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Japan Destroys the World

When the only country in the world that has had atomic bombs dropped on it puts a mushroom cloud in one of its movies, it tends to have more resonance than when, say, the Italians do it. When the Italians set off an atomic bomb, it almost always heralds the arrival of post-apocalyptic, dune buggy-driving leather-and-shoulderpad aficionados. When Japan does it, however, it is something altogether heavier. It can also usher in not the solemn thoughtfulness one might expect, but at least in the movies I watch, instead signifies something supremely weird is about to happen, as if the sheer destructive capability is so difficult to wrap one’s head around — even when it’s been used on you — that there is no way to deal with it other than through the application of sheer strangeness.

That isn’t to say Japanese cinema is without its serious meditations of the atomic bomb. Black Rain is as harrowing a look at the atomic bomb as you will ever find, and Barefoot Gen has an unparalleled ability to emotionally gut the viewer. I’m sure there are many others, but I tend not to see as many serious dramas as I should, and it’s still damnably hard to see the bulk of Japanese cinema outside of that country without forking over a fortune. So for me and my exposure to Japanese cinema, dealing with the atomic bomb and, more generally, the end of the world, looks like Gojira as the stand-in for the bomb, or Battles Without Honor and Humanity, where the rubble, desolation, and despair of post-war Japan gives rise to ruthless, anarchic criminals. Or sometimes it gets really freaky, like insects launching an all-out attack on humanity or feral mutants wrestling with each other in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Whatever the case may be, and regardless of whether it is a serious medication, exploitive trash, or sometimes both (the 1970s were wonderful for that heady mix of earnest message and crass sleaze), Japanese glimpses at the destruction of humanity and the planet on which we live remain imminently fascinating.

For the sake of this poorly researched foray into the shallow end of a topic that goes very deep indeed, I’m going to eschew the more serious and thoughtful looks at the end of the world, and I’m going to skip Gojira, since I think its role has been pretty well established. What we will be tackling are a few films that I think stick to the slightly weirder end of the spectrum when it comes to exterminating mankind: Genocide and Goke: Body Snatcher from Hell, both produced by Shochiku Studios, and Toho’s The Last War and Prophecies of Nostradamus.

On the Beach, But a Different Beach

“We of the Toho Company are employing every vestige of our technical skill to present as realistically and appealingly as possible exactly what will happen if this colossal horror befalls us. It is our sincere hope that by producing and exhibiting this film we can serve the cause of peace.” — Trailer for The Last War

Of the films we’re going to discuss, The Last War is the biggest budget and most serious. It’s partially a loose remake of 1959′s On the Beach (itself an adaptation of a novel by Nevil Shute), a serious end-of-the-world film starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner that didn’t have nearly the number of cool Eiji Tsuburaya special effects as would highlight Toho’s own effort in 1961. The primary difference between the two films is that On the Beach concentrates on the survivors of a nuclear war where The Last War — fittingly for Japan — choses instead to concentrate on the victims. Both of them have a plot that revolves around brave sailors on a submarine, and it is in that portion of the film that Toho cribs the most from Stanley Kramer’s film, right down to more or less recreating the finale, with Akira Takarada as a suitable replacement for Gregory Peck. The Last War was also Toho’s hurried response to the success of another Japanese end-of-all-things movie, 1960′s The Final War from rival studio Toei. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to see that one as of the writing of this article.

Most of The Last War is taken up with slice-of-life scenes involving a variety of characters played by a virtual who’s-who of Toho marquee players, including Akira Takarada (Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla, Monster Zero and so on), Frankie Sakai (Mothra), Yuriko Hoshi (Godzilla vs. MothraGhidorah the Three-Headed Monster), Nobuko Otowa (Onibaba, Kuroneko), Yumi Shirakawa (Rodan, The Mysterians), and the venerable Ken Uehara (Mothra, Gorath, Atragon). Since the bulk of this film is concerned with convincing you to invest emotion in these characters so you will be sad when they get blown up, there is a lot of pressure on each of the actors to deliver. And deliver they do, though the show is, perhaps not surprisingly, stolen by the always energetic and charismatic Frankie Sakai. I think movies like this benefit from concentrating on the “everyday Joe” sort of characters like Sakai’s chauffeur. You can spend time with soldiers and generals and politicians, but for me the effect war has on those whose job it is to wage it or have it waged against them pales in comparison to the story of some guy who runs a convenience store or drives a taxi and gets caught in the crossfire of events over which he has no control.

