May 25, 2014

Review: Kaitei gunkan [Atragon] (1963)

There's nothing like a Toho B-movie. Godzilla movies may be their bread and butter but they have a whole lot of other gems that make for some easy, schlock-filled fun. Kaitei gunkan is definitely one of those gems. You can trust me when I say that the poster for the movie with what looks like a flying submarine is far from an exaggeration.

Director Ishirō Honda knows how to make a "tokusatsu" movie which in plain terms is a special effects film. Even if all he ever made was Godzilla (1954) he'd still be a legend for the genre. He has his regular team of Shinichi Sekizawa for the script and Eiji Tsuburaya as director of special effects. Their contributions can't be ignored because as far as B-movies go, the script for Kaitei gunkan is pretty solid, if pretty silly and the special effects are actually quite impressive.

Kaitei gunkan is about the reemergence of a lost empire called Mu led by an empress who wants to reestablish her empire's world dominance of old. It sank into the ocean a long time ago but survived and has been planning ever since. A pretty large group of characters all team up to find Captain Jinguji who has been working on the most powerful submarine ever conceived in secret and yes it does fly. It goes without saying that this submarine is the only chance for the world to defeat the Mu. 

It's all good silly fun. The Mu empire is especially silly in the way that it's the combination of a couple of ancient civilizations put together. Their underwater continent features ancient architecture but they've been able to insert modern technology too. The Mu have brick walls, manual prison doors and spears but then they also have submarines, automatic doors and a geothermal generator making everything work.

So while the Mu are pretty illogical, they're very nationalistic though. Patriotism is a strong theme in Kaitei gunkan and it makes references to Japan's patriotism during World War II. The Mu are imperialists and see it as their duty to control the world and Captain Jinguji is so nationalistic that his flying submarine is supposed to be for Japan only, not for the world despite the Mu threat. It makes for an interesting parallel between the two sides.

With silly stuff like story out of the way, let's move on to the most important parts of a tokusatsu movie: the special effects. Simply put, there are some pretty amazing scenes that are worth seeing. Kaitei gunkan makes good use of miniatures which I admit, I always geek out over so I appreciated that. There are some great destruction shots of buildings, submarines and there is some usage of stock footage but nothing too blatant. Manda makes an appearance too but to disappointing results. Manda is used sparingly and I'm guessing that it was difficult managing the monster underwater. 

The score which is composed by Akira Ifukube kind of just sounds like rearranged Godzilla music but that didn't bother me. After all, Ifukube composed the music for Godzilla and many other Toho movies. It's deep and ominous which goes well with its antagonist which is an empire from the deep.

Kaitei gunkan isn't the best B-movie ever made but it's a solid effort. It's well put together despite a few things that are easy to laugh about. (Spoilers) I'd like to know how our heroes didn't know they had a Mu man with them when they had already seen one beforehand. Yes he looks like a regular Japanese man but he was even dressed the same as the previous Mu man! You also got to wonder how a man can function with a scarf on in a humid jungle. (End spoiler) These things are what makes B-movies so fun though and Kaitei gunkan is one of them.


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