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Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Last War

In 1961, the same year as Beast of Yucca Flats,Toho Studios put out a blatantly preachy anti-nuke film titled Sekai daisens├┤. It was their rendition of On The Beach but with the anti-nukes message unencumbered by subtlety or allegory as in Gorath. Toho Studios president M. Shimisa said, "We of the Toho Company are employing every vestige of our technical skill to present as realistically and appealingly as possible exactly what will happen if this colossal horro befalls us. It is our sincere hope that by producing and exhibiting this film we can serve the cause of peace."Sekai daisens├┤ was later edited and dubbed into english, released as The Last War (TLW) in early 1967. This review is for the dubbed version, but comparisons are drawn to the original as well.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The sailors on a Japanese merchant ship say they wish to return to Tokyo, even though they'll die of radiation. The main character, Takano, narrates the story as flashback.Tokyo was a busy, bustling city. It was also the home of the Tamura family whose eldest daughter, Saeko, was his girlfriend. Takano returns from a voyage. He and Saeko deal with how to best ask for her father's blessing for getting married. Intermixed with the family story are news reports of worsening international tensions between two super power alliances (thinly disguised America/Nato and Russia/Communist Block). Military maneuvers with live nuclear weapons increase tensions. A spy sub is captured. Things get more jittery. Both sides experience accidental almost-pushed-the-button moments that were narrowly averted. Other human interest characters are introduced. Takano's ship's cook recovers from surgery (kidney?), so is helping his daughter who is a kindergarten teacher. Lots of cute kids. One of them, Suzuo, is sick and her single mom works far away. Opposing air patrols start firing at each other over the arctic. Nuclear air-to-air weapons are used. The vaguely communist block cross the 38th parallel in Korea but their tanks are stopped. There are appeals for peace by the Japanese government, but summits break down. Takano must ship out again. Saeko goes to Yokohama to see him off, but they get married and enjoy their one night before he does. He ships out. The communist block decide to push their buttons. Missiles are launched -- some to Japanese cities. Panic in the streets as millions flee. Suzuo's mother dies of exhaustion trying to get to her girl. Saeko returns home. There is no defense, so everyone just sits and waits. Tokyo is blown up and consumed by fire storms. Other missiles are launched. Models of Washington DC, London, Paris, and Moscow are blown up too. Everything everywhere is destroyed. Takano finishes his contemplative flashback. Excerpt recordings of JFK's UN speech talk of need for disarmament. Fade to black. The end.

Apocalypse Suffered
Like On The Beach ('59), TLW is a tale in which total global nuclear war is not averted and everyone on earth dies. Like OTB, the intent is to preach disarmament by shocking audiences with the utter horror of global nuclear war. TLW provides a graphic look at how the war started, which OTB left as unseen and unexplained prior events.

Cold War Spotlight
TLW depicts the Cold War scenario with two super power alliances (The Federation and the Alliance, in the original movie), both of which have amble nuclear weapons to annihilate each other. TLW focuses on the hair-trigger dangers in a tense international arena. There is nothing allegorical. Only the names America and Russia are thinly disguised.

Original vs. Remix -- The original movie ran 125 minutes and told the story in chronological order. About 15 minutes of non-essential footage was edited out of the english-dubbed version. The major re-edit involved starting at the ending (the sailors deciding to return to destroyed Tokyo), and telling the story via flashback and narration. The dubbed dialogue is fairly faithful to the original, though no less awkward as most dubbed foreign films are. A few other peculiar variations exist too, which will be covered below.

No Kaiju -- TLW feels like a typical kaiju movie. It has model landscapes and cities which get destroyed. It has model tanks and planes which fire their little missiles. All it lacks is the monster. Both the special effects men, Eiji Tsuburaya and Akira Watanabe, worked on many of Toho's popular kaiju films: Godzilla, Rodan, The Mysterians, Mothra, Gorath, etc. Their work has a distinctive look and feel, even if there isn't a monster. I suppose the nuclear explosion is their kaiju in this case.