In modern war, and especially nuclear war (and more appropriate for modern times, both drone strikes and terrorism), it’s not the politicians and generals and masterminds who led us to conflict that suffer. More times than not, they emerge unscathed and ready for more battle. It’s regular people — those of us who don’t get to call the shots and those of us who don’t have high-tech safety bunkers primed and waiting — who bear the brunt of the suffering and do most of the dying.  It is the role of “caught in the crossfire” that Japan plays in The Last War. Interspersed with these slices of life are portents of escalating doom and fracturing relations between two clumsy stand-ins for The United States and the Soviet Union.

You might notice there are a lot of kaiju and sci-fi film players involved in this production. Most of them were accomplished actors in their own right, but it’s true that for all its aspirations to greatness, The Last War is perfectly comfortable among the more fantastic elements of Japanese cinema, definitely more so than it would be rubbing elbows with Black Rain or an Ozu film. Screenwriter Takeshi Kimura worked primarily in the kaiju genre, penning scripts for everything from Rodan to Godzilla vs. Gigan. That isn’t to imply that fantastic film isn’t every bit as worthy as more somber cinema (y’all know us better than that); merely to point out that you are going to get a very different sort of film in The Last War than your usual prestige picture.

This could almost be a kaiju film with the kaiju removed but all destruction and miniature tanks and rockets left in place. In fact, the film’s final orgy of destruction (apparently the global superpowers targeted every single recognizable monument or building in the world) is meant to be horrifying, but Eiji Tsuburaya’s miniature effects work is so wonderful that it comes across more as exciting than cautionary. That isn’t to say it is without merit thematically. Unlike many films featuring mass destruction, the carnage on-screen is made substantially more melancholy by the fact the movie is killing a lot of people you like. There is an emotional weight present even as we are marveling at the wizardry of Tsuburaya. Still, the trailer’s Barnum-esque ballyhoo celebrating the spectacle of the world’s most famous landmarks being blown to hell does tend to undercut things.

Lacking totally even the faintest bit of subtlety, The Last War has all of the pompous self-importance of a prestige picture, with a dash of shamelessly cash-in. But the charming performance by Frankie Sakai and the great special effects disarm the clumsiness. The Last War ultimately comes across as an earnest — if somewhat unoriginal — anti-war film that also happens to have some of Eiji Tsuburaya’s best effects work (so effective that it was recycled time and again in cheaper Toho films, as we will soon see). It’s good, not great, and fairly conventional. Other than some terrible acting on the part of its English language performers and the fondness for miniatures, The Last War is moderately respectable and serious. It would take a studio with no experience with special effects or science fiction to really make the end of the world weird.

Insects Against Us

In the late 1960s, Japanese cinema started to give itself almost entirely over to pulpy entertainment. Godzilla had gone from disturbing symbol of atomic devastation to river-dancing superhero. Samurai films were trading in their ponderous pacing and thoughtful nature in favor of blood geysers and topless female ninjas. Over at Nikkatsu, jazz music and finger-snapping gangsters straight out of the French New Wave were winning the day. For the most part, Shochiku Studio chose to place itself somewhat above the fray. Founded in 1895 by Takejiro Otani and Matsujiro Shirai, Shochiku began life as a kabuki theater production company. They began producing motion pictures in 1920 and were famous for being the first Japanese production house to model itself after American studios, pioneering in Japan things like creating marquee stars, hiring women to play female roles instead of relying on the more traditional female impersonators (something that had been inherited from the stage), and building the country’s first sound studio.

Shochiku was most closely identified with shomin-geki, gentle dramas about the lives of everyday people, and the undisputed master of such filmswas Shochiku director Yasujiro Ozu. But a studio can only exist for so long on movies in which a middle-aged factory worker stares at a plum blossom for two hours and then, upon a single petal falling off, quietly says to himself, “This is a good way to be.” I think that’s the plot of an Ozu film, anyway. By the 1960s, things were changing. The youth were restless. Movies that embraced embracing the status quo and going with the flow weren’t appealing to a generation of Japanese youth who were throwing away their books and rallying in the streets. Ozu’s own apprentice, Shohei Imamura, rebelled against his master and what he saw as an old-fashioned attitude, both philosophically and stylistically. Shochiku, struggling to stay relevant amid changing times, eventually threw up its arms and said, “Fine. Whatever!” and rapidly produced four profoundly weird science fiction and horror films: The Living Skeleton, Genocide (aka War of the Insects), The X from Outer Space, and the oddest of all, Goke: Bodysnatcher from Hell. Whether because the filmmakers all dropped acid, or whether it was due to Shochiku’s inexperience with such genres, these four films remain to this day four of the strangest genre films mainstream Japanese cinema ever produced.

