posterThough 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.

TheFinalWar_001

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.

8 thoughts on “Lost and Found: The Final War 「第三次世界大戦 四十一時間の恐怖」

  1. Kevin,
    Thanks for posting this; and I look forward to reading your detailed assessment in the near future. With that being said, what you now have in your hands was taken from Japanese Broadcast Satellite Cable (more specifically, the Toei Channel, AFAIK). And has been aired more than once (and received a couple of retrospective festival screenings), but almost no one on this side of the pond was aware of this, therefore no one (outside of some coveted grey market sources) had bothered to make this title public outside of Japan.

    Cheers,
    August

  2. Hi August,

    No problem – some people like to keep these things close to their chest when they happen upon them, for reasons I don’t really get. I’m not one of those people.

    The only information I had on the television broadcasts were some scarce details shared on a Japanese blog back around ’05 or so. I happened upon them while on a random search for the title, but had never heard anything more substantial about it. Had no idea the film had received festival screenings, but that’s not surprising.

    I emailed Toei about possibly picking up the film for domestic distribution, but received no reply. That was around the same time I was looking to pick up Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds, but Media Blasters swept it up before my negotiations had a chance to progress.

  3. Kevin,
    That’s unfortunate about Toei… They were very forthcoming when I was brokering for a friend’s DVD label about ten years ago. Greg Shoemaker of the Japanese Fantasy Film Journal has Japanese and US materials for the film, and I’ve dug up TV listings from the San Francisco broadcasts in the late ’60s.

    Keep up the great work!

    Cheers,
    August

  4. I saw this on TV in St. Louis when I was around 10 years old in 1965 or so. It had a devestating effect on me and I’ve never forgotten it. At times I’ve wondered if I’d ever actually seen it at all. It seemed very stark and amazingly real. Much more so than the color Final War. It haunts me still remembering the images of a woman staying behind in Tokyo in an apartment with a child rather than evacuating, then after the city is destroyed seeing her boyfriend wandering through the wasteland in search of her. Very powerful images. I do hope you get to circulate this. I’d love to see it again.

    1. I don’t know how likely it is, but I can’t see any reason that Toei wouldn’t license it to an interested party. The Final War is a rather marginal title though, so convincing a company to take on the licensing fees (which are generally pretty high for Japanese films) for a title that’s not likely to sell very well might be a stretch.

  5. All I know is this movie affected me as a young child. Saw the movie a handful of times. I was always thinking as a child will I awake in the morning. The fear I had because of this movie. I thought I would never see adulthood. Plus those air raid drills in 1st through 6th grade did not help too. I been searching for this movie for years, I hope to see it again someday. I know it has been 50 something years since I seen it, but every once and a while I think about the movie and the effect it had on me.

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