Earnest but boring Japanese SF. It's not actually from the 1950s, but it might as well have been.
The story's about Mu. Come on, you know Mu. It's that continent which supposedly sank at the dawn of human history and according to the map we see was as big as Asia and Europe put together. Mu was dreamed up by a 19th century bullshit artist called Augustus Le Plongeon, then popularised further by James Churchward in the 1920s and 1930s. No one takes it seriously these days, of course. Continental drift, yes. Continents going glug glug, no. However it's been claimed that Mu was the origin of ancient civilisations in Egypt, Greece, Central America, India, Burma and Easter Island, not to mention the inspiration for megalithic architecture.
According to this film, the people of Mu have built an artificial sun to provide all their needs and have been living peacefully at the bottom of the sea for 12,000 years. Naturally they choose now to turn hostile. Smart move, guys. A hundred years earlier, no one had radar or nuclear submarines. They also dress like ancient Egyptians, suggesting that fashion trends don't move too fast at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and do temple dance numbers.
Oh, and they speak Japanese. This is even more surreal than their sea serpent, Manda.
So far, so awesome. This could have gone off the sanity charts, but unfortunately it gets bogged down in desperately underwritten characters with very little plot involvement. Ishiro Honda strikes again. I like Godzilla as much as the next man, but this man has committed crimes against SF. There are two good characters in this movie:
(a) Jinguji, a role they wrote for Toshiro Mifune. (Unfortunately he was busy doing Red Beard for Akira Kurosawa.) This film is as earnest as you'd expect from Honda and what it's getting earnest about is warmongering nationalism. When Japan surrendered at the end of World War Two, Jinguji ran off with a submarine. He's since spent the following two decades building a super-sub (that can fly!), with which he plans to return Japan to glory. Righty-ho. So he's a cheerleader for Japan's wartime antics, then, who furthermore thinks that peace is evil and that the only way forward is to start World War Three. Unsurprisingly the film's a little less breezy in its criticism of Jinguji than I am, being sympathetic to his sincere feelings of patriotism and the sacrifices he's made. (He gave up his three-year-old daughter to do this, who's now played by Yoko Fujiyama.) Nevertheless the film also makes is very clear that Jinguji is wrong and stupid, especially when he refuses to allow his super-sub to be used to save the world. He built it for Japan and no other country!
However the super-sub's called Atragon, so don't be too surprised if they eventually change his mind. Meanwhile his thematic counterpart is:
(b) Tetsuko Kobayashi, the Empress of Mu. In a surprisingly enlightened move, Mu's rulers are women. Even Kobayashi's advisers are all female (unless they're maidservants), although you could be forgiven for thinking the big, butch one was a man. (There's also one who looks like Helen Mirren.) Anyway, Kobayashi is an even bigger warmonger than Jinguji, in a way even today is all too relevant. "Return our colonies immediately!" Look at all the squabbling between China, Japan, Korea and pretty much every Asian country over territorial rights over tiny rocks in the sea. What's interesting is that the film carefully doesn't give Kobayashi a ticking clock. They haven't been displaced by nuclear tests (Godzilla) or anything else. There's no impending crisis. They could have gone on living at the bottom of the sea for ever... but they didn't, because they're cocks. They think they own the entire world, presumably on the basis of a map that was once scribbled by Neanderthals in trees, and they've decided to take it back.
Kobayashi isn't a particularly deep character, but she's cool because of what she represents. She's Japan in World War Two, basically. She's the unacceptable face of Jinguji and you'll note that the film allows her a respectful death instead of just giving her a "ha ha ha" splatter scene. We understand her, but she's still a bitch who needs stopping with extreme prejudice.
There was a good film buried in that. There were even the seeds of another one in the triangle of Jinguji (Jun Tazaki), Fujiyama and the dried-up old stick (Ken Uehara) who's Jinguji's ex-superior and Fujiyama's guardian. Fundamentally this movie bored me, but every so often it would hit some dramatic or thematic meat and I'd get interested for a scene or two.
Unfortunately the plot is as follows. The Mu-ians are sneaking up to the surface world to kidnap anyone who might lead them to Jinguji. They have nifty diving suits and heat powers that can make iron bars glow red, by the way. Two photographers see them. These would have counted as comedy characters if they'd ever had enough business for you to remember them for more than sixty seconds. One of them gets a "blink and you'll miss it" romance with Fujiyama. I think it's him, anyway. Almost everyone in this film is so irrelevant to anything that I almost expected the Fujiyama romance to end with, "Yes, I'll marry you! What was your name again?" Our heroes track down Jinguji and take along someone who couldn't have more obviously been an undercover agent of Mu if he'd had it written on his coat. They haven't realised, obviously. Instead they think he's a reporter. Their rationale for bringing a reporter on a sensitive trip to meet the world's most important and secretive person goes as follows... "Why bring him?" "He'd just write it up if we didn't." No, really. I'm not kidding.
Discussion happens. Mu gets annoyed and destroys Venice and Hong Kong, although we only learn about that through newspaper headlines. What we see is a fishing boat blowing up. The Evil Undercover Agent of Mu spends about 100000000 years of screen time being suspicious, planting bugs to the Mu submarine, sneaking off on his own and so on... then eventually kidnaps someone of no importance and plants a bomb that achieves nothing. He then runs away.
Fortunately Mu treats its prisoners well. It even lets them steal mega-dynamite that's much more powerful than ordinary dynamite. Thoughtful of them.
Manda is great, obviously. It's underused, but you've got to love a Chinese dragon swimming through a paralytically serious SF anti-war fable. The producers insisted. Although that said, there are other appealingly bonkers design elements too. I've already praised the fish-suits, the burning-hand attacks are kind of freaky and it's possible to read phallic significance into the submarines. They're the world's mightiest weapons, they're long and thin and their freeze attack makes them spurt white.
The actors are irrelevant. Jun Tazaki and Ken Uehara get all the heavy lifting. Fujiyama is underwritten. There are some cameo Americans (ouch). Kobayashi is an ice queen, but even so you've got to love her stoic reaction to seeing Mu get blasted into smithereens. Stiff upper lip, old girl. Remember, acting is for your social inferiors! Amazingly though, that's only the second-worst reaction shot, with my favourite being Fujiyama's boyfriend's non-reaction to Manda swimming past the window.
Is this good? Hell, no. Is it watchable? Not really. I was clockwatching by the halfway point and even the isolated good bits (i.e. the thematic stuff) couldn't save it from tedium. The American trailer in desperation tried to make it look as if Akemi Kita in a bikini was a major part of the film, even though that's only a cameo in a pre-credits sequence. (They're two good minutes, though.) There's strong thematic material in here, but I'd want the film edited down to half an hour before I even considered revisiting it. It's not schlock, mind you. Ishiro Honda's a dedicated man who makes good-looking films to be taken seriously. I sort of admire him, believe it or not, but I struggle with some of his movies.
"The world has changed. I'll use Atragon to change it back!"