Directed by: Kon Ichikawa.
Written by: Natto Wada based on the novel by Shohei Ooka.
Starring: Eiji Funakoshi (Tamura), Osamu Takizawa (Yasuda), Mickey Curtis (Nagamatsu), Mantarô Ushio (Sergeant), Kyû Sazanka (Army surgeon), Yoshihiro Hamaguchi (Officer), Asao Sano (Soldier), Masaya Tsukida (Soldier), Hikaru Hoshi (Soldier).
Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain is one of the bleakest war films I have ever seen. Set in the waning days of the war, in the Philippines in 1945, the film depicts the final days of the decimated Japanese army who have been roundly defeated, but have not yet surrendered. The few surviving Japanese soldiers are basically split up into small groups, making their way across the island to join the last Japanese stronghold – which may or may not still exist. During the course of the movie, we will see the Japanese soldiers do the most inhumane things to each other imaginable.
Yet for all the bleakness in the film, Ichikawa infuses the film with some gallows humor as well. When the film opens, the main character, Tamura (Eiji Funkoshi) has returned from the hospital to his unit after being treated for tuberculosis. But his superiors don’t want him back – they tell him he cannot possibly have been cured in such a short period of time, and order him to go back to the field hospital – and if they refuse to admit him, then he should just blow himself up with his lone grenade. This plays almost like a scene out of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 – Tamura is damned no matter what he does. There are other moments of dark levity – a seemingly dead soldier who takes his face out of the mud just long enough to respond to his commanding officer, or a reference to Chaplin, when Tamura tries to replace his worn out boots with some that aren’t quite as bad. Fires on the Plain is as bleak as movies gets – but Ichikawa still sees the absurdity of it all.
Fires on the Plain contains haunting images – stacks of rotting corpses, that Tamura and his fellow travelers pass by without even noticing – as if the sight is so common its lost all meaning to them. The fact that Tamura is still alive is nothing short of miraculous, but he soldiers on. He eventually teams up with two other soldiers to make their way across the island. They consider turning themselves in – the Japanese code of honor that we often see in WWII movies about the Japanese that said they could never surrender doesn’t seem to apply here. They don’t much care anymore. They try and shoot monkeys for food – and when that runs scarce, the talk turns to cannibalism – and soon the men are not just fighting the enemy and the elements – but each other.
The film never really looks at the enemy with any clarity. The closest it comes is when Tamura considers surrendering, but witnesses what happens when one of his fellow soldiers finds the Americans to surrender – and figures he’ll be better off on his own. The enemy is hardly the point anymore anyway – Tamura and everyone else knows they have lost the war. Now, it all a matter of survival. Tamura is basically an insect who refuses to die – like the ant that crawls across his skin. But unlike his fellow soldiers, he holds onto whatever little humanity the war has left him. Those around him are giving in to their base urges – but to the end of the film, Tamura holds onto his humanity – although wherever he’s walking at the end of the movie, you get the sense that he’s unlikely to get there – and even if he does, he probably won’t see anything different than what he has already seen.
In short, Fires on the Plain is a bleak vision of hell – but one that like it hero maintains it view of humanity. The movie shows, as good as any, the horrors of war, and the suffering it causes. It is a haunting movie – one I will not soon forget.