Import Madness: Kaitei Gunkan (海底軍艦)

Posted January 18, 2013 by

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Earth sees itself invaded from within in this eccentric 1963 science fiction thriller from Toho Co., produced at the height of the studio’s turn-of-the-decade genre domination. Kaitei Gunkan, better known to domestic viewers as Atragonfollows the doomed imperialist exploits of the sunken civilization of Mu, who use their ill-explained scientific superiority (they still party like it’s a few thousand years B.C.) to quake cities to rubble and bring our shipping lanes to a grinding halt. All that stands between the Muans and utter conquest is ex-Imperial Navy Commander Jinguji (Jun Tazaki in his greatest genre role) and his fantastical weapon of super-science, the Goten – a gigantic all-purpose submersible warship with a drill for a prow and the ability to fly. There’s just one problem: Jinguji, a reclusive relic of the War, is still fighting for the glory of his fallen Japanese Empire, and intends to utilize the Goten only towards those destructive ends.

It falls upon ex-Admiral Kusumi and Jinguji’s daughter (left in Kusumi’s care since the war’s conclusion), along with an unlikely bunch of tag-alongs (including bumbling magazine photographers Tadao Takashima and Yu Fujiki), to convince Commander Jinguji otherwise, and with the Muans laying so much of the globe to waste the stakes couldn’t be higher…

Though ultimately just another variation on Toho’s past alien invasion efforts, Jinguji’s struggle to reconcile his fervent nationalism with Japan’s new position in a greater global society lends Kaitei Gunkan a great substantive heart. The Muans play the surrogate of Japan’s recent imperial history, from their thirst for conquest right down to their penchant for suicide attacks, and the film plays up the antiquated nature of their world view through the antiquity of their civilization. Though technologically superior the Muans are bound to mankind’s farthest past, and the foundation of their undersea empire is built upon blocks of ancient megalithic stone. When Jinguji finally sees the error of his ways his epic onslaught against the Mu empire doubles as a battle against his own war-mongering ideology. In the end Mu’s ambitions of conquest only serve to hasten their destruction and, as with the imperial Japanese before them, the Muans find the mettle of their militarist resolve tested in an unforgiving crucible of atomic fire.

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There’s just enough substance underpinning Kaitei Gunkan‘s colorful fantasy thrills to keep it interesting half a century after the fact, but there’s little denying that this is more pulp than politics. Though adapted (freely) by Shinichi Sekizawa from Shunro Oshikawa’s turn-of-the-century novel of the same name (ironically a celebration of Japanese nationalism and the nation’s then-current imperial agenda) there are plenty of elements here not to be found in the original work – like the Muans, who take the place of the novel’s Russians. Sort of. Indeed, I suspect Fox’s ludicrous 1961 production Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea had as much an influence on Kaitei Gunkan as Oshikawa’s novel. That film also follows a rebellious sort who saves the world from the brink of disaster with his own super submarine, and some of its effects highlights certainly feel familiar. Key among them is a scene in which one submarine pursues another, only to have one suffer explosive decompression from diving beyond its specifications. Here the setup is amplified with a grimly effective visual highlight – a view of the pursuing submarine’s hull as it crumples and contorts just before exploding.

Another Voyage influence may be found in the brief appearance of Kaitei Gunkan‘s requisite monster, the gargantuan serpentine god of the Mu empire, Manda. As the Goten makes its advance on Mu’s deep sea base of operations Manda attacks, constricting about the ship’s hull in a vain effort to stop it. Commander Jinguji doesn’t skip a beat, however. With the flip of a switch the hull of the Goten electrifies, setting Manda fleeing and giving the ship a prime opportunity to attack. With regards to its action the scene plays much as it does in Voyage, albeit with a more memorable opponent than that film’s generic octopus. The scene in Voyage of course owes itself directly to the epic squid confrontation from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - it would seem that in the wake of the Fleischer film electrified hulls became standard issue for cinematic super-subs.

As for Kaitei Gunkan‘s namesake, the undersea warship Goten absolutely steals the show. The sleek, colorful mega-machine looked cool enough to me as a kid even as it sat in dry dock doing nothing at all – you can imagine my enthusiasm  when it took not just to the sea, but to the air, retracting its conning tower and rocketing through the sky at supersonic speeds! It certainly doesn’t hurt that it was backed by one of composer Akira Ifukube’s finest martial themes. Those pesky Muans never had a chance.

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Kaitei Gunkan made its way to Blu-ray courtesy of Toho Visual Entertainment in March of 2010 as part of the studio’s as yet final wave of high-definition releases from their extensive tokusatsu library. The company has received no end of flack, some informed, much not, with regard to their high definition restorations over the years, and unfortunately Kaitei Gunkan isn’t likely to sway any of the detractors in their favor. While the release has its strengths the quality of the feature itself is rather a mixed bag, and with a pretty good DVD edition available domestically for less than $20 the near-$65 (¥5,700 pre-tax) the Blu-ray commands will undoubtedly take precedent over its modest improvements for many.

