When Agon, The Atomic Dragon debuted on Japanese TV in 1968, it must have seemed positively archaic. The problem is that the show was originally produced in 1964, when the kaiju boom was just taking off, and certain tropes hadn’t been standardized, but by the time it finally aired, movies like Mothra vs. Godzilla, Ghidorah the Three Headed Monster, Monster Zero, Frankenstein Conquers the World, Gamera, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, War of the Gargantuas, Gamera vs Barugon, Son of Godzilla, King Kong Escapes, Gappa the Triphibian Monster, and X From Outer Space had all emerged during the interim, as had TV shows like Ultra Q, Space Giants, Ultraman, Giant Robo, Monster Prince, and Ultraseven. Agon should have had much more novelty value as a kaiju-themed TV show had it been released in a timely manner(I mean, Marine Kong had it beat by a few years, but still), but the sight of it in 1968, the year that gave us Destroy All Monsters? Agon was in black-and-white, it had only a single creature, and no special gimmicks; completely behind-the-times. In fact, the title monster’s costume had already been recycled for use as a monster-of-the-week on Space Giants… twice!
The culprit behind Agon’s delay, and its abbreviated production of only four episodes, is a familiar one: Toho’s fiercely litigious nature surrounding anything remotely resembling Godzilla. Despite television being a different medium than film, a cursory glance might seem sympathetic to their claim; Agon was a giant, marine, firebreathing therapod created through atomic energy (though, frankly, Toho had lifted most of Godzilla’s elements from Beast From 20,000 Fathoms). What it took them four years to consider was that the script was written by Shinichi Sekizawa, their own brainchild behind Varan, Mothra, King Kong vs Godzilla, Atragon, Dogora, Mothra vs Godzilla, Ghidorah the Three Headed Monster, Monster Zero, and a lot, lot more, and that the special effects and monster design for the series were done by Fuminori Ohashi, who, among other things, helped to create the original Godzilla suit. Why should that duo of Toho pros have any desire to rip-off Godzilla for Nippon Television? Figuring that it was probably okay, Toho finally allowed the four episodes of the show that were produced to broadcast.
The result is an odd mix, you get a clear two-part pilot episode, then another nearly self-contained unrelated two-parter, which provides a taste of what the show would probably have been like in a typical episode had it survived. In typical canceled TV fashion, though, the end of the series is just the end to a random episode, with no resolution to the giant monster that’s threatening humanity. As a result, watching this as a “miniseries” (or the movie version edited together in the 1990’s) would prove rather unfulfilling. Instead, it’s an interesting look at as a lost opportunity, that might have evolved into a much bigger classic in an alternate universe where it was given a chance. (Like I said, what was made was pretty decent, if a little retro even for the time that it was made, but doesn’t juxtapose well with the other material from the time that it aired.)
So, what’s there to like? Turns out, quite a bit. The monster costume itself is standard (fire breathing dinosaur), but not shabby by TV standards, with a few nice details like a pulse in the creature’s neck to simulate breathing, and the miniature work also gets a lot of bang for its buck. Wataru Saito’s score is minimalist, but has a distinctly 60’s style that you don’t get with most of the orchestral-sounding cinematic kaiju outings of the era, and does a great job of accentuating the tension at certain moments. The human cast is also reasonably amusing, ranging from the reporter protagonist, who doesn’t let go of a story and gets the nickname “suppon” (which is like a snapping turtle, much like a certain reporter nicknamed “Bulldog” in a certain Mothra movie), to a non-annoying child protagonist!
Indeed, this is one of the earliest examples of the stock child in a kaiju story, though it was cliché by the time it actually aired. Another story element that strikes me as potentially influential is the way that Agon consumes radioactive material as his only sustenance. This became a major plot point for Godzilla during the heisei series, and Gamera certainly ate his fair share of fire, but I’m wondering if Agon might have been the progenitor for the whole attacking-nuclear-plants-for-breakfast trope.
Agon is available on DVD in Japan, but has never had any sort of English-language release. For decades, it evaded even the fansub circuit, but it’s finally been translated in its entirety by the excellent people at Hi No Tori Fansubs. I’d recommend it for classic kaiju fans, but a lot of the reviews that I’ve seen really diss on it, so keep in mind that it’s meant to be a serialized TV show and not a movie.