Prophecies of Nostradamus (1974)

Class: Staff
Author: Anthony Romero
Score: (3/5)
July 15th, 2004 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Toshio Masuda and Yoshimitsu Banno's controversial movie based on the prophecies of the late Michel de Nostradame, or Nostradamus, and how he foretold the end of the world in 1999. Prophecies of Nostradamus is, at heart, a disaster film. One which presents an onslaught of pollution related catastrophes which strike, and devastate, the world and its population. The film is very overzealous in its pollution message, though. So much so, in fact, that it makes Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) look reserved in comparison. Yet somehow the creative staff behind the movie have managed to craft a very memorable, if not haunting at times, flick that stands alongside some of the best disaster films that Toho has been involved with, including Shiro Moritani's Submersion of Japan (1973) and Kinji Fukasaku's Virus (1980). Of course Prophecies of Nostradamus is a far cry from what could be called "great" cinema none the same, with a story that tends to lose itself at times and while the acting is decent the characters just aren't interesting enough to care about them. However, on the flip side, special effect work by Teruyoshi Nakano is exceptional and Isao Tomita's score is one of the most memorable of any Toho film.

In terms of overall plot, the movie starts out in feudal Japan in 1835, with a descendent of Ryougen Nishiyama being persecuted for bringing the word of Nostradamus to Eastern shores. Fast-forward to a more modern Japan as a different descendent of Nishiyama explains the prophecies of Nostradamus during an interrogation. Then comes the year 1999, the year that Nostradamus prophesized the end of the world, as scientist Ryougen Nishiyama is trying, unsuccessfully, to reduce the arms race around the world and the emissions of factories. His daughter, Mariko, is currently dating Akira Nakagawa, a photographer who has returned to Japan after experiencing the horrible starvation sweeping Africa. After a series of meetings to discuss the current global disasters, an expedition is sent by the UN to New Guinea to investigate an "atomic dust cloud" that has appeared there. However, the expedition goes missing, and another is dispatched with Ryougen and Akira as two of the members. Upon arrival, this second expedition is attacked by giant bats, mutant leeches and radiated locals who have resorted to cannibalism, and start to devour one of the UN's members who was bitten by one of the leeches. After fighting off the New Guinea inhabitants with gunfire, the expedition stumbles on a cave where the bones of the previous expedition members litter the floor, along with three, hardly alive, members of the party who are suffering from the effects of radiation. The three surviving members are killed, as to be put out of their misery.

Meanwhile, a SST jet explodes in the sky over Japan, which causes flesh wounds on those exposed to the blinding flash from the overhead explosion and eventually tears a hole in the Ozone layer, causing extreme heat which horribly burns those exposed. Unfortunately, another SST jet explodes in the Artic, and immense heat melts the ice which causes violent storms that start to flood Japan. Back at the Nishiyama household, Nobuo, wife of Ryougen, has contacted a fatal disease in her respiratory organs that is becoming widespread throughout the country. It's also discovered that her daughter, Mariko, is pregnant. In the meantime, food has become scarce throughout Japan, forcing the Japanese government to ration out supplies. The people, untrusting of the government, lash out at the police force intended to keep them inline and break into the ration warehouses, ransacking the food inside. Ryougen returns to his household just in time to see his wife pass on. Ryougen then speaks at a government meeting where he sounds off scenarios of how Japan could meet its doom, either from country wide volcanic eruptions or World War III. The Prime Minister then addresses the crowd, on how humanity must learn to deal with this crisis as only they can save themselves. The movie ends, then, with the three protagonists walking down a deserted street in front of the Diet Building.

A general synopsis of the story, with a lot of missing side plots, like the overgrown vegetation in the subways and the mass teen suicides. The narrative in the film basically dies after the New Guinea expedition anyway, with an overwhelming amount of announcements being relayed from news organizations about one disaster after another, which are then followed up by lengthy segments showing each particular disaster. These segments quickly overshadow the troubles of the Nishiyama family members, and most of them could easily be removed from the film without any lapse of continuity. Reflective clouds in the sky? Well they are gone as soon as the scene changes. Tidal waves sweeping through Japan? Never mentioned, neither is their effect shown after they hit Japan. These disasters are, or should be, literally tearing the world apart; however, none of them have lasting effects in the film. The movie also loses itself in pursuit of an overzealous anti-pollution message, which dilutes the point of the film as the disasters are so over the top they can't be taken seriously. This isn't to say that the film doesn't have its share of eerie moments, though. The foremost being the New Guinea cannibals devouring a member of the expedition, but this shouldn't overshadow other segments like dead birds falling out of the sky in masses, or the transition from the lush New Guinea jungle to the wilting yellow colored vegetation under the "atomic dust cloud". All in all, the film suffers a little from being anti-climatic, as it never quite lives up to the very moody New Guinea trip, nor does it recreate the same feeling of impending doom that is emanated from that surrounding. On a side note, these segments are actually better in the dubbed version when compared to the original Japanese release, as these scenes are spoken entirely in English and the Japanese voice work is largely inferior here to what is present in other versions of the film.