There’s nothing at all wrong with the disc’s technical specs, making them as good a place as any to start. Kaitei Gunkan is presented in full 1080p at its original TohoScope ratio of 2.35:1, and is allowed to drift comfortably into dual-layer territory by way of a robust Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 32.0 Mbps. Audio sounds excellent in two flavors, original monophonic in lossless 16-bit LPCM and the 2003 5.1 surround remix in Dolby TrueHD. There are no English audio or subtitle options, but the disc comes with two optional Japanese subtitle tracks, one for the full feature and another just for a brief English-language scene. Kaitei Gunkan appears to be all region compatible, and while it would play in domestic hardware problem-free regardless (Japan and the USA share the same Blu-ray region code) it also functions just fine in my Region B secondary Blu-ray deck.

Now, for the transfer itself. Kaitei Gunkan now sports more natural color and contrast than in its previous DVD edition (viewers here may still need to adjust their television settings for the contrast to meet domestic expectations), and opens up quite a bit to the left, right, and top of the frame, revealing substantial amounts of information lost in the DVD. See the comparison below for a good example of all of this – DVD (upscaled to 1920×1080 resolution for ease of comparison) appears first, followed by the Blu-ray.

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That said, all is still not right with the color all of the time. While the substantial yellow push of the DVD has been effectively remedied, highlights still don’t look quite right, and occasionally betray a slight reddish or pinkish hue. Given the more natural tone of the color in general this didn’t really bother me, but your mileage may vary.

More problematic for many will be the new transfer’s level of detail. The old anamorphic shooting process limits fine detail from the get-go, and additionally Kaitei Gunkan appears to have been transferred from elements at least a couple of steps removed from the OCN (not surprising – the original elements for many films from this period in Japanese cinema are long gone due to the low priority placed on preservation at the time). Still, one can’t help but think that more could have been done with the materials to squeeze out a touch more detail. Kaitei Gunkan appears rather soft overall, and while the tightness of available detail does improve (see the brims of the civil defense helmets or the rivets on the bus in the capture above) there’s very little in the way of additional detail or texture beyond that which was already evident in the DVD edition. I was also expecting a touch more in the way of film texture – aside from a few dupe shots here and there the grain here is quite subdued. I’m not sure how much of this is post-processing and how much is just a product of the original transfer or even the film elements themselves, but at least the tell-tale plasticine ugliness of DVNR is nowhere to be found.

Kaitei Gunkan is relatively clean, if not so much so as other Toho Blu-rays I’ve seen, but aside from some occasional dirt and speckling throughout and a few scratches and a bit of static grunge baked into the film’s opticals there’s very little in the way of damage to complain about. The biggest improvement over the DVD edition may be in the motion, which is crisper and smoother here at 24p than on the smudgier progressive DVD. Even with limited detail and only modest improvements elsewhere, at least Kaitei Gunkan now plays like film.

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Toho’s tokusatsu Blu-rays command a significantly higher price point than many of their contemporaries (Kadokawa’s Gamera series Blu-rays street for around $10 less), but they also provide something many of their peers do not – gobs of supplemental goodies. Chief among Kaitei Gunkan‘s extras is a complete secondary cut of the film, the 75 minute version screened with Destroy All Monsters in 1968 – this version is presented in upscaled 1080i (and advertised as such, for those wondering), and is Mpeg-4 AVC encoded at an average bitrate of 19.6 Mbps with monophonic Dolby Digital 2.0 audio.

Newly produced for the Blu-ray is “Kaitei Gunkan” Study Guide, a substantial 33 minute HD featurette whose two subdued hosts guide viewers through a mountain of memorabilia pertaining to the film, from pre-production sketches and storyboards to behind-the-scenes photos, props, toys, and even other ships inspired by the Goten (including the outer space variation from Toho’s War in Space and the classic-style Goten seen in Godzilla: Final Wars). A brief reel of unused and alternate effects takes (SD, 4 minutes) and a theatrical trailer in native HD round out the video supplements, while an audio commentary with chief assistant director Koji Kajita is carried over from the 2003 DVD to round out the special features. The disc comes in a standard Blu-ray case with an attractive outer slip cover.

While Toho’s Blu-ray of Kaitei Gunkan gave me an undeniably superior presentation in direct comparison to the DVD, it also fell plenty short of expectations. Had it a healthier range of detail, and had a bit more effort been put into color correcting the transfer, this might have been a necessary addition to any fan’s tokusatsu Blu-ray library (as some of the company’s other discs certainly are). As such this disc offers a modest feature upgrade at best, with some legitimate supplemental heft helping to sweeten the deal. I’m not displeased with the purchase – I doubt I’ll ever have cause to buy the film again – but those interested in picking it up would do well to know what they’re getting into, and check their expectations accordingly.

More DVD / Blu-ray comparison shots. DVD shots (upscaled to 1080×1920 for ease of comparison) appear first, followed by Blu-ray. 

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