Heart Strings -- The story centers around the Tamura family. Father Moichi, mother Oyoshi, beautiful adult daughter Saeko, and her two young siblings, Hanu and Ichiro. Moichi is the good father, working hard to provide his family with prosperity. Oyoshi is the kindly but sickly mother and family peacemaker. Saeko is in love with merchant seaman Takano (who is also a boarder at the Tamura household, no doubt how he and Saeko got to know each other). Hanu and Ichiro are stereotypic kids. All of the character development is crafted to make the viewer care about the Tamura family. Thus, the viewer's heart strings are supposed to be pulled when at the end, they sit together silently in their living room, waiting for the missile to hit Tokyo.

Blasted Landmarks -- As has become traditional for apocalyptic movies, many familiar landmarks get destroyed. Among them are the US Capitol building, the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty, London's Tower Bridge, the Arc d'Triumphe, the Kremlin and Japan's National Diet building. The pyramidal top of the latter gets show several times at the end, the only recognizable bit amid the rubble and flames of Tokyo. How to show the destruction of Paris? Blow up the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe. Must faster on screen. This pattern of destroying symbolic landmarks would become an almost-required element for later doom films.

Bad English -- In the original, the two super powers both spoke English (and were played by caucasian actors). Japanese subtitles translated. But, the english spoken by these actors was mumbled or inarticulate, or just badly delivered. To Japanese ears, it probably sounded fine -- a bunch of "foreign" blather anyhow. Interestingly, in the english dubbed version, TLW, the caucasian actors' english was dubbed in too, by better voice talent. Listen for the distinctive voice of Paul Frees.

Random Act of Disney? -- In the original, the old cook's daughter has her kindergarteners sing him a farewell song. It is a traditional New Year's song (though the lyrics were not subtitled). In the english-dubbed version, the kids are dubbed to be singing "It's a small world (after all)." As unrelated as a Disney tune seems to an anti-war film, it actually does have a connection. Disney's songwriters Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman wrote the tune in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis -- which occurred only a year after the original film was released. The song debuted at the '64 New York World's Fair, and later became a Disneyland hallmark.

Biblical Variants -- In the original, Saeko sees that the sweet potato street vendor has a Bible at his cart. She picks it up and reads from it James 4:1-3. These are the verses that say "why are there wars among you? Because you lust and have not." On the one hand, it's clear that Toho was using western tradition (the Bible) as an indictment. On the other hand, it's interesting that a bible in Japanese is included at all. The old street vendor took it with him everywhere, and Saeko was familiar enough with it to flip it open and read from James. In the english version, Saeko reads from the Bible too, but the writers started with Psalm 140, verse 1 and 2, " Deliver me, O LORD, from the evil man: preserve me from the violent man". Then they added excerpts from Jeremiah 49:2,3 about alarms of war and daughters burned with fire. After that, they resumed the original verses out of James.

JFK Epilogue -- TLW wraps up with an extended quote from JFK's speech to the UN assembly in September 1961. The occasion was a memorial for the death of the Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold. He died when his plane crashed in Rhodesia (later Zambia) while on a peace-brokering mission. The loss of such a capable peace-maker at a time when US/Soviet tenses were flaring, was troubling. JFK used the occasion to denounce nuclear proliferation. The writers/editors remixed parts of JFK's 3rd and 13th paragraphs, including the famous quote that mankind must end war, or war will end mankind.

Bottom line? TLW is interesting as a snapshot of Cold War mood. Told from the Japanese point of view (not one of the warring sides), it captures some of that helpless feeling most people had. The message is delivered with little subtlety, but even this conveys some of the sense of urgency people felt. The model work has its interest, but it's not the focal point. For a personal (if depressing) double-feature, watch TLW to get the war, then On the Beach for doom of survivors, such as the sailors on Takano's ship -- A double dose of doom.


Anonymous said...

Any suggestions on where to find a copy?

Anonymous said...


I have been racking my human brain trying to recall the name of a old sci-fi movie and thought you may be able to help.
The plot surrounds a scientist that gets the plans and parts to build an alien (communications) machine. Sorry that's all I can recall. It must be from 50's perhaps 60's - American?
Hope you can help me.

Nightowl said...

It sounds like you're describing This Island Earth (1954). American. The main character/scientist does get plans and parts to build an Interociter (sp?) which is an alien communication device. He then meets up with Exeter, one of the aliens. Check it out.