The Golden Gate Bridge goes to pieces in Toei’s The Final War, photo courtesy of LIFE Magazine c. November 1960.
It’s a little startling to realize just how prescient a modest end-of-the-world effort from more than fifty years past can be. In the last few weeks the DPRK has done away with the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War, cut off hotlines to the South, blocked access to a joint North-South industrial complex, and even announced a ratification of plans for nuclear attack on American interests. It’s far from the first time the DPRK has threatened international incident, as a spate of mid-century assassination attempts (and plenty else) will attest, but the country’s most recent descent into Cold War-era craziness does make one wonder where it will all end. More than that, it begs the question of how far things could have progressed if international relations were any less sensible than they are now.
Offering one range of possibilities for that tantalizing what-if is Toei’s obscure The Final War (「第三次世界大戦 四十一時間の恐怖」 or World War III: 41 Hours of Terror), a grim monochrome nuclear war drama that beat Toho’s more lavish The Last War (「世界大戦争」) to cinemas by nearly a year. While Toho’s cautionary yarn offered big-name stars like Frankie Sakai and OTOWA Nobuko and plenty of big color production value to boot, it sidestepped any overtly controversial political content by presenting its global conflict on strict, if transparent, fantasy terms – it’s an Alliance and a Federation who nuke each other into oblivion, not NATO and the Warsaw Pact. What’s more, the human reaction to The Last War‘s central conflict is quite muted, and imminent annihilation accepted with solemnity rather than panic.
The Final War pulls no such punches. There’s no confusion about who is behind the northern hemisphere’s headlong race towards oblivion here, and any sense of social order falls swiftly to the wayside once the issue of individual survival becomes paramount. Perhaps most controversial is The Final War‘s view of its own homeland. Far from the peace-making innocent of The Last War, the Japan of The Final War is guilty by association. In aligning itself with the United States and allowing a continued American military presence on its shores the nation has signed its own death warrant. Whether this should be viewed as a criticism or merely a reflection of Japan’s postwar political reality is difficult to say.
Blessedly The Final War is more concerned with the people caught up in its global political insanity than the politics themselves, and its eponymous conflict is filtered through perspectives from nearly every rung of Japan’s social ladder. The story begins with a school lecture on the arms race and the atom bombing of Hiroshima, a lesson that has quite an effect on young Shigeo. Haunted by images of the charred remains of Hiroshima’s children and horrified by the continuing arms race, Shigeo becomes a helpless paranoid, obsessed with the threat of a nuclear war. Guided by his fears and accompanied by a pair of school buddies, Shigeo steers a yacht (gleaned from another classmate, the daughter of the rich Fujishima family) straight into the Pacific in a desperate bid to escape his doomed civilization. The flight is short lived, however. A typhoon catches up to the boys, capsizing the yacht and setting them hopelessly adrift.
Enter newspaper reporter Masaki (UMEMIYA Tetsuo, Battles Without Honor and Humanity) who, looking for a scoop, sets out with his faithful photographer (ORIMOTO Junkichi, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) on a helicopter hunt for the lost boys. The boys he finds, and a scoop he gets – Shigeo and his nuclear paranoia make the front page, even if no one takes his fears very seriously. Elsewhere life goes on. Masaki begins a relationship with nurse Tomoko (the lovely MITA Yoshiko in one of her earliest film appearances), Shigeo returns to his family, a single bank clerk father (KATO Tadashi) and elder sister (FURASATO Yayoi), and his classmates get back to their routine of daytime studies and nighttime partying. It’s (big) business as usual for the upper-class Fujishima family as well, while in a Tokyo shantytown the poor Tonomura couple continue to scrape by, with Mr. Tonomura (MASUDA Junji, Invasion of the Neptune Men) devoting his meager earnings as a street musician to caring for his ailing wife (HOSHI Michiko).
