Direction: Ishiro Honda
Screenplay: Shinichi Sekizawa
Music: Akira Ifubuke
Special Effects: Eiji Tsuburaya
Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka
Okay, so in a battle between Atragon's Gotengo and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea's Seaview, which would win? If you said "Seaview," turn in your kaiju eiga ID card for an Irwin Allen bumper sticker. And if you're a purist, you'll notice I called Toho's super-sub by its "real" Japanese name -- Gotengo (or Gohten-go). But given that I originally saw Atragon in 1965 when it played in movie theatres nationwide, to me the Gotengo will always be Atragon by any other name.
But regardless of what we call the film's submarine, the movie is one of the very best from Toho's Golden and Silver Ages (50's-60's). The human drama storyline is far more nuanced than that of other Toho SFantasy efforts, dealing with issues of nationalism and family relationships. Jun Tazaki is excellent as the World War II naval captain who insists his super-sub should exclusively serve the interests of Japan, not the world. His transition from nationalistic zealot to repentant globalist is convincing, and undergirds the movie well.
However, the depiction of the Mu Empire is pure comic book. The "Muians" seem evil through and through. For example, the haughty empress of Mu exudes almost palpable malevolence. A little more nuance among the denizens of Mu could have made the Mu-Japan conflict more interesting.
Still, in terms of adventure and spectacle, Atragon soars. Ishiro Honda paces the film well, and the various set pieces entertain grandly, even though they don't all come off. Highlights include the unveiling of Atragon and its maiden flight for the island visitors, the obliteration of Tokyo by earthquake, the ray-beam destruction of ships harbored in Tokyo Bay, and Atragon's drilling into the core of the Mu Empire's power generators. Particularly effective is a Mu flying bomb blowing up an evacuation ship, as well as the billowing wall of flame and smoke that erupts from the sea as the Mu Empire is rocked by a series of explosions. This latter effect may be the best in the whole movie, and compares favorably to the best of Western special effects of the time.
The Atragon submarine itself also has a wonderful design. It is immediately eye-catching, and it's a delight seeing it put through its aerial and undersea paces.
And then there's Manda. Reportedly tossed into the movie only because producer Tomoyuki Tanaka believed monsters helped box office business, Manda is a serpentine sea dragon that attacks Atragon. While Manda looks okay, its jerky spasms make it appear as though it may be the first daikaiju to suffer from epilepsy.
Of course, the movie was rushed into production, and there are several telltale signs of haste. For example, when Atragon is pulling out of its demolished dry-dock, the real-time photography makes the miniatures move like miniatures. Overcranking the camera would have helped the plausibility of this and several other scenes in the movie.
By and large, though, Atragon is a nostalgic wonder to behold. Media Blasters offers an excellent widescreen DVD of the film, featuring both an English dub track (alas, not the AIP dub of old) and a Japanese language track with English subtitles. This is one movie that belongs in every kaiju fan's DVD collection.
And despite what I said earlier, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea's sleek Seaview is one cool super-sub -- but it pales in comparison to Atragon.