Prophecies of Nostradamus (1974)

Class: Staff
Author: Miles Imhoff
Score: (3.5/5)
July 12th, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Century 10, Prophecy 98: The splendor of many beautiful maidens.... never again will they be so bright. The flesh will be peeled back from the bone.... and strange creatures will walk the earth...

One gruesome and terrifying prophecy after another is fulfilled in Toshio Masuda, Yoshimitsu Banno, and Tsutomu Goto's powerful disaster epic: Prophecies of Nostradamus. This disaster film is unique in its approach, as it chronicles great devastation in the world that commences from rather inconspicious anomalies that cumulate first in Papua, New Guinea, and then intensify as they begin to occur more on the Japanese mainland... starting with pollution-driven deformities and mutations, leading to technological disasters, mass hysteria, and finally, a grim glimpse at a future that could be... all the while, accompanied with the eerie narration that is the recitation of the prophecies of the famed French prophet. It is a film, in its basest purpose, that is a warning and a heavy dose of social commentary, while also adhering to the promise that humans can change our destiny in order to stop greed, pollution, and blind recklessness from gripping our planet's future...

Simmering in the seething underbelly of modern civilization, just barely visible to the casual observer, anomalous phenomena begin to occur across the globe. Illnesses are increasing exponentially in the developed world, famines and droughts are increasing at an astonishing rate in the underdeveloped nations, mutations have appeared in New Guinea, 1 out of every 3 children conceived are reported to have developed life-threatening deformities in Southern Japan, and the fish of the sea are dying at a rate that is crippling local economies and heightening the concern of food shortages. This would all come as a shock to Dr. Ryougen Nishiyama, if it weren't for a book passed down from one generation to the next in the Nishiyama clan. For generations, Nishiyama's have studied the prophecies contained in this work, and have predicted, with amazing accuracy, the unfolding destiny of Japan and the whole world... despite social and political oppression to the contrary. The predictions of the well-known prophet Nostradamus were contained in this book, and it was clear from the contents of its cryptic pages that dark times lie ahead....

Dr. Nishiyama struggled to reveal his findings from a strictly scientific standpoint, but like his ancestors, he was mocked for his belief in the Nostradamus prophecies. He continued to plead with the Japanese government to instate drastic measures, such as shutting down a wide majority of the factories and rationing food for years until environment could be put back into check. Even though members of the Prime Minister's cabinet were prone to agree how much the world was seeming to approach a fever-pitch, it was not enough to persuade drastic policy-changes. Meanwhile, conditions were worsening, and in some areas, the pollution in the atmosphere was absorbing the suns rays before they could reach earth, leading to increasing fluxes in temperature. The food crisis between the developed nations and the third world was also reaching a boiling point, and the Japanese government was becoming increasingly concerned about the fact that it had long implemented a policy of importing sixty percent of its food, the most out of any other nation. The true litmus test of the worsening conditions of planet Earth was not in Japan, however... it was in Papua, New Guinea. And when an expedition to investigate strange phenomena turned up missing, Dr. Nishiyama, photographer Akira Nakagawa, and a slew of UN scientists formed a second expedition to the region, only to uncover gruesome mutations, cannibalism, and the half-dead remnants of the first research party...

Meanwhile, back in Japan, the first link in a nightmarish chain reaction occurred at 12:43 PM. An SST exploded over the mainland, damaging the ozone layer. Ultraviolet rays scorched humans, led to the devastating explosions at the Kawasaki Refinery in Tokyo, melted the polar icecaps, which in turn led to freak thunderstorms and rampant flooding. Food rations were put into effect, but the citizens had already lost confidence in the government. Suicides were at an all time high, riots reached a boiling point, and everyone was left helpless as people from all walks of life attempted to unravel the mind-boggling chain of events which were already pre-determined in the prophecies of Nostradamus...

The visual effects are a big step up for this time period. In an era where the run-of-the-mill Godzilla series sfx dominate the Toho scene, Prophecies of Nostradamus seems to go that extra step. The model work is brilliant; the homes and buildings swept away in the raging torrents of water. The water effects themselves are superb, with a proper slowdown that gives the illusion of heft in the crashing waves. The mutated animals look realistic, for the most part. The unctuous slugs, the disgusting carnivorous plant, the nightmarish leeches, and the remnants of civilization: the mutants of the future; are all accomplished with great success... with one very visible exception. The bats. The bats are just plain awful, the undisputed low point of the film is when these plush toys with painted, unblinking eyes, and foil wings swing down on tethers and attack the New Guinea expedition. The only redeeming aspect of this scene is the fact that it ends so quickly. Getting off that subject, the other, more sci-fi elements of the film are often accomplished with simple techniques such as filters and/or simple superimposing: the nuclear explosions, the reflection of the city in the sky, and other aerial phenomena. While they're obviously not as realistic as modern digital effects, the visual tone they produce is a clear signal of message portrayed.

