The Last War (1961)

Author: Patrick Galvan
September 18, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

There is a certain tendency amongst cinema-goers to take our feelings for a scene or even numerous scenes in a film and pretend those same feelings apply for the entire movie—as if the whole thing were a consummate work of art utterly devoid of imperfections. This is especially true when the film's last 20-30 minutes are some of the most powerful material ever put on camera; when left with such an impression, it becomes easy to forgive what went wrong before. And that is very much the case for me with Shue Matsubayashi's The Last War. Over the years, I have seen this picture maybe a half-dozen times, and my reaction has always been the same. In each viewing, I see a sizable number of mistakes and even grimace at some of them—I take note of them, along with the otherwise really good material in the first two acts of the film—and then that extraordinary and emotionally overwhelming final thirty minutes arrives and floods me with that remarkable sensation that only great filmmaking can give us…. I admire this picture a great deal, in spite of its faults.

Part of me wants very much to proclaim "The Last War" as one of the greatest films ever made. However, as someone who passionately believes that criticism is just as much about analysis as it is about visceral enthusiasm, I must instead describe Matsubayashi's picture as an imperfect and divided film whose good elements and scenes of tremendous power do, in the end, make up for what doesn't work.

The Last War was released—and occurs—in 1961, sixteen years after the end of World War II, when the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union was mounting, with a neutral Japan sitting quietly and fearfully in the middle. The U.S. and the Soviet Union are represented in the film as a pair of superpowers known as the Federation and the Alliance. As the film opens, there is a stand-still between the two superpowers, until a Federation submarine wanders into Alliance territorial waters and is subsequently captured. Tensions increase as both sides prepare their stock of nuclear warheads. The 38th Parallel is reduced to smithereens after a brief second Korean War. The tension continues to build and build until, inevitably, the eponymous conflict breaks out, and nuclear warheads are fired upon all of the world's major cities. When it is over, the skies are coated with ugly red mushroom clouds.

That is a surface-level plot summary of The Last War. Where the film really gathers its strength—as well as its weaknesses—is in the flesh-and-blood story elements occurring in the middle of it all. Most of the human-level material concerns a small, working class Japanese family, the Tamuras. The family is headed by Mokichi (Frankie Sakai), a limousine driver with interests in the stock market, who comes home to care for his ill wife (Nobuko Otawa) and their three children. Equal to their level of importance in the story is their oldest daughter Saeko (Yuriko Hoshi), who is engaged to a handsome sailor named Takano (Akira Takarada). As presented, it's material which might have interested Yasujiro Ozu. Realizing this comparison makes the film all the more enjoyable when we discover that Takano has an old friend in Tokyo, a ship's cook, played by Ozu regular Chishu Ryu. Now if only Setsuko Hara had shown up somewhere in the story….

Just like an Ozu film, The Last War spends a fair amount of time observing these characters going through regular, everyday life. The international political tensions are not foremost in their minds. Mokichi wants to earn more money for his family (if anything, the fears generated by the war might just help him land a bundle on the stock market); Saeko and Takano want to get married and start a life together; the old cook's daughter (Yumi Shirakawa) is a teacher content with the routines of her profession.

The romantic angle between Takano and Saeko works particularly well, as both Takarada and Hoshi play their roles with such convincing chemistry and charm. One of the movie's most enamoring scenes is early on: Takano has just returned from a trip at sea; he arrives at the Tamura household; Takano and his fiancée then head to an upstairs room, where we see them chatting, hanging up clothes, Takano slipping on a kimono, Saeko showing him an amateur radio license she recently acquired. Remembering this is a Japanese film, we do not see the physically expressed affection expected in a western movie. The chemistry eludes from the performances while Ikuma Dan's touching musical score evokes further emotion. They are not disconnected from the rest of the world, but happily content with what is happening immediately in their lives.

These characters know there is political tension happening outside of Japan, but they do not regard it with too much concern.

This is a marker of one of the film's greatest strengths. It demonstrates a possibility many people tend to ignore: how the status quos of regular civilians could, at any time, become shattered by the rash decisions of a few politically motivated outsiders, whom none of them have ever met.

Unfortunately, it is in the scenes addressing those 'outsiders' that the film struggles. Takashi Kimura and Toshio Yasumi's screenplay makes the unfortunate mistake of frequently cutting back and forth across the world, abandoning the interest-worthy lives of the Japanese characters for the not-so-interesting lives of the Federation and Alliance soldiers operating the nuclear missiles silos. We spend too much time with the superpower personnel—including two not-suspenseful scenes where a nuclear warhead is almost accidentally set off. Admittedly, the movie does attempt, with these English-speaking characters, to win us over, as it does present them as regular people who do not want to see the globe go up in flames. As the film wisely points out, it is never an entire nation, but a few often unseen individuals, who want to send missiles flying out of their silos. But the film's noble and poignant effort is ultimately undone thanks to some incredibly dreadful acting. As is so often the case with Toho productions, the English-speaking actors have been chosen for their appearances—because they 'look' American—and not for any present acting ability. The dialogue ("Egads, man!") doesn't help in the least. Whenever we cut to these impersonal faces, the film momentarily goes limp.

(A side note: isn't it sad that Akira Takarada manges better, more convincing English dialogue in the film than some of the actors who presumably grew up speaking the language?)

There is another disadvantage to showing us the foreign personnel: it breaks from the movie's symbolic core. Even if the English-speaking actors had been up to the task, it still wouldn't have excused the fact that the movie works best when presenting a relevant fear from the perspective of the Japanese people instead of the entire world. I would have been more satisfied had the movie shown the Alliance and Federation no more than necessary (the opening bout involving the submarine, a scene involving the delivery of new missiles, the second Korean war, a dogfight over the Arctic) and focused all of its dramatic energy from the main characters' point of view.

