Here's a switch: Latitude Zero of 1969 was the first, and I believe only, Toho tokusatsu (effects-driven film) shot in English, for an English-speaking market, and only groomed for Japanese release afterward. So the "proper" version of the movie, and the longer cut (by 15 minutes), is the English language one. And it's that one that we'll primarily look at now, though in my zeal for completeness, did watch both cuts. The biggest difference between them - besides the psychological gulf that comes from watching a rinky-dink B-movie with subtitles, something that for most cinephiles insistently confers a presumption of class - is that the English version is a bit more expansive and clearer, with the connecting ideas given a bit more expression. The vibe one gets is that the producers assumed that American audiences needed a bit more coherence and storytelling rigor than the Japanese. Which is almost certainly true. Also, I just used the words "coherence" and "storytelling rigor" in the context of Latitude Zero, which is an outrageously daffy thing to have done.

This film was the last collaboration of the Big Four of Toho's tokusatsu and daikaiju eiga films: producer Tanaka Tomoyuki, director Honda Ishirō, composer Ifukube Akira, and effects director Tsuburaya Eiji, though the attitude is strictly that of writer Sekizawa Shinichi, whose tendency towards live-action cartoons and kiddie glosses of James Bond is very much the name of the game here. Sekizawa was not the prime mover of the plot, though: Latitude Zero was adapted from a radio serial by Ted Sherdeman, who receives a writing credit himself. Whatever its parentage, the film is a stunningly loopy ride, a fervid mixture of Japanese and American generic tropes that manages to be impressively conceived and executed in almost as many ways as it its phenomenally campy. And boy, are there plenty of ways in which Latitude Zero is camp of the first order.

It's sort of a gloss on Atragon, the 1963 Toho production about an evil undersea empire and a magical submarine built by a crazed World War II veteran, with an incomparably sunnier outlook on the world. In this case, the advanced society hiding on the ocean floor is unmixedly good, even messianic, and the specter of war exist solely in some dialogic asides that acknowledge the martial existence of the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. It is a film where the villains are easily identified and far too incompetent to represent a serious threat, occupying such a hammy register that it's impossible to suppose that they were being pitched at anything but a juvenile audience.

Also, this is all quite a bit of fun, though I wouldn't care to predict how it would play to a viewer whose tolerance for whimsical idiocy is on the low side. It's not quite in "so bad that it's good" territory, because it's not quite bad: my impression is that for the most part, the parts that seem most stupid were understood to be thus by the filmmakers. At a minimum, Caesar Romero and Patricia Medina, as the bad guys - Dr. Malic and his lover Lucretia - certainly understand exactly what they were doing in playing their parts with such lip-smacking pomposity, and it's not likely a coincidence that the most fun bits of Latitude Zero are those which are specifically focused on those two characters and their fiendish machinations. And in this bucket I do include the film's frontline monster, a hybrid lion-condor that probably represents the very silliest suit ever put together under Tsuburaya's watch, though that silliness comes with a certain ironic flair, a sense of "I dare you to tell me this looks dumb" that separates it from his worst suits.

But neither Malic nor his homebrew gryphon are the actual focus of the movie. It is, much like Atragon, primarily about a wonderful seagoing vessel, the Alpha, which rescues three men deep in the Pacific Ocean, near the intersection of the Equator (which lies, of course at 0° latitude) and the International Date Line. The three - Japanese Dr. Ken Tashiro (Takarada Akira), French Dr. Jules Masson (Okada Masumi, who looks very little like a "Jules" and not at all like a "Masson"), and American Perry Lawton (Richard Jaeckel), an Associated Press reporter - are on a UN-sponsored research voyage in a bathysphere when an undersea earthquake nearly buries them, but the Alpha, under command of Captain Craig McKenzie (Joseph Cotten, Medina's husband), has been studying that earthquake and saves them in the nick of time. Masson is too badly injured to be patched up by the young-looking but hugely accomplished medical officer, Dr. Anne Barton (Linda Haynes), and with only a flicker of regret and none of doubt, McKenzie cancels the research trip and heads home to Latitude Zero, an undersea paradise that plays like Galt's Gulch written by an Ayn Rand whose chief interest was humanitarianism. For here, science is at a hugely advanced stage, leaving to unimaginable longevity - McKenzie is over 200 years old - and an elevated ethical system that involves the Latitudiners, or whatever we're supposed to call them, encourage above-water scientists on the verge of making important breakthroughs to come down to their paradise to refine those ideas into something that will benefit all humanity without having any obvious application as a weapon.

Not everyone is so enlightened: Dr. Malic is a longstanding enemy of McKenzie, who has hatched a scheme to kill the kindly submariner. First he will kidnap a certain Dr. Okada (Nakamura Tetsu), an atomic physicist who is about to make untold new advances - but also untold killing - possible, and use him as bait to lure McKenzie into the path of his warship Black Shark, captained by the unstable Kroiga (Kuroki Hikaru), a nightmare version of the unhinged female. Eventually, her brain is put into the gryphon, with the exact results you'd expect if you put a resentful psycho woman in control of your giant killbeast and expect here to keep doing your bidding after you've betrayed her.

Boilerplate swashbuckling with an odd Shangri-La backdrop, but a few things help put Latitude Zero over: Tsuburaya's exuberant visual effects, for one, which aren't as lush and polished as in his best films, but put over the idea of an essentially magical submarine and an essentially magical underwater kingdom with flair and panache and just the right amount of old-fashioned Jules Vernian charm (the film, with its unabashedly utopian vision of scientific advance, is emphatically Vernian in the context of the dour late-'60s genre film world). The excellent trinity of old pros, Cotten, Romero, and Medina, certainly is another major plus: the two villains with their High Camp theatrics, and Cotten with his more measured gravitas, that still doesn't try to hide the essential frothiness of the material, and in concert with his outlandish costumes suggests that he's playing the role as Vincent Price as a gay pirate. Ifukube's music isn't a great thing, unfortunately, for it's a bit more anonymous and generic than much of his work, and the best pieces is a lift from Handel that might not have been quite so obvious six years before Barry Lyndon came out, but it's pretty damn unmistakable now.

Some of the film is actually terrible, but fun to watch anyway. The Japanese actors, all dealing with English lines they learned phonetically, are a mixed bag: Takarada manages to look somewhat comfortable, while Okada sounds flawlessly European, though in the latter case, this is maybe because he has virtually no lines, and could dedicate more time to perfecting them. Everyone else is stiff and awkward and visibly unsure of what they're doing, including Haynes, a native Floridan, who probably did not speak such clipped, mechanical words in everyday speech, but it was her first movie, so who knows. The obvious standout is Kuroki, who clearly doesn't understand a goddamn moment of her character (even in the Japanese dub, hers is the most out-of-control performance), and attempts to compensate for clarity with gigantic enthusiasm, and it is one of the all-time great masterpieces of hilariously shitty acting in a B-movie by a non-native speaker. To appreciate Latitude Zero is to adore the derangement of Kuroki's no-fucks-giving acting, and vice versa.

The whole thing is ebullient schlock, possibly the most effectively lightweight film Honda ever directed. It is breezy and defiantly unserious, but not so much as to seem like crappy juvenalia, and in the "let's make kid-friendly B-movies" phase of Toho's genre film production, this is an obvious standout: romping, campy adventure that has been made by people on both sides of the camera who cared about it, with none of the implicit resentment for the project and its audience that mars a lot of American films on roughly the same model from the same time. It's dumb fluff, but made by people who wanted to craft the finest dumb fluff they could. And damn it if they weren't pretty much successful.