Both Goke and Genocide occur within a very familiar horror film narrative: in the case of Genocide, it’s the “when animals attack” film, albeit a few years before such films became a huge trend. The movie is hardly satisfied with a single genre though. Whether it was intentional or simply because Shochiku didn’t really have any experience with films of this nature, Genocide quickly becomes an acid trip of genres and subplots. Layered on top of an already loopy “insects are sick of humans destroying the world, so they decide to declare war on us” plot are Communist agents, psycho-sexual tension, missing hydrogen bombs, the Bikini Atoll atomic tests, drug-induced freak-outs, the Vietnam war, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even the lingering anger of Holocaust survivors.

Shot on a combination of lush island locations and claustrophobic studio sets, Genocide is an arms-race-esque escalation of insanity and paranoia that never goes where you think it’s going. Everything is saturated, sweaty, and delirious. With the exception of Emi Shindo’s put-upon housekeeper and Reiko Hitomi’s entomologist, almost everyone is a scumbag or is batshit insane. Chico Roland (who has a great supporting role in Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Black Sun) goes completely nuts as an American GI who lives through a mysterious insect attack on a US bomber, and Kathy Horan is hilariously over-the-top but effective as a seductress with a mind-blowingly insane back story. Of Shochiku’s four forays into genre cinema, three feature foreign actors in major roles. Horan appears in two of them, specializing in utter hysterics, eye bulging, evil laughter, and general awesomeness. Outside of those roles, she was mostly a bit player. Black actor Chico Roland had what could actually pass for a pretty good career, at least relative to a foreigner in Japan. Black Sun is a fantastic, subversive take on the “sun tribe” genre that was briefly popular in the 1950s, and he gets an actual role in that one. He also appeared in Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Warped Ones, as well as Seijun Suzuki’s Gate of Flesh and Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards.

It’s hard to get noticed when you are paired up with Roland’s freak-outs and Horan’s mad hissing, but the Japanese cast is pretty good as well, inhabiting characters that are more complex than one might expect from a movie about bugs getting fed up with humans. Yusuke Kawazu (Cruel Story of Youth , The Human Condition II and III) is the theoretical hero of the film, a knockabout beach bum who makes a living collecting insects for the local eggheads. But he’s also cheating on his girlfriend, Yukari (Emi Shindo, Golgo 13), with long-legged beach siren Annabelle (Kathy Horan). Yukari works for a sleazy, lip-licking innkeeper who seems always on the verge of raping her. He and his equally sleazy buddies happen to form the core of a cell of Communist agents. When a US bomber goes down and its nuclear cargo is lost, the Commies try to track it down. They figure a guy like Kawazu’s Jozi can help them (he’s already on the run from the cops for…man, it’s complicated). The sole survivor of the crash (Roland) is insane and screaming about insects and genocide. American Air Force officials chalk it up to drugs and PTSD, but eventually it starts to look like something much weirder and sinister is happening. Before too long, the Communist agents, the American military, scientists, and an army of swarming insects are at war with one another, and the tiny island has become the beach head for an all-out assault on humankind.

Genocide is a remarkable film, a great example of how a lack of experience can result in something glorious and surprising. Director Kazui Nihonmatsu directed all of two movies in his career. The X From Outer Space was the first, followed shortly by this one. Screenwriter Susumu Takaku was similarly inexperienced, though he did have at least a few genre credits to his name, including the amazing Golden Bat and another film we’ll be discussing in this article, Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell. Unfettered by any real knowledge of genre conventions, Nihonmatsu and Takaku deliver a movie that is hilariously outrageous and darkly nihilistic. As in The Last War, a decent person — in this case, Emi Shindo — is caught in the crossfire between scheming fifth columnists, warmongering military officials, and a declaration of total war (although in the case of this film, it’s declared by insects). The film’s final image of a mushroom cloud blossoming above the island while Shindo’s character is tiny and adrift in the ocean off the coast is a stark and depressing finale to a completely bizarre movie.

