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Sunday, October 01, 2006

More thoughts on Prophecies of Nostradamus

Since writing my initial review of Prophecies of Nostradamus: Ultimate Edition, I've had some time to watch the rest of the collection and check out the commentary track for the Japanese version. Although I really liked this movie on first pass, I have to say, PON has grown on me with subsequent viewings. I still don't think I can go so far as to say this is a great motion picture but I think this is quickly on it's way to being one of my favorites.

This movie is hypnotic. I never thought someone's horrific vision of the end of the world could be so hauntingly beautiful, but it is here. There's a strange beauty in the images of this film that stay with you after the film is over.

I still think the ending is kind of a flame out ending. Like the filmmakers had painted themselves into a corner and a "things are bad, but let's do something to make them better" ending was about their only option. I also have to admit, the film needed some ray of hope, if not a happy ending proper, to leave the audience feeling something more than total despair.

One of the more interesting things about this film is Toho's self-imposed banned status on it. When I watched this movie the first time, I couldn't understand quite what was so offensive about it. Then, when I was listening to the commentary track, I was reminded of how in Japan radiation survivors are treated with a great deal of reverence. In Prophecies of Nostradamus, survivors of fallout are shown as cannibalistic zombies and later, completely mutated creatures. Given that frame of reference, it's easy to understand what had people so upset.

I find it peculiar that in spite of (or perhaps, because of) all the controversy, this was Japan's top grossing picture for 1974. It's also interesting that unlike many other films where the controversy dissipates over time, this film still seems to be too hot to handle. It was last shown on Japanese TV (and I'm assuming this was a cut down showing) in 1980 and Toho's attempt to release this movie on VHS in the mid 80s was squelched by protest. (I'm guessing the uncut version of this film that has made it into the bootleg market originates from this aborted home video release.)

Because the radiation survivor scenes caused so much uproar in Japan, I assumed those would be excised from the other cuts of the film. Not so. In fact, it's the story elements, especially parts with Dr. Nishiyama's family, that got the worst of the scissors. The prologue, which establishes Nishiyama as a descendent of Nostradamus to explain why the guy knows so much about his prophecies, is also clipped from all other versions as is the Prime Minister's optimistic speech at the end.

There are a few other little cuts here and there. A repeating shot in the slug sequence is wisely axed, but for the most part anything dealing with effects is left alone.

In my initial review, I pegged most of the story elements as existing to pace the action. While I still feel this is a large part of what they do, I realize in seeing the International cut where a lot of them are removed that they also serve to give the film humanity. These sequences basically connect the disasters to Dr. Nishiyama and show why this guy would be so concerned with saving the world when the odds seem so hopeless. These scenes are the pretty much what Nishiyama is fighting for and without them he seems to be an environmental avenger for no particular reason.

I'm not going to go scene by scene into what's different, but I do want to quickly run down a few things that changed from version to version. As I mentioned, all cuts other than the Japanese axe the opening prologue and the prime minister's bit at the end. At 90 minutes, the international cut takes a lot of the story elements out too. There's still enough that you get the drift of what's going on, but there are a lot of things that make more sence in the uncut version as they are explained better.

The French cut is the shortest version of the four in this set. It clocks in at about 74 minutes! (Keep in mind, the original uncut is 114.) This version is based on the international cut, but entirely chops out about three more scenes in the early part of the movie (the scene with Akira's father, Akira and Mariko's love scene and the lecture scene) and oddly enough reinserts one of them (Akira's father) much later in the film (between the smog mirror scene and Mariko telling Akira she's pregnant.) The placement of this scene is absolutely bizarre and I couldn't begin to speculate the reason for the change.

The Last Days of Planet Earth is probably the version most people in the US have seen, if they've seen this at all. It's based on the international version mostly, though it does kind of have a prologue of it's own and there are some little bits here and there that didn't appear in the international cut. Mainly, this version is notorious for an intrusive narrator explaining things that the movie explained in the uncut version and some pretty bad looking insert shots when English text was needed. It's also heavly panned and scanned though it does have the best color of any of the versions on this set. (Curiously, about half of Last Days is optically reversed. What's up with that?)

