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.
When we meet him, Tamura is forced into the field with a grenade by a commander who cannot waste resources on keeping a dying man alive. The commander gives Tamura an order: either get admitted to a field hospital or commit suicide. Tamura doesn’t want to give up so easily and clings to life. His only option is to head to the port at Palompon to be evacuated to Cebu and so he wanders around the jungle and bounces between broken platoons of men all looking to escape the constant attacks by American forces. This is a journey that will see them stripped of their humanity as they travel across scorched battlefields and through hostile jungles and Tamura is our guide.
Tamura cuts a rather pathetic and lonely figure amidst the thickets, groves and plains of the island as he shambles about, shell-shocked, sick with TB and afflicted by paranoia. The enemy are all around, triumphant Americans in tanks and trucks and vengeful Filipino guerrillas scattered amongst the landscape. Tamura sees and flees distant fires which could either be from simple farmers or the enemy. Paranoia and the desire to survive sours everything and every Japanese soldier he meets is not necessarily a friend as the retreating soldiers turn on each other, all desperate for food and to escape each battle, some driven mad by their horrendous conditions.
The film takes place over days but we aren’t sure how long in total. It just feels like a long time and the only way to keep track of it is the physical appearance of Tamura who starts off looking like a soldier and ends up looking like a zombie. The make-up and physical effects and acting are astonishing as we often gaze upon the increasingly fear-filled sleepy eyes of Eiji Funakoshi. A man with matinee idol looks, the shadows underneath as the sickness sets in and his increasingly skinny body with overgrown claw-like nails act as a grisly marker of how much health he has lost and how much humanity he has shed.
The process to zombification and madness is through starvation experienced along the death march to Palampon and a series of horrific battles that occur without warning. This is black and white so it’s not as grotesque as Shinya Tsukamoto’s more recent adaptation of the novel but it is still harrowing viewing that gets across how war makes people inhuman.
The terror of battle and desperation of survival feels real as the film has numerous sequences where a a veritable skeleton army of Japanese troops assembles from the jungles for their death march, many with rotting shoes, ragged trousers, ripped shirts, and there are numerous situations where people eventually turn on each other. Tamura and the others resort to desperately pilfering from the corpses of their comrades just for basics to survive only to be cut down by a hail of bullets. Some of the stronger ones think nothing of filching from comrades debilitated by sickness. It is a humiliating showcase at odds with the presentation of military life as presented by nationalists and denialists and it reflects the reality of combat for Japanese troops who were often sent into battle with just enough rations to last a few days in the expectation that a quick victory might bring more supplies to sustain an advance.
The black and white makes it look more apocalyptic as broken bodies litter smoke-filled barren landscapes so there is no need for the gore.
Visual information is conveyed cleanly and concisely with the camera guiding our eyes to all of the pertinent information whilst remaining cinematic. A long shot of Tamura crossing a cliff with the jungles around him is stunning and gets across that he is alone and far from home. A cut to steaming food, the camera panning up to the cautious Tamura entering a scene with his rifle ready but his eyes on the sustenance as he needs to live. Of the battlefield we get visions of fear and desperation with closeups of soldiers squirming in a crowd of bodies as a troops crawl together to avoid being spotted by the enemy.
Some of the way the soldiers are presented could be taken from horror films of the 70s and 80s as we see the emaciated soldiers covered with blood shambling around. The physical privations are perfectly shown by their transformation and a distant stare in their eyes suggests a horrific intensity of a monster. And so it intertwines perfectly with the tales of eating human flesh in New Guinea that spread amongst the soldiers on the island (see The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On for more on that) to culminate in the grim fates of the wily Yasuda (Osamu Takizawa) and younger squad-mate Nagamatsu (Mickey Curtis) who turn into monsters as resources run out, thus also providing another chilling look at how war makes us inhuman.
We witness soldiers gradually lose the last slivers of their humanity, often only clinging onto one facet of their past life as they lose all hope. Tamura is a humane person with many skills and kindness he demonstrates and we identify with him and feel a little glad when fate intervenes for him and saves his life in some horrifically ironic moments where someone takes a bullet for an action he considers making but, ultimately, war spares nobody.
The ending is a bleak one that will persuade the audience that war is wrong. Humans will cling to life in most circumstances and the film will make us pity our species over how we subject each other to violence.