Destroy All Humans

As weird and bleak as Genocide was, it is really just a warm-up for Shochiku’s Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell. As with Genocide, Goke benefits from being made by people who didn’t really know how to make a science fiction film, resulting in a fantastic science fiction film that is genuinely surprising. Also like Genocide, this one takes a very familiar science fiction trope — people marooned in a remote location and preyed upon by a mysterious something — and sends it rocketing off into unexpected directions along a trail stuffed to the gills with sweating, grimacing, freaking out, hallucinogenic light shows, and a mysterious force that wants to exterminate all humans, starting with this motley band of castaways.

An airplane full of “people with a past” — a slimy politician, a conniving weapons manufacturer, a bereaved widow on her way to claim the remains of her husband killed in Vietnam, a sweet air hostess, a creepy psychiatrist, a mysterious hipster in sunglasses — runs into unusual turbulence and Barbarella-looking weird clouds and lights. As if dealing with that wasn’t enough for the pilot, he also has to contend with the fact that the mysterious hipster (Hideo Ko, giving off a serious Joe Shishido vibe) is also an assassin, on the run after killing a politician and willing to blow up the plane if he doesn’t get his way. His bomb becomes moot, however, when the disturbances outside force the plane into a crash landing in some remote, rocky backcountry.

Everyone of importance to the plot survives, but that’s cold comfort given that they seem stranded in the middle of the world’s largest waterless rock quarry, the hijacker is still running around with a gun, and oh yeah — there is an alien spaceship parked nearby just waiting to insert a gooey silver blob into someone’s forehead and turn them into a puppet that will initiate the extermination of mankind. Thus is the stage set for another delirious Shochiku foray into madness, paranoia, perspiring, and Kathy Horan freaking the hell out. Goke is a perfect companion piece to Genocide, as both of them trade in the exploration of paranoia and the temptation to give in to baser, desperate aspects of human nature. Once again, almost everyone is crazy or a total scumbag (often both), with only the pilot, the psychologist, and the stewardess maintaining anything like a level head.

And speaking of heads, what sets Goke apart from Genocide is the greater reliance on special effects, the main one being the glittering alien goo seeping out of a huge gash down the front of Hideo Ko’s face. It’s simple, and because it’s often done amid a flurry of crazy lights, disturbingly effective even when it’s obvious the head is just a dummy. Also of note is the glowing, pulsating UFO the alien blob calls home. They are all pretty simple effects (of the four Shochiku genre films, only The X From Outer Space would try to punch at the level of an Eiji Tsuburaya/Ishiro Honda kaiju blow-out) but are used wonderfully. None of them look exactly “right,” which just adds to the off-kilter sense of discomfort one experiences with Goke. They augment the warped reality of the film rather than overpowering it.

Special mention also needs to be made of Hideo Ko. As the assassin-turned-vessel for space goo with dreams of world conquest, he gives a totally unhinged performance that manages to go close to over-the-top without ever going over the edge (which is more than can be said for the remarkable number of dummies that are hurtled off of cliffs in this movie). The sickly make-up, the giant oozing gash, and his twitching, unnerving, giggling performance juxtaposed with his incredible white suit and Chelsea boots make for one of the most memorable and oddly menacing monsters in Japanese cinema history. The rest of the cast pales in comparison, but that’s not to say they are bad. We have solid, boring heroes and screeching, evil jerks. And of course we have Kathy Horan losing her shit. Trapped as we are with this increasingly paranoid and backstabbing collection of damned souls trapped in a place that seems like it should be easy to walk out of and yet frustrates them at every step, it would be easy for the film to become repetitive or annoying. But it reels the histrionics in at exactly the right moments and then douses everything with a thick coating of “what the hell???” so that it never grates on the nerves. Just when you think you know what it’s going to do, it veers wildly into another direction. And then there’s the ending. While not technically an atomic bomb movie, Goke‘s final apocalyptic images are surprisingly bleak.

