American Kaiju: The Website

Articles & Reviews by Mike Bogue

The Last War

by Michael Bogue

(Originally appeared in G-FAN #56: May/June 2002 Issue)

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 mother.

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.  Nothing survives.

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 radioactive crust.

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 demise.

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 parents.

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 background.

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.

Return to 'Articles & Reviews'

A Message From the Author Buy An American Kaiju Print Today!

© Todd Tennant 2004