Fires on the Plain (2014)
Directed by: Shin'ya Tsukamoto.
Written by: Shin'ya Tsukamoto based on the novel by Shohei Ooka.
Starring: Rirî Furankî, Tatsuya Nakamura, Yûko Nakamura, Dean Newcombe, Shin'ya Tsukamoto.
In 1959, Kon Ichikawa adapted the novel by Shohei Ooka and ended up making one of the great WWII movies from Japan’s perspective ever. It is a film about dehumanization, as the Japanese army has already been roundly defeated in the Philippines, but the army refuses to surrender. The few survivors have to make their way across the island they’re on to get to the one stronghold the Japanese still have – that is, if they still even have that. The film follows Tamura, a solider whose unit doesn’t want him – he has TB and they keep sending him to the field hospital, who keeps sending him back until his C.O. tells him to either stay at the hospital or kill himself with a grenade. Somehow Tamura survives, even when his unit and the hospital are decimated, and he’s stuck with various other members, who become increasingly desperate to survive, and do increasingly depraved things – as Tamura attempts to not only survive but also to maintain his humanity.
I’m not sure what current Japanese director could be considered a descendant of Ichikawa – but Shinya Tsukamoto is not him. He is mainly known for his ultraviolent splatter films like Tetsuo (1989) – and that is pretty much what he did in his version of Fires on the Plain. Ichikawa’s film is about the gradual dehumanization of men at war – Tsukamoto takes that dehumanization as a given, and makes his film a vision of hell. He draws out the almost comedy of the opening scenes of Tamura heading back and forth from his unit and the hospital, as he is caught in a Cacth-22 – damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. Once the attack on the hospital hits – with explosion and violence – he introduces the two other major characters – a sadistic older man who uses a weak willed younger man as his slave – but then has Tamura by himself for a while. This is an almost surreal, nearly wordless sequence that goes on for quite some time, as Tamura wanders through the land he doesn’t know or understand and the locals who both fear and despise him. The film adds more violence to this segment when Tamura kills a young woman who will not stop screaming – an act that haunts him so much he abandons his gun. Soon though, he has found others to join, and starts his trek across the island.
This leads to one of the most violent war sequences you will ever see in a movie. The Japanese have to make their way across a wide open field that is covered by the Americans. They wait until the cover to darkness, yet as the dozens of men try to make their way across, the Americans flood the field with light, and slaughter them like fish in a barrel. It is one of the most horrifically violent sequences I have ever seen in a movie – with limbs and heads flying, bodies being blown apart, heads being ripped open by bullets, and the chaos on the ground – where two men fight over an arm that has been blown off, since they’ve both lost one and they don’t know whose this one is. This sequence is long and intense – but at some point it does go a little too far, tries for a little too much splatter makeup that ends up looking a little false. Until then, it was a great sequence however.
The rest of the movie is a further descent into hell. The survivors wander through the island, past countless rotting corpses, many with a sickening look and full of maggots. The original movie is famed for its portrait of cannibalism – and this one will be as well. And like everything else in the movie, Tsukamoto takes it farther than Ichikawa did – at least visually – the better for stomach churning visuals.
The movie is an effective portrait of war as hell. It doesn’t move you like Ichikawa’s film does – mainly because that isn’t what Tsukamoto is going for. He wants to make the most violent, gory, disturbing and violent war film that he can – and he does that. Whether you want to see it or not, is up to you, but I found the combination of art house and splatter films fascinating. It doesn’t quite work, but it’s an experience to witness.
Note: I saw this film at TIFF 2014, and at this point, I have to believe it’s not going to get a proper released in North America – so I decided to publish the review I wrote then anyway.