Although public concerns over thermonuclear war have relaxed since the fall of the Soviet Union in
1991, fears of atomic annihilation ran high in the fifties and early sixties.
Naturally, Hollywood took advantage of this communal anxiety over “the
bomb.” The results can be seen in American “A” budgeted end-of-the-world films
such as On The Beach and The World, The Flesh, and The
Devil, both 1959. Several Western “B” pictures depicted
post-nuke worlds, but only a few dealt with the immediate before-and/or-after
events of atomic war. Most notable among these are Five (1951), This
Is Not A Test (1962), and Panic in Year Zero (1962).
Interestingly, no Western film in the fifties or early sixties showed a large-scale nuclear
war itself. In the “A” films, we got the aftermath, but not the actual event;
in some “B” pictures we got a few mushroom clouds and perhaps stock footage of
nuclear detonations, but little else. It took Japan to produce a film that
directly showed a full-scale nuclear war as it was happening; that film is
Toho’s 1961 production The Last War, otherwise known as Sekai
daisenso, or “Great World War.”
(Rival studio Daiei also made a nuclear war movie the
previous year called The Final War, but that film was apparently
little-seen at the time and appears to be lost today.)
A sincere and conscientious effort on Toho’s part, The Last War follows
the lives of several Japanese civilians, chiefly a family of five, as worldwide
events converge towards an all-out nuclear holocaust. The father, played by
Frankie Sakai (“Bulldog” in Mothra), is gregarious, grouchy, and loving,
consumed with his stock portfolio, but also devoted to his
wife and three children. His spouse (Nobuko Otawa) suffers from a lingering
illness, and acts as both her husband’s patient sounding board and pragmatic
moderating influence. Paramount on the mind of the couple’s eldest daughter Seiko
(Yuriko Hoshi) is her romance with civilian ship officer Takano (Akira
Takarada). Yet Seiko is also anxious about the possibility of nuclear war, a
fear her father belittles.
Two secondary characters are a ship’s cook and his daughter, a teacher who runs a
private school for small children. Recuperating from surgery, the cook is
helping his daughter care for the kids under her charge. Tertiary characters
rounding out the drama include a young girl and her apparently single working
As the characters attempt to maintain ordinary lives, a series of ominous
international events unfolds. Conflict breaks out in several troubling
episodes that chiefly involve Southeast Asia. The two sides involved are
identified only as the Federation (obviously the United States and its allies)
and the Alliance (clearly the Soviet Union and its associates).
At one point, peace seems to have broken out with word of a cease-fire at the 38th
parallel. But this respite from international tensions proves short-lived.
Federation and Alliance jet fighters clash over the Arctic, both
sides employing nuclear weapons. Friction escalates; an all-out nuclear
exchange becomes increasingly likely. Despite this, lovers Seiko and Takano
secretly marry before Takano sails off for another nautical sojourn.
Meanwhile, Japanese authorities fear that because Japan is a member of the Federation, their county will be a
likely Alliance target. Panic sweeps Tokyo. Nevertheless, Seiko’s
father insists that he and his family are not fleeing their home, for there is
nowhere to go. That night, they enjoy a bountiful supper, only the two younger
children apparently oblivious to the nuclear doom that awaits the city.
Sure enough, that doom comes in the form of an ICBM that explodes over the Diet Building. Tokyo is
obliterated in spectacular detail, the gigantic mushroom cloud that arises from
the city overshadowing the countryside like a monstrous crimson wraith.
Soon other ICBMs rain nuclear death upon Moscow, New York City, London, Paris.
A ship’s crew, including Takano and the ship cook we saw earlier, decides to sail
back to Tokyo, though radiation will surely kill them, and the city
no longer exists. All that remains of the once sprawling metropolis is a
radioactive haze drifting over a rocky tableau; the only recognizable landmark
is the peak of the Diet Building, around which lava has cooled into a lifeless
To create a realistic and disquieting vision of nuclear annihilation in The
Last War, Toho secured top talent. Naturally, special effects wizard Eiji
Tsuburaya handled the film’s wealth of visuals, and the “Old Man” was clearly
given more money than usual to lens the film’s spectacular effects.
Tsuburaya’s efforts pay off for the most part, though there is unevenness in some of the
effects. For example, the tanks are clearly miniatures, the verisimilitude of
the model aircraft varies, the Red Square replica is unconvincing, and some of the miniatures
(both military and urban) don’t explode realistically. That said, Tsuburaya’s
triumphs in The Last War clearly outnumber his failures. His
submarine, aerial combat, and missile work fares quite well, as does his
before-the-blast light effect that “freeze-frames” various world landmarks
before they are blown to radioactive rubble. In addition, Tsuburaya scores an
imaginative (if not necessarily realistic) effect when the jet fighters’
nuclear weapons explode in mid-air.
Most impressive of all, however, is Tsuburaya’s
tour-de-force nuclear destruction of Tokyo. The enormous white fireball that forms over the
city is chillingly believable, and the spectacle of that same fireball
transforming into a gargantuan red mushroom cloud that dwarfs even Mount Fuji is
an unforgettable sight.
The Last War’s direction, script, and acting aid and abet Tsuburaya’s ambitious
visuals. Shue Matsubayashi’s direction paces the drama well. Populated by
frantic crowds, ominous newscasts, and taut emotions, the film’s final third
becomes decidedly intense; the viewer begins to dread Tokyo’s inevitable
Toshio Yasumi and Takeshi Kimura’s script moves deftly
between the everyman concerns of the civilian characters and the global set
pieces involving the military of the Federation and Alliance as
well as Japan’s frustrated political leaders. To be sure, the
English-language scripting of the Federation and Alliance scenes sometimes makes
for stilted dialogue, but the “occidentals” involved (local Western amateur
actors) generally acquit themselves adequately.