Speaking of the acting, it's really a mixed bag. Tetsuro Tamba, as Ryougen Nishiyama, gives an extraordinary performance as the eccentric scientist who has burdened himself with notifying the rest of the world that doomsday is upon them. The tear filled scene where he confronts his dying wife is particularly powerful as Tamba's performance greatly overshadows all the others in the film. In general, he pulls off the large range of emotions that his character is supposed to be feeling in a very believable fashion, even if the circumstances might not be. Kaoru Yumi, an actress who is almost notorious for exposing her breasts in her film roles, portrays Ryougen's daughter, Mariko Nishiyama. Yumi, unfortunately, isn't given a lot to do in the film, merely acting as a link between Akira and Ryougen and to address what might be the problems surrounding raising a child in this doomsday like scenario. She is given one long dance sequence, in the sand amongst a sun background, but this scene is cheapened as the actress is obviously jumping on a trampoline during most of this segment. Rounding out the three protagonists is Toshio Kurosawa, playing photographer Akira Nakagawa. Kurosawa gives a pretty straight faced performance here. He looks the part, but doesn't really appear to be putting effort into his role. Judging from Kurosawa's other work, most notably Lady Snowblood (1973), the actor definitely has the talent, which either means poor direction or his heart just wasn't into Prophecies of Nostradamus.

The characters found in the film are generally pretty underdeveloped too, with the exception of Ryougen. Nobuo Nashiyama, on the other hand, is an interesting character at least, as she meets death head on. Played by Yoko Tsukasa, Nobuo has a minor role in the film, but works well to slowly build the pace of the impending hell which is about to be released on film, early in the movie. Unfortunately, these early segments were removed from edits of the film, as other versions cut right into the start of the global disasters instead of building up to it. The prime minister, played by So Yamamura, has another nice role as his is willing to listen to Ryougen, despite the fact that he makes no changes to his policy until things are too far-gone. His heart filled speech about humanity banning together to overcome this challenge is particularly well done and presents a nice way to end the film.

The special effects work, done by mastermind Nakano, is outstanding in this film, though. Everything from credible giant slugs to a seemingly never ending amount of explosions, Nakano really outdoes himself. He did so well, in fact, that he later used the scene involving a highway full of exploding cars in several of his other films, including The War in Space (1977) and The Return of Godzilla (1984). The subway vegetation is presented very well too, but it's a shame the sequence is so short and insignificant. Prophecies of Nostradamus does have its share of special effects related blemishes though, the foremost being the use of stock footage (a Nakano tradition). This film, like The Return of Godzilla (1984), was allocated a generous budget from Tomoyuki Tanaka, hoping to cash in on the success of Submersion of Japan (1973) with another disaster film. So Nakano's use of stock footage is likely done so by choice here, as opposed to limitations created by the film's budget. The massive amount of stock news footage seen in the film, depicting starvation in Africa and floods in the United States among other events, seems like a cop-out in terms of movie production; however, it does give the film a very eerie realism to it, so Nakano can't be blamed for that, although this was likely a conscious choice on the part of other members of the staff anyway.

The film's score, done by Tomita, is arguably one of the best soundtracks to be attached to a Toho film. His main title, accompanied by black and white stills of recent (i.e. 1960's and 1970's) history, is particularly chilling; one of the greatest cues from any Toho film. In fact, it could be argued that Tomita's synthesizer heavy score actually works better as a stand alone experience, instead of as part of the film. His sorrowful cue related to the death of Nobuo is another great piece of work by Tomita, and his very contemporary cues for New Guinea are a refreshing listen as well.

Prophecies of Nostradamus is, without a doubt, most famous for the self imposed ban placed on the film by Toho though. As, only a week after the film's release, controversy regarding Prophecies of Nostradamus began to mount. A member of the "No Nukes" filed a complaint to the Eirin Board, a organization in charge of censoring films in Japan, that the scenes involving the mutants in New Guinea and the mutants after the nuclear war were offensive toward survivors of a nuclear explosion. Toho rushed to address this complaint by requesting projectionists to manually remove almost 2 minutes of "offensive" footage from the film, and supposedly dubbed in the line: "Don't shoot! They are human beings! Don't shoot!" proclaimed by Ryougen, as he is being attacked by the New Guinea mutants, to new prints of the film. To further appease the Eirin Board, who ruled that the scenes were offensive, Toho pulled the film, edited it down to 90 minutes, and re-released this print to finish out the movie's theatrical run. Yet another 90 minute version of the film was created, with the "offensive scenes", when Toho made their International version of the film, which cuts out a lot of the plot before the disasters start to hit in Prophecies of Nostradamus. In the 1980's, UPA made yet another edit of the film as they cut the movie down to a running time of only 72 minutes, while also adding in their own version of the film's opening. It's this 72 minute edit, dubbed The Last Days of Planet Earth, which is unfortunately the only version of the film to make it to a home video release, as Toho has banned the film in Japan. An uncut, 114 minute, presentation of the film was shown on TV in Japan in 1980, though, but this was the last time this version would ever be shown.

Overall, Prophecies of Nostradamus is likely one of the strangest Toho films yet conceived. It's not great cinema, but its peculiarity is enough to make the film worth watching, if not for the excellent special effects work by Nakano and Tomita's soundtrack. The movie does have a strange allure to it that makes the viewer come back for more though, perhaps because of the rather morbid subject matter. In fact, it's not uncommon for one to dislike the movie on their first viewing, yet, somehow, keeping coming back to it as a slow affection for the production builds overtime. So, in a sense, the staff behind the feature definitely did something right, even if it's hard to address the movie's eventual pull on the audience in words.