On visuals alone, a plot cannot rely. The acting in this film is excellent, with some exceptions (although often the weird parts are more or less oddities, required by the script, as compared to the actual acting). Tetsuro Tamba, who plays Dr. Niyashima, is the breakaway performance. He really puts a passion into his dialogue that gives the firm notion that this character actually cares about what he's saying. Tetsuro was also capable of some tear-jerking scenes, such as having to put a member of the first New Guinea expedition out of his misery. His reactions are heartbreaking. Tetsuro's character's reaction to his wife's death and her final dialogue, is also a scene that is sure to produce some tears. Yoko Tsukasa, the actress who plays his wife, does very well with her character, who has gained acceptance of her passing. These two members of the cast have the most tragic roles of the main characters, and each pull off their respective performance brilliantly. Toshio Kurosawa, who plays the role of the inquisitive photographer and boyfriend to Kaoru Yumi's character, is a little more deadpan. He conveys emotion, but not really to the same degree as Tetsuro. Although, besides this fact, there really aren't any complaints about his performance. The final main actress, Kaoru Yumi's character, gives her role a nice eclectic blend of emotions, from the heartbroken to the sublime, even to the degree of playfulness (although the sand dune performance was over the top, it is clearly direction as opposed to acting, and she does very well with which she's given to work). Jun Hammura, who plays Kida, gives a terribly heartbreaking performance. His reaction to the doomed, deformed baby to which his character's daughter gives birth is frightening in its realism. While Takashi Shimura isn't given an extremely involved role, as always, it's excellent just to have his unique presense and superb acting experience on board. Finally, there's the narration, which is absolutely stunning in its chilling nature. When Kyouku Kishida speaks the prophecies in such an eerie manner, it is very difficult to keep the goose pimples down.

Social commentary is the real key of this film. It's a disaster flick, true, but it's far more than that. First, and though this is probably not a very clear message conveyed to Western viewers, there is the secretive nature of the higher echelons of the Japanese government, which was in the past a far more prevalent issue than nowadays (Prime Minister Koizumi's administration appears to be breaking the boundaries). Another strong message is the oppression of ideas, which is revealed before the opening montage as the opposition to the Nishiyamas' predictions are documented for over a century. The government's non-chalant attitude to increasing ecological concerns, and their inability to change course in the pursuit of "progress" is yet another message conveyed by the film. In even a darker realm, there is the suicidal nature of man. In recent years especially, this has become a rising problem in Japan, and hints of this crisis have seeped into popular media (i.e. Godzilla, Mothra & King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack [2001] ). In a more bizarre form of commentary, the opening montage is frequently peppered with prophecies that have come to fruition, which shows that the film makers had more than just a mild fancy towards the purported prophetic nature of Nostradamus' texts. Most importantly, above all in the plot, the film expresses the need for accountability for the pollution problem and the dedication to see to it that its resolution is swift.

Despite what the film does have going for it, there are some structural flaws. The plot is a little jittery at times, as it takes a flying leap from one subject to the next (although most things are pieced together nicely as the plot progresses). However, the first-time viewers will undoubtedly find themselves taken off guard by the sudden scene shift from New Guinea to the explosion of the SST over Japan. The sudden global annihilation sequence, although simply a visual narrative of Nishiyama's soliloquy, is a little too confusing at times, as it makes it look as though what's happening is actually going on (i.e. the scene with dead inside the missile silos) and it can get a little confusing and distracting trying to decipher what's real and what isn't. Other such scenes of confusion include Machiko's dance on the beach, the nightclub hallucination (a la Godzilla vs. Hedorah [1971] ), and the question as to the specifics of the physical state of the first New Guinea exploration team (the immobile undead, perhaps?). Sudden revelations, like the discovery of children with almost superhero mutations or the suicide missions of the teenagers also take the audience by surprise. Most of the concerns with flow aren't of concern in subsequent viewings of the film however, as much is explained as time progresses, but some of these events can be quite jarring, especially during the first go-around.

The music is just, wow... it's something else in this one. Took a while on the guitar to track down just exactly what scale Isao Tomita was using, because it sounds so exotic and intense. The main riff runs smoothly along the E Harmonic Minor. It really captures the oddity and unorthodox nature of this very unique disaster film. The "Prayer to the Future" theme, however, couldn't sound more different, and for a solid reason. It's a softer tune that appears to adhere to the B Major scale, giving it almost a lullaby effect. But the fact that this is does run along the Locrian mode, which has a diminished bass and is rarely heard in popular music, does make the theme a bit out of the ordinary, but it is so pleasant that it is definitely a triumph that proves the Locrian can be more than successful in the modern realm. Tomita knew exactly what he was doing, and it looks as though he had some fun with melodic and harmonic experimentation along the way.

In the end, Prophecies of Nostradamus is a fantastic representation of the dark roads that society travels, the consequences of our actions, and the absolute need for accountability and policy-change in regard to the horrors of human "progress". Some of the film's content is a little fantastical, but so much of it strikes home, that when watching it in this decade, it is bone-chilling to see the modern, real-life similarities. Are dangerous, enlarged mutants out of the realm of possibility? Mosquitos have become larger and more resistant to pesticides in Athens, Greece, due to the high pollution. Are melting polar ice caps just conjecture? Recent evidence shows that polar ice is melting at a far higher rate than ever, due to the greenhouse gasses... possibly giving birth to the intense storms of recent times (Century 10, Prophecy 1: Both the earth and the sky will freeze a great sea.... great storms will come to torment the four corners and the skies will never be so fair again...). How about famines in Africa, or earthquakes in Asia, or political upheaval in regards to failing government policies relating to food crises and general failure concerning governing? Or even the possibility of nuclear devastation, which becomes an all-the-more prevalent threat with unchecked nations such as Iran and North Korea? Prophecies of Nostradamus is more than just the Inconvenient Truth of its time... the eerie similarities between the current events of today and the conjecture of yesteryear only become clearer and clearer as one observes the events this movie portrays. Despite its flaws, this film is a timeless testament to the state of planet Earth, and a reflection of the ever-increasing worries of its self-destructive inhabitants.