Director Hajime Sato had a short but impressive career that included a couple true classics of weird cinema, including 1966′s Golden Bat (written, remember, by Genocide‘s Susumu Takaku) and, from the same year, the amazing “Sonny Chiba versus cyborg fishmen” movie, Terror Beneath the Sea (which also starred Peggy Neal, who appears in X From Outer Space in a role you’d think would have been given to Kathy Horan, except I guess it didn’t feature nearly enough freaking out). It’s funny that, lurking underneath the much better known surface of Toho monster movies and Ishiro Honda was this little cabal of writers, directors, and stars who were, in various combinations, responsible for a secret second layer of completely off-their-rocker sci-fi films. Perhaps more than any others, Goke is a shining example of what can happen when a writer and a director are given more-or-less total freedom to do whatever the hell they want in a genre the studio making the film does not understand. Unfettered by rules, disinterested in expectations, Goke, like Genocide, takes on the air of outsider art. It is an utter delight to sit through a film this dedicated to making sure you have no idea what the hell it will do next.

The Last Days

The cautionary tales of Japanese science fiction often have an environmental bent to them, usually hammered home with all the grace and gentleness of touch of Australian rules football. The rebelling insects of Genocide would have found allies among the underwater civilization of Seatopia, who in Godzilla vs. Megalon declared war on humanity because they were sick of us setting off nuclear weapons and not wearing shiny mini-togas. Similarly, they would have garnered the sympathy of the “irradiated tribe” that popped up on tropical islands in Mothra. In 1971, Godzilla himself had to put off kicking Ghidorah’s but tin order to combat pollution and the muck monster it birthed in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. In 1973, the death-by-nature blockbuster Submersion of Japan became one of the most popular Japanese films of all time. A year later, Toho sought to outdo their own movie with The Last Days of Planet Earth, also known as The Prophecies of Nostradamus and a perfect bookend with The Last War.

The Prophecies of Nostradamus structures itself similarly to The Last War, focusing on little vignettes of normal life amidst an increasingly tumultuous world. But whereas Toho’s earlier blow-out restricted itself to a more-or-less realistic tale of nuclear brinksmanship, Prophecies of Nostradamus goes totally off the deep end, proffering that environmental catastrophe will lead to pretty much every natural disaster ever happening all at once, along with giant mutant slugs, snow in Egypt, a reflective sky, more irradiated tribal people, superhumanly fast school children, stoners loitering around fountains, and crazy art school hippies getting dressed up in rainbow clown wigs and sailing off to their death (a far cry from the well-groomed sailors of The Last War doing the same). As a tie-in to the Nostradamus fad that flared up in the 70s, a narrator will occasionally come on to say, “Yeah, basically, Nostradamus said this would happen.”

But mostly it’s harried scientist Dr. Nishiyama (the legendary Testuro Tanba) predicting this stuff would happen. He’s your typical movie scientist who seems to be an expert on every scientific discipline and also seems to have access to every government meeting room on the planet, where he will frequently appear to deliver his fiery portents of the doom that awaits us if we don’t stop screwing around. Obviously, no one heeds the crank until it’s too late and the earth is plunged into environmental chaos and political upheaval. The masses starve! Rioters burn down whole cities! The kids go to freaky sex parties and take drugs! And finally, with the nations of the worlds collapsed and each other’s throats, come the nuclear weapons. Like, all of them. Obliterating the entire world and reducing humanity to a couple horrid mutants scuffling in the post-apocalyptic wasteland over who gets to eat an eel.

If The Last War was made somewhat silly by manufactured earnestness juxtaposed with a lust for blowing up miniatures, Prophecies of Nostradamus is augmented by its absolute willingness to cram anything and everything into its runtime. Environmental disasters, kaiju, nukes, hippies — The Prophecies of Nostradamus asks the solemn question, “What will destroy humanity?” then answers with an enthusiastic “Everything, ever, all at once! Especially hippies!” By the 1970s, the Japanese film industry had collapsed, and films were often cheap-looking and shoddy (Prophecies of Nostradamus was actually a big budget affair by the standards of Japanese film in the 1970s, but if I told you it was a made-for-TV movie, there’s little that would cause you to doubt me)). Where The Last War was a stately, polished affair, Prophecies of Nostradamus is threadbare and sloppy, unable to control its own insanity, and collapsing under the weight of its high-falutin’ dire warnings delivered by mutant slugs and death regattas. What’s more, productions were so shoestring by 1973 that almost the entirety of The Last War‘s impressive destruction footage is recycled for the finale of ratty ol’ Nosutoradamusu no daiyogen

