When it comes to Toei’s 1960 end-of-the-world production World War III: 41 Hours of Terror (第三次世界大戦 四十一時間の恐怖), better known domestically as The Final War, it shouldn’t be too surprising to find that I’ve got little left to say. In the wake of the film’s recent arrival in stateside fan circles I researched and penned a number of articles on the subject, and to that end I simply have nothing more to add.
What I do have, however, is a rare piece of memorabilia from the film, gleaned some time ago at Japanese auction and thus far the only artifact from its release that I’ve been able to find. Shared here is the speed poster for The Final War, which would have been (and judging from its state, was) displayed to announce the production prior to its arrival at the cinema. As with many of its kind from the time period, the poster doubles as a press release, offering a synopsis, cast and crew information, and presumably the same sort of studio ad jargon used in the campaign and press books produced elsewhere. I couldn’t get a good image of the text, which is substantial and, given the modest dimensions of the poster, necessarily rendered in rather small type. The included ad art was far easier to photograph, and is included below the poster.
I just love these kinds of things, particularly when it’s so obvious that they’ve been used. There’s a delicious sense of history that comes part and parcel with all that wear and tear, a sense one just couldn’t get from a more pristine example of the same. This speed poster for The Final War is literally falling apart at the seems, with some significant separation (and discoloration, at least on the back) along its central fold, but is in pretty remarkable shape otherwise. The original color of the printing is very well preserved – those yellow title kanji are bold in person – and the imagery is crisper than my photos might imply. Adding to the “neat” factor of the thing are a handful of light pencil marks that have survived the ensuing fifty years, denoting what the theater manager must have deemed important points from the press release. Cool stuff.
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.
The above publicity still was shamelessly swiped from Greg Shoemaker, who posted it (along with a few other stills) here. While the text may suggest otherwise, the image itself is sourced from Toei’s straight sci-fi effort Invasion of the Neptune Men.
In a perfect world The Final War‘s modest spread in LIFE Magazine (one paragraph of light coverage and two production stills) might have served to elevate the production in international markets, but sadly this was not the case. The page certainly isn’t well-calculated as advertising. The story notes the film only by the incomplete title 41 Hours of Terror, and fails to mention production company Toei at all. While markedly different in both its approach and its tone, the Toei film does have something big common with its lavish Toho successor The Last War beyond the shared focus on nuclear destruction – each received a rather paltry distribution on these shores. The Last War eventually turned up on video at least, both in its domestic dub through Video Gems and in its unaltered Japanese form courtesy of Toho in Japan. The Final War, on the other hand, has never seen an official home media release anywhere.
Still, that The Final War was once in active distribution here is inarguable. While theatrical distribution, if any (I could find no evidence of it in the few archives available to me), was exceedingly limited, the film did manage a significant if short-lived run in television syndication.
The above (emphasis mine), sourced from the television listings of the Los Angeles Times circa November of 1965, is the earliest record I was able to locate of The Final War‘s domestic career. A similar listing, culled from an edition of the Chicago Tribune from September of the following year, reveals that syndication of the feature was likely quite widespread, and certainly more so than many a modern tokusatsu fan (including myself) might have suspected. It may not have been so ubiquitous as items like Prince of Space or AIP’s Japanese imports, but it was definitely out there. While the majority of the listings I was able to locate merely outlined the basic plot, the TV editor for the Chicago Tribune circa September 1972 proved significantly snippier, penning the following: “Japanese sci-fi yarn trying to show the war to end all wars. Bombs out.” The late Anna Nangle, working for the same paper, had been far kinder in her appraisal a few years earlier – in May of 1966 she wrote, “This Japanese film is about a war that actually could end all wars,” and awarded the film a rating of 7/10.
The Final War‘s last gasp on American television appears to have arrived with the middle-’70s, coinciding neatly with the cessation of new production by its distributor Sam Lake Enterprises, itself a somewhat closeted entity – the only newspaper evidence I could find of them was a leasing notice for the address listed in the still at the head of this article. Credited as “Sam Lake Associates, Inc” in the still, Sam Lake Enterprises was concerned primarily with the distribution of adults-only films and was active from the late fifties through the early ’70s. The last airing I could dig up for The Final War was a nondescript notice of a 3:00 pm showing in the Los Angeles Times, dated April 27th 1974. No synopsis is offered, and the show was given a minor two-star recommendation.
While it’s relatively easy with a bit of due diligence to roughly determine the beginning and end of The Final War‘s domestic life, finding details of just what its American version was like is another story all together. The film was obviously dubbed, and given the 90 minute slot noted in the television listings the total feature running time should be comparable to that of the Japanese version – a brisk 76 minutes.
The streets of Tokyo explode during a climactic saucer-attack in Invasion of the Neptune Men.
One detail that is known, courtesy of both the accounts of those who saw The Final War during its brief run on television and the publicity still provided above, is that the cut of the film produced by Sam Lake Enterprises looks to have been spruced up a bit with additional effects sequences from Toei’s 1961 sci-fi effort The Space Greyhound (「宇宙快速船」) – more commonly known under its domestic release title Invasion of the Neptune Men. The impressive scenes of city destruction from that film were long (and erroneously) attributed to the more obscure The Final War, which is actually quite light on effects (two Tokyo landmarks and one each from San Francisco and Moscow are destroyed). The truth of the matter is rather stranger, evidencing a bizarre case of two-way cinematic cannibalism.
Invasion of the Neptune Men does cull a few fleeting shots from The Final War‘s excellent but limited effects portfolio (the destruction of Tokyo Tower, for instance), but when The Final War was picked up for American distribution it found an odd way of returning the favor. While how much is uncertain, at least some of Invasion of the Neptune Men‘s saucer-attack finale looks to have been repurposed for The Final War, and its all-too-obvious extraterrestrial trappings accounted for with a clever (or not…) dub cover-up. The saucers were no longer alien in origin, but a new Soviet super-weapon! Astute viewers might easily have outed the conspiracy – Invasion of the Neptune Men, by way of Walter Manley Enterprises, was already making rounds on television by the time the dubbed The Final War appeared on the scene in late 1965.
Just how sourced-from-Invasion of the Neptune Men is the Sam Lake Enterprises publicity still? Judge for yourself.
Effects artisans put the finishing touches on their model of San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Bridge in this behind-the-scenes still for Toei’s The Final War (「第三次世界大戦 四十一時間の恐怖」, World War III: 41 Hours of Terror), published in LIFE Magazine’s issue from November 28th, 1960 (available in full digitized form here). The model was summarily demolished – see below – for the film’s final act, along with comparable representatives from Tokyo and Moscow.
Unfortunately LIFE doesn’t really offer anything else of note beyond its pair of photographs, devoting only a paragraph of text to the production, which would arrive in the US by way of a dubbed television version some years later. It does refer to the film under an abbreviated version of its original title, however – 41 Hours of Terror (both the IMBD and Eirin film database insist upon lending it the English title World War III Breaks Out).
I’ve no idea why The Final War‘s producers settled on San Francisco and its iconic landmark as the only representative of the US to be destroyed on-screen – most others of its kind spend their ordinance budget leveling models of New York. The Golden Gate Bridge had been demolished by a ‘space torpedo’ in Toho’s big-budget Battle in Outer Space nary a year prior, and one wonders if that sequence might have provided some inspiration. Whatever the case, the behind-the-scenes still shows the model to be a gigantic affair, far larger than the in-film footage would ever indicate. The Final War was obviously no small affair for Toei, whose stature in the industry would only increase through the remainder of the ’60s.
Above: Production still of the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Below: The same moment, as near as can be found, seen from a slightly different angle in the film itself.
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.