The Last War (1961)
Alexander Smith
September 24, 2011
Note: review may contain spoilers

As a staunch anti-nuclear activist, I think that The Last War has a very powerful message and really sways the audience. The script appears to have been somewhat reworked into 1974's Prophecies of Nostradamus (1974), another highly enjoyable film. Shuei Matsubayashi's direction, the drama, and the main characters with whom the audience easily becomes attached all combine to make the ending of this film all the more upsetting to watch.

It is 1961, some 16 years after the atomic bombs ended the Pacific Front and World War II. Japan has rebuilt itself and become a stronger nation. However, war is brewing between the Federation and Alliance world powers.

In Japan, a charming family is living their life amidst all the turmoil that is about to erupt. Mokichi Tamura, the hard-working father who has big dreams for his son and daughter; his wife, a concerned mother always wary about her children's future; and his younger sister comprise the older generation. Saeko, his first daughter, wishes to get married to a young sailor named Takano. Her father has no idea about this, as he has already made his own plans in regard to her future. Saeko informs her mother of her intentions, and her mother informs Mokichi without her permission or knowledge. So, when he eavesdrops on the two lovers planning to break the news to Saeko's father, he is already cognizant of the situation and welcomes them with open arms.

On a global scale, conflict is intensifying. At the 38th parallel, a firefight breaks out between Federation and Alliance forces due to an airspace violation by the latter. The Alliance jets wipe out the Federation tanks and chaos ensues worldwide, with Japan's Prime Minister issuing a statement begging the two forces to ceasefire. The actions the two forces have taken make Japan fearful, with most people worrying that the island nation will be a prime target for nuclear attack.

Meanwhile, Takano wishes to return to sea, as he feels his sea legs are getting rusty. Takano puts a radio in the room upstairs so Saeko can contact him anytime she wishes.

Back in the realm of international affairs, a close call occurs as Allied generals barely manage to disarm a nuclear warhead that is about to detonate at the Allied South Pole base. The Allies and Federation declare a ceasefire shortly thereafter, much to the relief of Japan's Prime Minister. However, the Allies are spotted spying on a Federation missile base, which puts the two factions so close to war that everyone is affected. Children are sent home from school and global warfare appears imminent. Japan and the rest of the world are frightened about the unfolding events. The entire family gathers for one last meal together, and Saeko sends a final message to her sweetheart at sea. The world is now at stake.

The characters all develop throughout the film, especially Frankie Sakai as Mokichi. At first he is not that worried about the nuclear arms race and seems rather ho-hum about the whole ordeal, but by the end of the film he is accepting that the world as they know it is about to end. Akira Takarada does a spirited job as the youthful and proud sailor Takano. At the close, when he is out at sea after the world around him has been essentially annihilated, he finally breaks down and weeps in a histrionically charged performance. There is only one real problem. With the exceptions of Robert Dunham as an Allied Forces trooper and Hank Brown as the Federation lieutenant, none of the non-native actors seem to put their all into their roles. Most of them seem to appear either blank or otherwise bored. Nevertheless, the acting as a whole is very solid.

For this film, special effects guru Eiji Tsuburaya was given an extra high budget to portray the horrors of nuclear war. It doesn't get graphic like similar films, except for one slightly unsettling scene with the wind blowing the ashen remains of Federation troopers. The 10 minute sequence of the destruction of the world's largest cities was so well accomplished, it was used for some 15 years afterwards as stock footage in such films as Jun Fukuda's Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972), and Toshio Masuda's Prophecies of Nostradamus (1974). Most of the effects are very realistic and can compete with other films of this sort, especially the horrific molten remains of Tokyo seen at the very end. Monuments blow up with a technique still used today, a caked-on plasterish material that is blown up using explosives. However, for all the things done right, there are a couple things done wrong. For one, many of the military miniatures of the 12 Multi Missile Tanks, jets and missiles are just that... miniatures. Tsuburaya did not use his trademark high-speed camera this time, and it's kind of obvious, since things wobble around occasionally. However, most of the stuff that isn't military is excellent.

What's a movie without a score? Ikuma Dan brings his talents for military-style fare to life; however, it is very somber and subdued this time around due to the nature of the film. The “Overture”, heard at the very beginning for over a minute just before the world famous TOHOSCOPE logo pops up, is a nice number that provides a great listening experience. One wonderfully unique aspect about the score is the effective use of silence. At the very end of the film, only select moments are scored, including the children's song followed by the solemn organ piece. Nevertheless, there are quite a few upbeat themes, including the Tamura Family's leitmotif.

A final subject worthy of discussion is the plotting, pacing and general atmosphere of the film. I will say it right now, this movie is a downer, and not for people who prefer happy endings. The two forces clashing, the Federation and Alliance, can be said to be representative of the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively. The film takes no side on who is “right”, although it is the Alliance who launches the strike at Tokyo at the very end. The film switches back and forth effectively between the Tamura family and the Federation/Alliance conflict. There are not many moments where you feel as though nothing is happening.

Overall this is a very epic piece of cinema in the traditional sense, not in the overused modern way. I'd highly recommend it to anyone who's on the fence about war in general.