Release Date: November 03rd, 1959
Duration: 94 mins.
Director: Kon Ichikawa
Writer: Natto Wada (Script) Shohei Ooka (Original Novel)
Starring: Eiji Funakoshi, Osamu Takizawa, Mickey Curtis, Mantaro Ushio, Hikaru Hoshi,
Kon Ichikawa is one of the big name Golden Age directors. A contemporary of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, Ichikawa tried his hand at a wide variety of films (including a documentary for the Olympic Games!). He is perhaps most famous for three films in the West, two highly realistic anti-war films, The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain(1959), and the period drama An Actor’s Revenge (1963), all three made with the scriptwriter Natto Wada, his wife and frequent collaborator, all of which have received subtitled releases and widespread festival play.
Fires on the Plain is a stunner of a film. It is bleak and harrowing and it is the sort of film that the Japanese movie industry probably won’t ever make again because it would be considered box-office suicide to have something as largescale by as grim and realistic as well as being something unafraid to show war as something calamitous, shambolic, and inhuman.
The film is based on a semi-autobiographical novel written in 1951 by Shohei Ooka who, to write the story, channelled his traumatic experiences and emotions as a soldier who survived the Philippines theatre during the closing stages of the war. The Americans are invading Leyte Island in the Philippines and are hot on the heels of the demoralised soldiers of the Japanese army, all of whom are looking to evacuate from the island. We see their increasingly desperate struggle from the perspective of an army conscript, Private First Class Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi), who is sick with tuberculosis.