It's a shame that the commentary track WTF added to the uncut film is so hard on the ears (imagine a transistor radio, in a tin can, streamed over the internet and mixed in with the film's soundtrack.) The guy, whoever he is, knows a ton about this movie. Well worth suffering through the low audio quality for.

I'd also like to mention that there are Easter Eggs on discs three and four of this set. They are more promotional material and a pair of reconstructed trailers. The trailers are curious. I wonder how they knew what the original trailers looked like to remake them?

Well, I think I've written enough about this film for right now. This is a pretty amazing release of a pretty amazing movie. Hopefully, someday Toho will release a real version, but even then, I doubt they will come close to the care and attention to detail this release has.

PROTIP: don't put your Cabbage Patch Kids in the microwave.


Anonymous said...

And here I thought that the only edits to the American version were the removal of a breast shot and a scene of the mutants fighting over a worm (at least that's what a magazine that I read years ago said). Thanks for devoting so much attention to this movie!

By the way, do you know where the commentary from? Is it homemade or from some obscure release?

Random facts:

-According to this thread, there was a time that the Library of Congress was the only place you could see the uncut version of this movie.

-Toho managed to milk a little more money out of "LAST DAYS" by reusing some of the destruction footage in GODZILLA 1985.

-Toho also got a lot of flack for and was unable to do a home video version of JU JIN YUKI OTOKO, which is better known in America as HALF HUMAN. This was due to the offensive portrayal of the Ainu people.

-Tsuburaya Productions also earned the ire of Japanese A-bomb survivors over an episode of ULTRASEVEN. Said episode involved aliens who survived their planet's nuclear war and came to Earth to steal human blood. However, this episode was exported to other countries and back in the 90's, people were making a decent amount of cash by selling tapes of the English dubbed "ULTRA 7" episode to Japanese buyers.

-Rumor also has it that Tsuburaya once tried to slip that episode into a laserdisc release and not draw attention to it by not depicting the aliens on the cover. As you can probably guess, this attempt failed.

-Atomic Mystery Monster

Rob G. said...

If you've only see the US version, you've seen an entirely different movie. There are so many little differences, it's almost hard to keep up. It's also so much weaker than the Japanese cut.

The commentary is a fan commentary. Some guy named Ted Johnson (self-proclaimed kaiju expert) does it. I don't know who this guy is, but I found him posting on one of the many Godzilla message boards. Dude really knows his stuff on this movie, at least when you can make out what he's saying.

He mentioned in a thread I was reading he wanted to do a track for Supermonster as well, but there wasn't enough time to get it done before WTF wanted to release it.

He mentions in the track all the footage that ended up in G84. Unbelieveable, because it's a lot of footage.

I *think* WTF is working on a release of Half-Human as well. I can't remember where I read it, I really need to start bookmarking things.

I didn't know about Ultraseven. In fact, I know little about Japanese TV at all. I've been meaning to pick up the controversial Ultraman set and start there.

Anonymous said...

I just happened to stumble onto this blog. Consider it bookmarked. :)

I recorded the audio commentary for PON and you're right. How awful does it sound? Man, I was so upset! I had digital tapes at the ready (the tapes I bought to use are still here even) and WTF told me that he couldn't use media from digital tapes. I was so disappointed because I knew it would turn out awful. The only option we had was to use these mini-VHS-ey kind of tapes for a small video camera. Like I said, it was awful.

WTF has apparently redone the PON release (adding the German version to the set), and has made the visuals and audio better and I was told the commentary sounds better now. Who knows how it'll turn out?

Oh, I'm not a "kaiju expert". I'm a "kaiju enthusiast". :) I chose that phrase because I wanted to sound just like any of you and that I was talking to any of you, because that's exactly what I am: just one of you. I hate hoity-toity commentarians.

Take it easy and thanks for your kind words!

--Ted Johnson