The film was one of several tokusatsu collaborations of director Ishirō Honda, screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, and special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya. It features Jun Tazaki, an authority figure regular to tokusatsu, in his largest genre role as the conflicted Captain Jinguji of the super-submarine "轟天号" Gotengo or Roaring Heavens — the suffix, "号" (go), simply denotes the object as a ship. The supersub was dubbed Atragon in the English-language U.S. version, released in 1965 by American International Pictures.
As was the case in several other 1960s visual effects films, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka insisted that a monster be incorporated into the storyline for marketing purposes, to which Tsuburaya designed Manda—a Chinese dragon-like sea serpent that would subsequently appear in several films in the Godzilla series. The Atragon itself, slightly modified, would reappear in several other movies, including Godzilla: Final Wars and Super Star Fleet Sazer X The Movie: Fight! Star Warriors.
The legendary empire of the lost continent of Mu reappears to threaten the world with domination. While countries unite to resist, an isolated World War II Captain has created the greatest warship ever seen, and possibly the surface world's only defense.
While on a magazine photo shoot one night, photographers Susumu (Takashima) and Yoshito (Yu Fujiki) witness a car drive into the ocean. While speaking with a detective (Hiroshi Koizumi) the next day they spot Makoto Jinguji (Fujiyama), daughter of deceased Imperial Captain Jinguji, who is also being followed by a suspicious character (Yoshifumi Tajima). Her father's former superior, retired Rear Admiral Kusumi (Ken Uehara), is confronted by a peculiar reporter (Kenji Sahara) who claims contrarily that Captain Jinguji is alive and at work on a new submarine project. The threads meet when a mysterious taxi driver (Akihiko Hirata) almost abducts Makoto and the Admiral, claiming to be an agent of the drowned Mu Empire. Foiled by the ensuing photographers, he flees into the ocean. During another visit to the detective, a packaged inscribed "MU" arrives for the Admiral. Contained within is a film depicting the thriving undersea continent (with its own geothermal "sun") and demanding that the surface world capitulate, and prevent Jinguji from completing his submarine Atragon. The UN realizes that Atragon may be the world's only defense and requests that Admiral Kosumi appeal to Jinguji. Concurrently, Makoto's stalker is arrested and discovered to be a naval officer under Jinguji. He agrees to lead the party to Jinguji's base but refuses to disclose its location. After several days of travel, the party find themselves on a tropical island inhabited only by Jinguji's forces and enclosing a vast underground dock.
Eventually Captain Jinguji (Tazaki) greets the visitors, though he is cold toward his daughter and infuriated by Kusumi's appeal. He built Atragon, he explains, as a means to restore the Japanese Empire after its defeat in World War II, and insists that it be used for no other purpose. Makoto runs off in anger, later to be consoled by Susumu. Atragon's test run is a success, the heavily-armored submarine even elevating out of the water and flying about the island. When the Captain approaches Makoto that evening they exchange harsh words; again Susumu reproaches the Captain for his selfish refusal to come to the world's aid. After daughter and boyfriend are abducted by the reporter (a disguised Mu agent) and the base crippled by a bomb, Jinguji consents to Kusumi's request and prepares Atragon for war against Mu.
The Mu Empire executes a devastating attack on Tokyo and threatens to sacrifice its prisoners to the monstrous deity Manda if Atragon appears. Appear the super-submarine does, pursuing a Mu submarine to the Empire's entrance in the ocean depths. Meanwhile, Susumu and the other prisoners escape their cell and kidnap the Empress of Mu (Tetsuko Kobayashi). They are impeded by Manda, but soon rescued by Atragon, which then engages the serpent and freezes it using the "Absolute Zero Cannon". Jinguji offers to hear peace terms, but the proud Empress refuses. The Captain then advances Atragon into the heart of the Empire and freezes its geothermal machinery. This results in a cataclysmic explosion visible even to those on deck of the surfaced submarine. Her empire dying, the Mu Empress abandons the Atragon and, Jinguji and company looking on, swims into the conflagration.
Production and Distribution
A final draft Sekizawa's script was approved on 1963-09-05, merely three months before Toho demanded the film be theatrically released (concurrent with the fruitful Winter holiday season). On this unusually tight schedule, production was divided into one more than the usual two teams (drama and special effects) of tokusatsu production—Unit A for dramatic filming and Units B and C for special effects. Visual Effects Director Tsuburaya and Assistant Visual Effects Director Teruyoshi Nakano began work in October and concluded within four weeks, a third of the usual time granted to effects work. While the effects of Atragon are generally praised, minor stock footage of buildings collapsing from Mothra were used as inserts during the scene where Tokyo's Marunouchi business district collapses (as well as shots of emergency vehicles responding before the collapse). Two other instances of stock footage were merely used in montages of satellite surveillance taken from The Mysterians and Battle in Outer Space; while another montage, establishing shots of the world's major capitals, was taken from Shūe Matsubayashi's The Last War.
Kaitei Gunkan became Toho's top box office earner during its month-long run in Japanese theaters and is a popular feature on TV and at film festivals. In fact, it was so popular that it was re-released in 1973. It was the 1964 Japanese entry at the Trieste Science Fiction Film Festival.
American International Pictures afforded the film a successful U.S. theatrical release in 1965 with minimal changes and quality dubbing by Titra Studios. The new name Atragon, derived from Toho's international title Atoragon, is presumably a contraction of "Atomic dragon", a colorful moniker for the titular juggernaut; however, AIP's dubbed dialogue refers to the Goten-go by the name "Atragon." This shortening from four to three syllables was the choice of AIP, since several European markets released the film as Atoragon (Italy) and Ataragon (France). While Kaitei Gunkan became Toho's first tokusatsu eiga (Visual Effects Film) released on home video in 1982, and though the film is exceptionally popular among western tokusatsu fans, Atragon was not released on home video in the United States until Media-Blasters' DVD in 2005 (although the film was in constant television syndication in the U.S. until the early 1980s). Its enduring popularity in Japan is evident in the number of plastic model kits, garage kits, and adult-targeted toys based on the "Goten-go" continually on the market.
The predominant themes of Atragon are nationalism, patriotism, and pride. Unchecked affirmation of these principles manifests in the central character of Captain Jinguji, who built the Atragon for the sole purpose of reviving the Empire of Japan; and in the Empress of Mu, whose overall motive to reestablish her nation's global dominance parallels Jinguji's. Much as the aggressive policies of Japan secured the nation's defeat in World War II, the former Empire of Mu continues its siege on the surface world even after Atragon—their only feared adversary—rises to challenge. Both leaders vehemently reject the notion of peaceful surrender, and even international cooperation, but while Jinguji is ultimately persuaded to suppress his 20-year vendetta, the young Empress sees her defeated nation through to annihilation. Whereas Jinguji revolted in order to prepare a counterattack, the Empress acts differently on her nationalistic resolve by abandoning the Atragon to die with her people.
- The Atragon has made many appearances in other movies under the name The Gotengo.
- The Atragon is prominent in the video game Godzilla: Unleashed as a boss.