Friday, December 18, 2009

CATASTROPHE 1999: Isao Tomita

Back in the late 70s, I became enamored of Isao Tomita's score to the 1974 Toho film The Prophecies of Nostradamus, a.k.a. Catastrophe 1999, a film that has virtually never been seen in its entirety — anywhere, including Japan, where it was made — since its original release. Although not officially banned, Toho yanked the film from distribution because its depiction of nuclear devastation was considered "insulting" to survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A seriously butchered, 92-minute version, titled The Last Days of Planet Earth, reached our shores in 1979, courtesy of Henry Saperstein, but that disjointed travesty bears little resemblance to the original 114-minute film. Sadly enough, I've never actually seen the original Japanese version, though it rates highly on the list of movies I'd like to view before kicking this mortal bucket. Unfortunately, from what I understand, the chances of a quality domestic release from a company such as Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock are fairly slim.

As I insinuated in the first sentence, Tomita's musical score is what brought this film to my attention to begin with, and just on a whim, I recently reacquainted myself with the original soundtrack recording. My old 33 RPM LP has been gathering dust for many years, but I do own a copy of both the VAP CD of the full soundtrack and the Victor symphonic/electronic suite that is coupled with Toshiaki Tsushima's score to Toho's 1978 SF monstrosity, The War in Space. The latter version is the same recording as the original LP, while the former features all the music cues from the film, including some alternate cuts. While the Victor album features much of the same music, it comes together as a smoother and perhaps more satisfying stand-alone experience than the other; however, it's the longer, less coherent collection of musical tracks that more fully bring home the film's depiction of an environment devolving into a polluted, radiated wasteland, until finally all is consumed in the ultimate nuclear holocaust.

While the movie might be considered a re-imagining of Toho's 1961 film, The Last War, Catastrophe 1999 is surely the bleaker and far more vivid narrative. Tomita's score is based primarily on a pair of lyrical themes, one eerie and grim — an energetic but dark orchestral composition augmented by a whistling, theramin-like synthesizer, with a theme reminiscent of an Ennio Morricone's Italian western score. The other is a melodic, romantic love theme, also driven by a whistling synthesizer. The themes depict very contrasting emotions, but are unified by a powerful undercurrent of melancholy. Both motifs are repeated frequently but with varying orchestrations and tempos.

The score is one that may be best experienced in darkness, without other distractions, as it very effectively conjures up the movie's most powerful images — some of which did survive the hopeless Americanization. Even if you haven't seen the movie in any form, if you have any appreciation for very moody, atmospheric, and eerie music — laced with a touch of 1970s style — the soundtrack is absolutely worth hunting down.

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