The peace can’t last of course, and it isn’t long after The Final War‘s many personalities are set in place that an announcement comes over the radio: an American plane carrying nuclear fuel has exploded over Korea. The South accuses the North of causing the explosion, while the North regards the incident as an act of war. NATO forces rush to the region and the Soviets answer in kind. As armed jets streak through the skies of Japan, where American airbases provide crucial strategic access to the conflict, the population starts to sense its vulnerability. Panic creeps through the streets of Tokyo, and the 41 hours of terror begin.
Toei would devote itself almost exclusively to exploitation by the end of the 1960s, making a mint on the oodles of stylish sex and violence that pervaded the work of men like ISHII Teruo and FUKASAKU Kinji, but even before this transition the studio’s product retained a uniquely ragged edge. HIDAKA Shigeaki’s The Final War, with its massive scenes of panicked humanity and abounding examples of the very worst of our nature, is a perfect example of this. Hoodlums on motorcycles rape and maim their way through swaths of fleeing citizenry, doctors abandon patients in their hospital beds, and the sick and injured are left to their own devices to find the dubious safety of somewhere else. The paths of the primary characters intersect in a number of sad and tragic ways, none of which I’ll spoil here, and the subway terminals beneath and woodlands around Tokyo are glutted with teeming thousands of terrified, desperate people. Only the meek Tonomuras approach the end with any dignity, opting to spend their final moments at their otherwise empty Catholic parish. Beyond the panic reaches a fever pitch, and from Moscow a final announcement crackles across the radio: The time of peace has passed, the missiles are primed, and for Japan mere minutes remain before holocaust…
The special effects in The Final War are quite limited, but calculated for maximum impact on a minimum of setups. Once the missiles (a combination of miniatures and stock shots) are launched only three cities are shown to be destroyed, each through its own identifiable landmark. It may not be much, particularly when compared to the heaps of colorful destruction scenes prepped by Toho for their The Last War, but it certainly packs a wallop. In Soviet Russia the campus of the prestigious Lomonosov Moscow State University is obliterated, while in the United States the Golden Gate Bridge crumbles. In Japan, Tokyo Tower is demolished as the Diet spectacularly explodes. Survivors in the wooded outskirts are treated to the grim sight of a mushroom cloud rising angrily above dead Tokyo, and left a few moments to ponder their fate before the final warheads fall.
You’d be forgiven for thinking it all a bit depressing – it is. By the standards of the time, even for nuclear war films, this is a decidedly unpleasant affair, and possessed of a cynical disposition that wouldn’t catch on in Western equivalents until the ’80s. Even the advertising imagery has a tendency towards the unusually gruesome, as evidenced by the shot below – that’s young Shigeo and his sister suffering in the foreground, surrounded by hundreds of other dead or dying as a mushroom cloud looms in the distance. It’s this sensibility, I imagine, that goes a long way towards explaining The Final War‘s obscurity. It’s undeniably well-made and effective to an extent that few of its ilk can match, but it’s not very likable, and not the sort of thing that begs to be seen again and again.
Toho’s The Last War may be softer all around, and more interested in effects splash than it really should be (a message picture has to put the asses in the seats with the rest of them), but it offers one important element nowhere to be found in the Toei film: Hope. That old sword of Damocles may still be hanging over our heads, suspended by the most slender of threads, but even a perennial misanthrope like I prefers to think higher of humanity than The Final War gives a chance.
Our other articles on The Final War:
Lost and Found: The Final War 「第三次世界大戦 四十一時間の恐怖」 (published 3/21/13)
41 Hours of Terror: Eye on The Final War 「第三次世界大戦 四十一時間の恐怖」 circa November, 1960 (published 03/22/13)
A Brief American History of The Final War 「第三次世界大戦 四十一時間の恐怖」 (published 3/23/13)
Special thanks to Brett Homenick, Jules L. Carrozza, Greg Shoemaker and August Ragone for their assistance with all this The Final War stuff – I’d have been nowhere without them. Call me when the American version turns up, gentlemen!