1983 was, by many accounts, the most dangerous year of the Cold War. In short succession, the USSR shot down a Korean passenger jet it mistook it for a spy plane, Soviet missile operators almost fired nuclear missiles in response to radar readings suggesting a US-led strike, and a massive NATO exercise called Able Archer 83 nearly fooled Soviet leadership into thinking that they were under attack. Meanwhile, an aggressive US president was in the White House pushing for brinksmanship to scare the Soviet Union into submission, and to say the least, it was a scary time to be alive.
Future War 198X, released in Japanese theaters in 1982, hoped to capitalize on Cold War hysteria. The allure of promotional artwork by Noriyoshi Ohrai and the promise of all-out World War III as depicted by Japanese animators approaching the zenith of their cinematic accomplishments is enough to tempt military nuts and ’80s anime buffs alike, but they’ll be sorely disappointed. To quote anime historian David Merrill, Future War 198X is “a big, tedious sludge of a picture.” Overly convoluted, poorly animated, and excruciatingly long, it is a film that that will test the patience and mettle of any viewer.
But, that’s not to say it isn’t still kind of impressive. Future War 198X was an incredibly ambitious project for Toei Animation — but ambition doesn’t always translate into good film. The scope and scale of the film is easier to understand when you look at the two men credited for co-direction: Toshio Masuda and Tomoharu Katsumata. Masuda’s career spanned live-action and animation work, having co-directed everything from the Japanese half of Tora Tora Tora! to parts of the Space Battleship Yamato franchise. Katsumata was a company man at Toei with a career that stretched back to 1960, having worked on everything from Tiger Mask to Cutey Honey, and scores of Go Nagai shows. So with two accomplished directors attached, what could go wrong?
Well, as it turns out, quite a bit.
The film begins before the outbreak of World War III, as American scientist Burt Gains is hard at work developing an anti-missile laser system dubbed “Space Ranger,” capable of shooting down Soviet nuclear missiles from space. Despite its success, Gains worries that it could accelerate the arms race between the two superpowers. Despite his misgivings, Gains is quickly kidnapped by Soviet spies and whisked away on a submarine to Moscow. Worried that Gains’ expertise might help the Soviets, United States President approves the use of a small tactical nuke on the Soviet sub.
Space Ranger sounds a lot like the Strategic Defense Initiative pushed by the Reagan administration, but Reagan’s so-called “Star Wars” speech, pushing for the development of such a system, happened in 1983 — well after the film’s release. Was Space Ranger based on actual theory that dated back to the 1960s that inspired SDI, or was it just the producers looking at the hot trend of sci-fi in the wake of Star Wars and Mobile Suit Gundam and going “what if…?”
As the US and Soviet Union edge closer to war, Gains’ friend Wataru Mikumo and his sister Laura begin looking into his disappearance and are quickly caught up in an international web of intrigue that becomes increasingly difficult to keep up with, or if we’re being entirely honest, difficult to care about. The film’s attempt to show soldiers, bureaucrats and politicians at all levels of the conflict as things turn hot never quite works. The film uses subtitles — much like Legend of Galactic Heroes would do years later — to convey each character’s name and occupation, but it doesn’t succeed in actually making you interested in them.
The film’s slow, drawn-out plot, full of characters and situations that are hard to keep straight, is exacerbated by animation that is, at best, pretty damn ugly. With style and sensibility oddly reminiscent of the stuff Sunbow Entertainment was churning out for Hasbro (think GI Joe and Transformers), the film’s style is closer to that of a Saturday morning cartoon than the ‘80s anime epic most viewers would probably expect or want. 1982 was the year of films like Arcadia of My Youth, Space Adventure Cobra: The Movie and Mobile Suit Gundam III: Encounters in Space, but Future War 198X looks dull and boring in comparison.
Perhaps explaining both the narrative and technical failures, the film was riddled with problems and outside opposition even before it entered production. Its subject matter drew criticism from teacher’s unions and PTA groups, resulted in the creation of groups dedicated to protecting children from violent cartoons and even inspired an organization explicitly dedicated to stopping the film’s production. Due to accusations that the film promoted a right-wing agenda, Animage magazine published an feature with executive producer Yoshinori Watanabe and Katsumata answering questions about the film’s politics and production.
Sustained opposition to the film resulted in boycotts, rewriting, and Masuda being brought in to smooth over production. Despite these changes, much of the animation wasn’t even produced in-house at Toei and was instead outsourced to external studios. So, there you go.
The whole thing’s a disappointment, but parts of the production are tantalizingly great. For starters, the title, Future War 198X, is evocative and befitting of a much more interesting film. The promotional artwork by Ohrai is impressive, and once again, befitting of a much more interesting film. Ohrai’s work appeared on posters for films like Star Wars, Godzilla and Char’s Counterattack, and his work on Future War 198X lives up those standards — even if the film itself doesn’t. The quality of Ohrai’s work illustrates an important lesson for viewers that might randomly grab a video off the shelf (or torrent site): never judge a movie by its VHS cover.
Despite some tacked-on anti-war sentiments, much of Future War 198X feels true to its origins as a hard-boiled war story. Sure, Eastern Bloc soldiers put down their arms when they realize that war sucks and the film ends with the image of the Genbaku Dome — thereby co-opting a familiar anti-war image in lieu of the film actually saying something meaningful — but much of the film is filled with proselytizing the notion that nuclear war can be “won” (a tentpole of Reagan’s foreign policy if there ever was one) and characters are constantly stabbing each other in the back to affect the direction of war for their own goals. The film’s climax occurs in space, as Wataru is forced to shoot down a final barrage of nuclear missile with Space Ranger, a reminder that as as much as war sucks, having the best technology is still the most important thing.
You’d even be forgiven for thinking the film must at least have something to appeal to military otaku, but it predated the obsession with mechanical detail that came a few years later with films like Do You Remember Love? and Royal Space Force and the military hardware looks like it’d be more at home in an episode of GI Joe. Space Ranger aside, much of the military hardware is basically accurate, but it looks like shit.
By late 1983, Reagan’s policy towards the Soviet Union was changing, due in part to two films released that year — Wargames and The Day After. Never one for words, Reagan had reacted strongly to both films and they had inspired him, at least partially, to begin the process of reducing nuclear arsenals. Not that either film were exemplary, but they at least reflected the volatility and anxiety of the era. Future War 198X, by comparison, feels exploitive; reveling in the imagery of the war without much consideration for the potential outcome. A feeble attempt at tacked on anti-war sentiment won’t convince anyone.
Had Future War 198X been screened in the White House like The Day After, what kind of impact would it have had on President Reagan? He’d have left feeling that nuclear war was a long, drawn, laborious process (complicated by unions and advocacy groups, of course) with numerous, albeit acceptable, casualties that was ultimate winnable — you just gotta have lasers.