In 1969, Tsutomy “Ben” Goto was writing for women’s magazines and watching the moon landing. That’s when he remembered reading about man walking on the lunar surface in the quatrains of Nostradamus*.
Michel de Nostredame was a French astrologer and physician, but also a seer who wrote Les Prophéties, a collection of 942 quatrains — a poetic stanza made up of four lines with one having alternate rhymes — that allegedly predicting future events. Worrying about being arrested and tortured in the Inquisition, Nostradamus obscuring the meaning of his prophecies by using word games and a mixture of other languages such as Greek, Italian, Latin and Provençal.
At the time, people thought Nostradamus was either evil, fake or insane. After all, if he was so good at predicting the future, why didn’t he predict that he’d suffer from the gout? He did have one admirer. Queen Catherine believed in him so much that she made him Counselor and Physician-in-Ordinary to her son, King Charles IX.
The Japan of 1974 was gripped in pre-millennial tension that one has to assume was exacerbated that they alone had had two examples of nuclear fire dropped on their country in the past century and here we were, on the precipice of an even more frightening future. Goto’s books were perfect for the country’s insecurity and vulnerability.
This is also when the idea of 1999 started worrying people. After all, a major disaster was coming in the last year of the millennium, even though the millennium didn’t really end until 2000. The book said that Japan would suffer an oil crisis, a trade war with America, a devalued yen, the rise and fall of real estate in Tokyo, volcanos and earthquakes.
By Predictions of Nostradamus: Middle-East Chapter in 1991, Goto had written seven books on the subject (he eventually wrote ten), he had sold 5.4 million books, even if critics said that his work was “Nostre-damasu,” which uses the Japanese word damasu, which means to deceive**.
Meanwhile, Toho was nearing the end of Godzilla’s Heisei era and was looking for something new to get moviegoers into the theater. They’d already followed Hollywood’s disaster movie template to make Japan Sinks, which was the most popular movie in the country in 1973 and 1974, making double what its closest competitor did. It was so successful that Roger Corman and New World Pictures bought the rights, threw in Lorne Greene and released it as Tidal Wave.
For this movie, Toho took a glance at a book written by Shinya Nishimaru, general manager of the Food General Office within the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, and Goto that saw a dismal future, filled with no food and an environment that began to turn against humanity.
Written by Yoshimitsu Banno, who also made the apocalyptic Godzilla vs. Hedorah, and Toshio Masuda, who directed Tora! Tora! Tora! about Japanese and American naval conflict, as well as Be Forever Yamato, which is an anime that has a Japanese battleship rise into space, along with help from Toshio Yasumi (The Last War) in just ten days, this movie points to the dual scope and economy of Toho.
Scope: It’s the end of everything, so it was shot on all of Toho’s visual effects soundstages***.
Economy: It features footage from The Last War and Tokyo Sinks, while its destruction was recycled again as destructive scenes in The Return of Godzilla and Deathquake.
In the Japanese cut — oh man, there are six versions — the movie gets started in 1853, as Genta Nishiyama begins preaching the prophecies of Nostradamus before he begins to preach that Japan will end its isolation. Killed for heresy, his children hide the book and his family continues to tell of the prophecies, like a World War II descendant who is interrogated about the defeat of the Axis.
Let’s smash cut to 1999. Dr. Ryogen Nishiyama has been analyzing all manner of bio-phenomena, like large mutant bugs, kids getting psychic powers from drinking zinc-heavy water and ice showing up in Hawaii. Trust me, this movie is decades ahead of Don’t Look Up and a million trillion times more entertaining, as no one believes that natural disasters are about to be unleashed and things like nuclear clouds in New Guinea will create giant leeches, bats that feel like they came out of A Lizard In a Woman’s Skin and cannibalism.
There’s also an incredibly dark scene where a fisherman, realizing that the oceans will never sustain life again, realizes that his life has no purpose, so he walks into the waves to die as his sons fight to save him.
From catastrophe both large — SST jets exploding over Japan and unleashing the full power of a hole in the ozone layer and snow in the Middle East — to small — dying family members of the central cast making the end of the world personal, this movie takes a downbeat turn quickly, but somehow, this is all set to a score that can only be described as transcendent. Or paradoxical. Or great.
In between all of this death and destruction, we learn that the young people have decided to take their fates into their own hands. As they take tons of drugs, they draw lots and sacrifice themselves by climbing into the sails of boats, dressed in kabuki makeup, crashing into one another. They also line up on motorcycles and one after another jump into oblivion and the dead sea, all set to guitar-driven fuzz rock.
By the end, nuclear war has broken out and our planet is a desert where mutant humans still kill one another, learning nothing.
Then, as if Bobby Ewing had just finished his shower, we learn that this has all been a speech that Dr. Nishiyama was giving to the Japanese Diet. The film ends with this credit:
The story you have just seen was a work of fiction. The events it portrayed, however, may take place in our world. It’s up to you to take action to ensure these events do not come to pass…
A Japanese version of Prophecies of Nostradamus played Japanese-language theaters in the U.S. in 1979 and 1980, while UPA acquired the rights to distribute the film on home video and television. The American version, The Last Days of Planet Earth, was released on VHS and laserdisc in 1995 by Paramount.
There are a ton of differences, with much of the gorier moments taken out like the cannibals eating one of the scientists, the flesh falling off the arm of a zombified man, an American voice-over for the regatta of death, nuclear missiles being launched, the mutants and a human biting into a snake — amongst many other excised scenes and narration changes.
While available for release in the U.S., it’s doubtful that the full movie will ever be seen here outside of bootlegs (shh — I have one with six different cuts of the movie****). The cannibal scenes and the mutant battle were cut everywhere outside of Japan and as of 1980, those scenes don’t appear in Japan outside of a bootleg — released by a Toho employee — of a canceled VHS and laserdisc release in 1988.
The film was cut down from 114 to 90 minutes thanks to all of the edits.
Sadly, the sequel Prophecies of Nostradamus II: The Great King of Terror was never made, a movie in which Goto analog Tsutomu Goto would try to reach out to the spirit of Nostradamus to save the world. Toho did make Nosutoradamusu: Sen ritsu no keiji in 1994.
*Century 9, Quatrain 65: “He will come to go into the corner of Luna, where he will be captured and put in a strange land. The unripe fruits will be the subject of great scandal. Great blame, to one great praise.”
**Thanks to Japan Today for this fact. They also shared an amazing article about Ryo Tatsuki, a manga artist who published The future as I see it, in which she predicted that “around 2020, an unknown virus will appear, reaching its peak in April; it will then vanish but reappear 10 years late,” as well as the deaths of Freddie Mercury and Princess Diana. Obviously, Nostre-damasu will never die.
***During filming, a pyrotechnical accident caused a fire that burned down part of the main visual effects soundstage, an apocalyptic event all its own that destroyed many of the costumes and props from earlier Toho films, including the original Mogera costume from The Mysterians.
****You can also download it from the Internet Archive.