Saturday, November 1, 2014

ATRAGON (1964)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

I find myself looking for themes about war and nationality in the works of director Ishiro Honda ever since I noticed the way the original GOJIRA encoded Japanese attitudes toward the war that Japan had lost. Though I don't know how the director personally felt about becoming indelibly associated with monster movies, it does seem that he and his collaborators were often sensitive to those deeper sociological themes-- more so than many of their American counterparts.

ATRAGON is loosely based upon a series of juvenile novels about a super-submarine, and though these have not been published in English, they're said to incorporate strong themes regarding Japanese nationalism. The film begins with a worldwide threat that, as is often the case, is only seen through the eyes of the Japanese viewpoint characters. The underwater empire of Mu has apparently been waiting for its opportunity to gain dominion over the surface world, and it begins by sending agents to that world in order to steal structural engineers and other personnel. A reporter investigates the rumors of strange "fiery" men assaulting Japanese citizens, and this indirectly leads him to a girl named Makoto, who happens to be the daughter of a WWII ship commander, missing and presumed dead for twenty years.  Just as the Mu Empire makes its demands known to all the world, it comes out that the commander in question, Captain Jinguchi, is not dead but has remained in hiding for twenty years, working with a small coterie  on a super-submarine-- but not with the Mu Empire in mind.

In the subtitled version I screened, the modern-day characters are relieved that Jinguchi has created a great super-weapon at a time when the world needs it most. However, they don't understand that for Jinguchi, the Pacific War never ended, despite Japan's surrender. He does not precisely say that he plans to make war upon the Allies that defeated Japan in World War Two, but he claims that his submarine Atragon can only be used "for the Japanese navy."  For Japanese citizens who lived through their country's defeat, Jinguchi is their version of Rambo, implicitly capable of re-fighting a lost war-- though in this case, the Mu Empire takes the place of the original opponents. At no time in the subtitles does any character mention the fact that Japan's part in the war was imperial in nature, attempting to force other nations to join their "co-prosperity sphere," so in a sense the sunken land of Mu is a shadow-image of Japan's own history: a history that Honda's film does not admit to its audience.

To some extent Honda and his scripters question Jinguchi's relentless militarism, particularly in the encounter between the captain and his daughter, who cannot reconcile the fact that he deserted his paternal duties in favor of his private military ambitions. Yet it's also implied that Jinguchi is heroic in his self-denial-- a major theme in Japanese art-- and that if he had not denied the joys of family to himself and his daughter, the whole world would have been dominated by the subsea empire.  Needless to say, Jinguchi does change his mind when Mu agents try to destroy Atragon, and the captain and his crew pilot the super-sub down into the depths. After a battle with the colossal god of the Muvians, a gigantic snake-monster, the submarine destroys the undersea city by breaking into its power-source with Atragon's drill-nose.  Then, to finish things off, Atragon also destroys the last weapon of the Mu people, another super-submarine.

I've left out this detail because it's an interesting complication to Jinguchi's backstory. Jinguchi isn't just thought to have died at sea, but that he deserted his ship. When he appears alive to his contemporaries, Jinguchi explains that his vessel was attacked by a ship of the Mu Empire, and that he and his crew fled to avoid capture. However, Jinguchi's notes for his super-sub were aboard the abandoned vessel, and this allowed the Muvians to build their own sub. The point isn't dwelled upon, but it may be that the Muvians don't make any moves against the surface world precisely because they see the advantage the sub would give them. Therefore, both the Empire and Jinguchi are engaged in an "arms race" based on realizing Jinguchi's great weapon-- but though the Empire finishes first, and tries to sabotage the captain's own effort, it's Atragon, the true weapon of a Japanese commander, that prevails.

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