Furthermore, the picture proves this very criticism in its third act, when it devotes itself almost exclusively to Takano, the Tamura family, the cook, and his daughter. Frankly, I wish the whole movie had been that way.

Let's now turn attention to what is powerful—genuinely powerful—about "The Last War:" that final 30 minutes. As I mentioned earlier, we no longer see the Federation and Alliance personnel (thank heaven) and stick solely with the main characters as they wait for the war to come. Each scene in this incredible final chapter (including one really sad moment of a schoolteacher reading to a group of toddlers who will never see their parents again) is perfectly paced and directed for emotional effect. And, like a great piece of music, the impact grows steadily and steadily, each movement (scene, in this case) more devastating than the last.

Then comes the film's most powerful sequence, one that could be considered Shue Matsubayashi's masterwork. The Tamura family is gathered around for one final dinner. Mokichi makes a vain effort to convince everyone (including himself) that they will survive, that some miracle will prevail, that they have many long years of happiness ahead of them. Matsubayashi's camera toggles from one face to the next, watching the sad expressions become more and more unbearable. Finally, Ikuma Dan's score re-emerges with gusto; a distraught Mokichi rushes, alone, upstairs to his balcony. He stares out at the city and cries out in defiance, boasting about all of the things he says he will live to do for his family…before breaking down in tears. The musical score reaches its pinnacle, the camera toggles in upon Mokichi's face as his tries to stifle his sobbing, and the result is (and I say this without hesitation) one of the most emotionally powerful scenes in cinema. And what is truly great about this scene is that we see ourselves in Mokichi. The film asks: How would you react if you knew you and your family were just hours away from death, and there was nothing you could do about it?

And those convinced that Frankie Sakai was strictly a comic actor will do themselves a favor by seeing this film.

The inevitable destruction scene is saved for the very end, and thankfully, Eiji Tsuburaya delivers a virtuoso denouement that does not disappoint. When an Alliance nuclear missile detonates over Tokyo, Tsuburaya's camera cuts at a fast, perfectly timed rhythm, showing in quick intervals as buildings are shattered, water is boiled, fire fans out upon the ground, trees are uprooted, black rain descends over the rubble, and a mushroom cloud rises over the skyline. There is some gut-wrenching irony when we remember the first shot of the movie took place from the elevator of Tokyo Tower (then a recent addition to the city) and now we see the very same monument crumpled over in the flames.

A brilliant touch: in this scene, the nuclear explosion ruptures the earth's strata and causes a volcanic eruption, which looks marvelous, but has prompted to some question why it's even there. I am not aware of any connection between the H-bomb and volcanic activity, so why did the filmmakers include it? Maybe Tsuburaya simply wanted to show off his special effects, but I doubt it. If I were to venture a guess, it was to demonstrate a valid, oftentimes overlooked point: that when nuclear weapons are detonated, everything suffers, including the earth. Historians often talk about nuclear weapons in regards to what they do to human life and civilization. I really do believe The Last War wishes to remind us that every time a mushroom cloud bursts into the atmosphere, the environment suffers as well.

The other special effects in the film are, for the most part, remarkable. Eiji Tsuburaya demonstrates his signature skill with miniatures, best represented by a dogfight between two squadrons of fighter planes over the Arctic. Scenes set underwater are competently lit and filmed at the right camera speed. The Korean War sequence is impressively staged with beautiful cinematography and explosions tinged with streaks of purple and blue. I only wish Tsuburaya had utilized a few high-speed cameras when filming his multi-missile tanks, as they seem to wobble upon miniature landscape. Not to mention they're moving awfully fast for several-ton metal vehicles.

The musical score by Ikuma Dan is absolutely brilliant, beginning with a one-minute overture, which incorporates all of the major motifs that will follow. The piece that plays when the Alliance submarines capture their Federation adversary is also memorably effective. And the four-minute-long segment that plays in the destruction scene instantly ranks as one of my favorite bits of film music. At points, Dan tends to be repetitive, but very much like Akira Ifukube, his music is so magnificent that he can afford to repeat himself.

Before wrapping up, we might as well address the film's Americanized version. Heavily edited and released seven years after its source, the dubbed cut is utterly unwatchable. It repeats the same idiotic mistake of Gigantis the Fire Monster of applying a miserable narration to the entire story. Re-arranging the whole thing into a flashback does not improve the flow in any way, either. Ikuma Dan's destruction theme becomes wrongly inserted into almost every scene involving the foreign superpowers; great as that music is, we don't need to hear it that often, especially when not much is even happening on the screen. A lot of what originally began as great moments of silence are ruined as a result. But worst of all – worst of all – the American re-edit for The Last War contains what could easily be the worst dubbing in cinema history. If you thought Gigantis the Fire Monster was riddled by poor dialogue delivery, wait until you get a load of this! The voice actor dubbing Frankie Sakai is the delivers the most egregious offense, every inflection sound as though the man were speaking with a hand covering his mouth. So you can imagine my frustration when I heard this unintelligible voice inserted for Sakai's final speech…and it certainly didn't help that the American distributors, for some reason, decided to axe off part of this scene as well. Whereas the Japanese version of "The Last War" is flawed but still fascinating, the English version is nearly impossible to endure.

I cannot, in spite of its great moments and my personal admiration of the film, sincerely say The Last War is a masterpiece, but it has so much power that it might as well be. And so, even with the unfocused narrative and those excruciating English-speaking actors, I absolutely do encourage people to track down this motion picture and experience it. As far as postwar dramas are concerned, this one is a buried treasure. Just avoid the Americanized version like the plague!