Though largely unseen since its release in December of 1960 it’s not strictly accurate to say that Toei’s nuclear war drama 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) was a lost film. That’s not to say it was an easy film to find. Unlike the rest of the company’s special effects product The Final War never found its way to VHS or Laserdisc, and has yet to appear in DVD either – a dubbed version which played US television is rarer still. Until recently the only visual evidence of the film’s existence were the few stills making rounds online, including the poster thumbnail to the left (shamelessly copied here from the Eiren film database).
But things change, and even that considered most rare can eventually come to light. A few years ago The Final War aired on a Japanese television network, proving at the very least that it still existed. Yesterday a copy of the same made its way to me. It might have been a thrilling moment had the circumstances not proven so mundane – there’s little sense of discovery when long-lost artifacts arrive first class on sharpie-marked DVD-R.
As for the film, I’ll devote an article to it properly once I’ve had the time to parse through all of its drama. It was clearly a big-deal production for Toei, who may have been looking to one-up Toho films by getting their dismal Cold War tragedy into cinemas first. Where Toho’s The Last War elaborated on its fictional conflict with lavish miniature effects sequences, in blazing color no less, The Final War opts for a more personal approach, following the lives of several everyday Japanese citizens (a student, a reporter and so on) as war and rumors of war swirl about them. Everything is seen from a distinctly human perspective, with chilling results. Radios broadcast the latest political huff from either side (familiar gaijin in the roles of American and Soviet representatives), while jet aircraft speed overhead, ominous and untouchable.
The intricate effects sequences that mark the Toho production (a showcase for effects pioneer TSUBURAYA Eiji) fall largely by the wayside here in favor of big-scale dramatic set-pieces. Thousands amass in an exodus from doomed Tokyo, and huddle in forests far from the city limits to hope and pray that the worst doesn’t come to pass. It does, of course. Survivors are few, and there is no cheerful resolution, no escape from the all-consuming crucible of a dumb and pointless war.
Filmed in stark black and white ‘Scope and directed by the little-known HIDAKA Shigeaki, who flourished in the early years of Japan’s post-occupation film boom only to disappear at the start of the ’60s, The Final War benefits as cinema from its technical inferiority to Toho’s melodramatic effort. Its perspective is direct and human, its conclusion understated and terrifying. It’s about the tragic consequence of a world that puts wars of ideology ahead of the welfare of billions, and it remains a harrowing watch more than fifty years on from its original release.
Would that I could provide the whole film here, but the best I can offer is a taste. Rest assured that it does exist, and that it’s a hell of a lot easier to find now than it used to be.