The Last War (1961, Toho Studios). Staring Akira Takarada and Yuriko Hoshi. (Available for wi-fi TV viewing on YouTube.)
This is a terrific movie with a heart and a powerful message. The main thread is the story of a very nice family in Tokyo. There’s a slightly goofy father and a sweet mom, with three children. Two of the kids are young, and the big sister is Seiko, played by Yuriko Hoshi, looking radiant as usual. Yuriko’s boyfriend is the ubiquitous Akira Takarada, a lavishly handsome and very talented actor. Mixed in with the family’s story are many scenes of war-games and minor conflicts between the major powers around the world.
There are excellent miniatures of the war sequences and many views of old Tokyo, only fifteen years after World War II. The full-daylight miniature scenes of missiles and planes are beautifully done and naturalistic. There are great vehicles in general, planes, tanks and ships in the battle scenes and real cars in the Tokyo scenes, including the father’s 1959 Chevy.
The family scenes are touching. Dad tries to be the boss but he’s a soft touch. He’s very easy going with the young children and mom, and his concern for his eldest daughter never runs to scolding or bombast. He’s a guy that likes a drink, and it’s very sweet to watch his wife and daughter work diligently to keep his glass full. In one sequence, he starts out with a small sake cup but the girls switch him to a water glass when they get tired of all of that filling.
There are two major military powers in the world as it is presented, as there were in the real world at the time. They are not named. One side is dressed in very Nazi looking brown uniforms, with riding breeches tucked into tall, black boots and heavy leather belts with a strap over one shoulder. They wear hats with long peaks and the officers bark orders with gusto. The other side seems much more casual. Their uniforms are grey and comfortable looking, and their leadership style is very cooperative. This casual side includes some diversity, with black soldiers in evidence.
I’ll refer to them as the Nazis and the Casuals. I think it’s clear that the Nazis are meant to be the Soviets and the Casuals are the Americans.
The “Casuals” vs. The “Nazis”
These are, I repeat, optical illusion Nazis who are meant to be the Soviets. You can’t tell the authoritarians apart without a scorecard! Neither side is identified.
There’s a close call malfunction on the Casual side. It’s a two-second “oooops!” moment where an accidental launch on an ICBM farm is barely avoided. The world, we are shown, is dangerously close to a military catastrophe.
Asians are involved with the problematic military displays. South East Asia is a hot-zone. There’s a proxy conflict in progress. There’s a miscalculation, and nuclear weapons are detonated half by accident. This is allowed to pass.
Danger! The film now tours the world showing miniature scenes of world capitals! This is a certain call-back to later destruction in these movies.
Yuriko Hoshi (“Seiko”) is a kindergarten teacher back in Tokyo. There’s a big set up, and then the kids all get together and sing, “It’s a Small World After All.” It’s meant to tug at our heartstrings and it kind of does.
Oh! Another big “oooops!” moment! The Nazi team is up at some Artic base and soldiers are trying to remove ice so that a helicopter can take off. They’re using light explosive charges. The boss is running early, or late, and he wants to leave, so stern orders are given to “double the explosives!” The boss cannot be held up! This is a terrible mistake, because the base is a kind of doomsday device. The stronger explosions set off the device, but again the process is halted with moments to spare. The boss is a fat Herman Goering type. His relief is almost comical, almost.
We don’t have to wait long for the actual triggering of the catastrophe. It takes place in that Arctic setting. There’s some kind of mutual war games and an encounter between fighter planes and drones from both sides goes hot and becomes a furious air battle. Nuclear weapons are deployed first by the Nazi side, and the Casuals respond in kind. It all escalates from there.
There’s great panic in Tokyo, and the city is ordered evacuated. Dad feels like it’s pointless to run, though. The family gathers for a very sad last dinner in their Tokyo home. They prepare all of the food in the house and have it all on the table. The younger children are delighted to see all of their favorite foods present at the same time. “That’s it, children,” says dad. “Eat all you want.” Mom, dad and Seiko are somber. All of the ICBMs are soon in the air, and there it goes, air-burst, sayonara! Sure enough, the miniature capitals are all destroyed.
Akira Takarida is in the merchant marine, and he’s out at sea when all of this happens. His ship is a dramatic device to allow the unspoken hope that someone will be left to rebuild the world.
The voice over at the end is an excerpt from John Kennedy’s speech about the “nuclear sword of Damocles.”
In our world today we live with more abstract threats that are just as terrible but somehow more mundane. There’s global climate change, overpopulation, and the menace of the soft-fascism of unregulated capitalism, with the possibility of a nuclear side-show to add color to the doom. By now it appears that the world will end with a whimper, not with a bang. You can decide for yourself which one you would prefer. I preferred the bang, myself.