Where as The Last War was a veritable who’s who of Toho’s marquee stars, The Prophecies of Nostradamus is a decidedly B-team affair, with the major name being Tetsuro Tanba — who by then was entering into his crazy phase. He hosted UFO documentaries and even started his own religious cult, Dai Reien Kai. The rest of the cast were mostly stars (with a few cameos by Toho old guard who had nothing better to do or needed the cash), but being a Toho star in 1973 was not what it was to be a Toho star in 1963. Even director Toshio Masuda had seen better days. In 1958, he directed Rusty Knife, one of the best and most important films of the Japanese New wave. Nearly a decade later, he directed one of the seminal films of the “borderless action” movement, a remake of Pepe Le Moko called Velvet Hustler (aka Like a Shooting Star). What a difference a few years makes. Prophecies of Nostradamus is obviously the work of a man who just wants to cash his goddamn paycheck.

If anything stands out about this movie besides its commitment to being completely insane, it’s the score by Isao Tomita. While the action on-screen may be more absurd than horrifying, his synth-driven score is truly ominous and haunting. Even the movie’s most ridiculous scenes — like the robed youths standing in formation and floating out to sea to die (do they know how long that will take? Are they staying in formation the entire time?) — is lent an eerie effectiveness when it is paired with Tomita’s ghostly theme. It is classic “mysteries of the unknown” stuff, and were as I love Prophecies of Nostradamus because it is so lunatic and poorly made, my love for the soundtrack is born of genuine respect. Tomita was a pioneer in the world of Moog and synthesized music, so much so that he was nominated four four Grammies. His soundtrack for this movie is fantastic.

The Prophecies of Nostradamus, despite being a supremely silly movie, also became hugely controversial and was even banned in Japan. Less than three decades removed from the bombing ofHiroshima and Nagasaki, survivors and stewards of good taste felt that the depiction of mad, radiation-scarred natives and grotesque monkey-mutants was, you know, a tad on the insensitive side. The movie was pulled from circulation, recut and rereleased, but by then its reputation and seedy and distasteful had been cemented. The original version of the movie also made its way onto laser disc and television, but once again flurries of protest caused Toho to yank the thing and apologize. It was eventually further recut and dubbed for a release to (very shoddy, EP-speed) home video in the United States under the title Prophecies of Nostradamus. Only recently have better, uncut versions of the film been compiled (not entirely legally), allowing modern viewers to see additional scenes of questionable taste as well as an expansion of the tie-in to Nostradamus.

Other apocalyptic visions would grace Japanese screens, but none seem to be as much the very final word on the genre as The Prophecies of Nostradamus. It is The Last War inflicted with madness, a demented blend of old-fashioned fear-mongering and somewhat earnest pleading delivered via a package so totally daft that it is impossible to take seriously no matter how seriously Tetsuro Tanba furrows his brow. As cautionary cinema, it is ludicrous. As science fiction, it is laughable. As a film in general, it’s a pretty big failure in most ways people consider important. But for me, there is a certain charm, a lovable mutt appeal in the willingness to throw anything and everything it can think of onto the screen, without the talent, money, or interest to do it well.

This is The End

As we move further from the dates on which atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we see a clear…eh, I wouldn’t call it progression, exactly…toward increasingly weird ways of dealing with the apocalypse. By the 1970s, climate change was more of a specter than nuclear war, and Japan’s cautionary tales were more of a spectacle, having shed the pretense of respectability that grounded The Last War. Like I said, things like nuclear war, things like natural disasters — sometimes they are so huge that the only way to deal with them and maintain one’s sanity is with a dose of absurdism. From The Last War‘s solemnity mixed with a fondness for miniature special effects, to the mind-bending nihilism of Genocide, the profound paranoia of Goke, and finally the don’t-give-a-shit ridiculousness of The Prophecies of Nostradamus, the atomic bomb goes from primary threat to symptom of some still larger horror: the notion that the very planet itself would rebel against the transgressions of man.

What’s also unique about all four films is the “no one gets out of here alive” fatalism. These are no tales of punked-out warriors of the wasteland running wild in a post-nuclear wasteland; from the point of view of Japanese apocalypse films, there will be no survivors. The stakes have gotten too big. It’s a stark message to be embedded in so much psychedelic freakiness and cheap grotesque exploitation, but then, exploitation films have always had a knack for that. Suffice it to say that, when it comes to a tour of the end of the world, Japanese cinema has some grim things to say and some very weird ways to say them.