The Japanese side of the story remains smooth and
believable at all times, the acting of the main characters right on the money.
Especially noteworthy are the performances of Sakai and Otowa as the two
In addition, Ikuma Dan’s music score lends aural substance to the drama. The
film’s main theme is both memorable and poignant, and the music is used to full
impact during several key moments. Silence, however, also heightens the effect
of many of The Last War’s scenes.
The film achieves its emotional results honestly. After Takano has set sail on his
last voyage, the Morse code exchange between him and Seiko is touching without
becoming maudlin. The father’s helpless rage over the imminent nuclear
destruction of his family is similarly affecting. Most moving of all, however,
are the closing scenes aboard the ship sailing back to the devastated Tokyo; the
camera focuses on the facial expressions of Takano and the ship’s cook as an
evocative children’s song heard earlier in the movie plays hauntingly in the
Images conveying apprehension and menace also abound. One of the most
effective of these depicts the Diet Building at night, no soundtrack audible, as we witness a
silent but ominous light -- a nocturnal ICBM -- descend over the city. (Unfortunately, the Americanized version adds music
behind this scene.)
Thematically, The Last War expresses Japan’s horror over nuclear warfare and its feelings of
helplessness to prevent such a catastrophe. Little wonder that the fate of Hiroshima is
mentioned in the film. Little wonder too that Toho had the courage to actually
depict worldwide nuclear carnage in lieu of a forced and unrealistic “happy
ending.” (However, the film does end with a vertical crawl telling us that
what we’ve just witnessed is only a fiction that can still be prevented.)
Despite its downbeat finale, The Last War refrains from showing us human beings
who are injured, dead, or dying on the outskirts of the explosions. Perhaps
Toho thought such graphic detail would render the film too horrific. Still,
the movie does offer the ash-silhouettes of several nuked soldiers.
In a miscalculated move, The Last War scrupulously avoids directly naming
either the United States or the Soviet Union, and it fails to display either
nation’s insignia on military uniforms or hardware. Such a move detracts
somewhat from the movie’s credibility. Perhaps Toho did this in the
hope that neither the U.S. nor the U.S.S.R. would be offended, and that both
nations might subsequently distribute the film in their countries.
Unfortunately, the film apparently received little or no theatrical distribution in the United States,
but it was sold quickly to U.S. television in 1964. It won’t come as a surprise to G-FAN
readers to hear that The Last War’s Americanization was
generally poorly-handled. For one thing, the American TV distributor cut
approximately twenty minutes from the film. For another, some key scenes are
jumbled out of order. Music plays in certain scenes that in the original were
left unscored. Most puzzling of all, the American TV distributor cut out the
spectacular long shots of the atomic fireball and the red mushroom cloud
looming beside Mount Fuji. Gone too are the brightly lit “freeze-frames” of
world landmarks prior to their obliteration.
The dubbing runs hot-and-cold, sometimes okay, sometimes decidedly less so. But
the worst Americanized decision was to play the Disney song “It’s A Small
World” over the film’s grim closing scenes. As the doomed ship sets sail for a
nuclear-ravaged Tokyo, the “Small World” anthem demolishes the dramatic
clout these scenes have in the Japanese original. Also unwelcome in the U.S. version is a John F. Kennedy anti-war speech played
over the ending. As usual, the American distributor should have left
the film as is and simply subtitled or dubbed it as well as possible. But
alas, it was not to be.
Not that many Americans probably ever saw The Last War. It did play on TV
during the sixties, seventies, and eighties and was issued on video in 1985,
but the video has long since gone out of print, and the film has likewise
vanished from the television airwaves.
After 1961, several Western nuclear war films of note appeared, such as Dr.
Strangelove (1964), Fail Safe (1964), and The War Game (1966,
filmed for the BBC). The eighties saw a revived fear of nuclear holocaust, an
anxiety reflected in such Western fare as the made-for-TV The Day After
(1983), Testament (1983), and Threads (1984), as well as the
later Miracle Mile (1989) and By Dawn’s Early Light (1990). The
Last War not only predates all of these films with its message of the
personal horrors nuclear war could visit upon everyday people, it also serves
as these movies’ spiritual precursor.
Nevertheless, in this world of computer-generated nuclear devastation,
such as that seen in the recent Chain of Command, many modern viewers
may see fit to dismiss The Last War due to its “antiquated” effects.
Those with a greater knowledge of the evolution of visual effects and a higher
tolerance for older movies will acknowledge that, for the time, Eiji Tsuburaya
and his fellow Toho craftsmen did a fine job on The Last War.
For example, compare the nuclear destruction of London in 1960’s The Time
Machine with Tsuburaya’s 1961 atomic devastation of Tokyo in The
Last War. Tsuburaya’s work obviously fares far better than that seen in The
Time Machine (in this context, it is germane to note that the latter film
won the Oscar for best visual effects of 1960).
Far from perfect, The Last War nevertheless represents Toho attempting to do
something more than merely entertain its audience and rake in a few yen. The
producers of the film had a higher purpose in mind, and for that they should be
commended. As for us, we would be wise not to disregard Last War’s
counsel, “dated” though its message may seem. In these days following Sept. 11, 2001, we
may not be as safe from nuclear war – especially on a limited scale – as many
of us might like to imagine.