frank insisted on staying past the point at which we'd originally come in. Well, before long, Mom appeared at the lobby door, hopping mad. Naturally, we left -- with Frank bearing the brunt of the blame for us having stayed past the time Mom said she'd swing by to pick us up.
Did this incident taint my memory of Atragon? Not a bit. After all, I wasn't the one who got in trouble!
Fortunately, this wasn't my only "visit" to Atragon land before the end of the sixties. Channel 7, the local Amarillo, Texas ABC affiliate, ran weekday afternoon movies in the late sixties. BUT they rarely announced ahead of time what movies would air, so you never knew what might be on. Well, one day after school in 1968, I turned on Channel 7 at about 4 PM only to discover -- they were showing Atragon!
It had already been running for about half an hour, but I was just grateful I'd caught it before most of the major spectacle aired. Yes, this viewing was on a small black-and-white portable TV, but so what? It was wonderful getting to hear that great music and watch those great visuals again. In fact, it was almost as much fun as seeing it the first time!
On a 1971 Saturday night, I again caught Atragon on TV. This time, however, the movie was announced ahead of time in TV Guide, and I didn't miss a second of it. I still saw it in black-and-white, though.
My final TV viewing of Atragon occurred in the early 1980s; this marked the first time I saw Tohoˇ¦s super-submarine epic on a color TV -- and that was a real blast! Alas, it also marked the last time I would see Atragon on TV at all. By this time I was in my mid-twenties, yet this Japanese sci-fi extravaganza still glowed with the same engaging comic book atmosphere it had abounded with way back at the Esquire Theatre in 1965, and it did me a world of good to see it again.
As the years passed, I gradually discovered that the movie's music score that I found so stirring was composed by none other than Akira Ifubuke, that the captivating effects were directed by Eiji Tsuburaya, that the script was penned by busy monster scenarist Shinichi Sekizawa, and that the film itself was helmed by kaiju eiga master Ishiro Honda. To read still more about the movie, see Ed Godziszewskiˇ¦s excellent retrospective on Atragon in G-FAN #21.
Sadly, as most of you probably know, Atragon's 16mm prints seem to have drifted into oblivion; the movie no longer graces late-night TV, nor has it ever enjoyed an official stateside video or DVD release. Pity. After all, the Titra Studios dubbing isn't bad, and there must be plenty of folks out there like me who'd snatch up a video or DVD of the AIP Atragon. Of course, any DVD should naturally be in letterbox and also include an English subtitled edition of the original Japanese version! (Hey, I'm dreaming, so why not dream in color?)
Of course, even if none of that happens, I still have those great Atragon memories. Defying grown-up cynicism and disillusionment, Toho's sleek super-sub will continue to soar into action in the heart of a nine-year-old child -- and woe to the Mu Empire should that haughty undersea kingdom dare to threaten the surface world again!