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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Fires on the Plain

Director: Kon Ichikawa
Country: Japan
Year: 1959

“Ichikawa surely stands alongside Akira Kurosawa and Keisuke Miyashita as one of Japan’s great directors. He made not just art films, but also melodramas, documentaries, mysteries and others… and he brought to all of them a technique and craft that showed he took the works seriously, no matter the subject. Even his light entertainments had class.”
Tadao Sato, Japanese film critic

“I don’t have any unifying theme. I just make pictures I like.”
Kon Ichikawa

Background

Kon Ichikawa was born in 1915, attended school in Osaka, and began working as an animator in 1933. In the early 1940’s, while working at Toho Film Company, he met his future wife, Natto Wada. He directed his first film in 1946: a puppet play entitled A Girl at Dojo Temple. I haven’t seen it, but it must have been more Meet the Feebles than H.R. Pufnstuf, because it was immediately confiscated by the U.S. Occupation Authority.

After their marriage, Ichikawa began collaborating closely with his wife Wada. She wrote the screenplays for his most celebrated films, including Fires on the Plain. After collaborating on the Tokyo Olympiad documentary in 1964, Wada retired. “She doesn’t like the new film grammar,” explained Ichikawa. “She says there’s no heart in it anymore, that people no longer take human love seriously.”

A thumbnail bio of Ichikawa would describe him as “one of the preeminent figures in the golden age of postwar, ‘humanist’ Japanese cinema,” but the astounding scope of his filmography tells a more complex story. At one time, Ichikawa was thought of as something like a Japanese Frank Capra for his sweet domestic comedies. On the other hand, Fires on the Plain is one of the most blisteringly bleak films I’ve ever seen. One of his most popular films, Pu-san, was an adaptation of a well-known Japanese comic strip. He made one of the greatest sports documentaries in the history of film (Tokyo Olympiad), two of the finest anti-war films ever made (The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain), a renowned adaptation of a novel by gay, katana-wielding, psycho super-patriot Yukio Mishima (Conflagration), perverse sex comedies (Odd Obsession), and youth-gone-wild melodramas (Punishment Park).

He also made a movie about a talking cat (I Am a Cat).

When asked to name his influences, Ichikawa cited Charlie Chaplin (The Gold Rush), Walt Disney (Steamboat Willie)… and Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salo).

Ichikawa directed 75 films, and died in February 2008 at the age of 92.

Synopsis

In one of the most bracing opening shots since The Naked Kiss (bald prostitute beating a john to death with a shoe), Fires on the Plain opens with a SLAP! across the tubercular face of our hero, Private First Class Tamura.

“You idiot!” shouts his commanding officer, elaborating on his reasons for the aforementioned slap. “We have no room for consumptives like you! We lost two thirds of our men. Soldiers are taking turns foraging for food. You’re coughing up blood and can’t even lift a sack of potatoes! What kind of imbecile are you? You are nothing but a burden! I have no choice but to send you back to the hospital.”

This is probably a good time for a little historical background. Fires on the Plain is set in the Philippines during the waning days of WWII. Tamura and his commanding officer are members of the Japanese Imperial Army. After several years of having their way in the Philippines (and, by “having their way” I mean brutal imprisonment and torture of the locals, looting, sexual slavery, the Bataan Death March, the slaughter of 100,000 civilians while fleeing Manila, etc.), the Japanese are now being routed by the Allied Forces under the command of pipe-chomping General Douglas MacArthur. Their supply and communication lines cut, out-maneuvered at every turn by the square-jawed, Ban Ray-sporting MacArthur, the defeat of the Japanese is now imminent. Left to their own devices, the remaining 65,000 Japanese soldiers are dying of starvation and malaria, neglecting their personal hygiene, and also feasting on each others’ bloody entrails. Oops. That was supposed to be a last-act reveal. Forget I said that.

Back to our hero: Apparently, Tamura was sent to the hospital for his tuberculosis, but they refused to treat him; something about not being on his HMO’s preferred provider list. Loyal soldier (and, it should be said, numbskull) that he is, he returned to his regiment for further abuse, only to be turned away by his commanding officer.

And thus our story is set in motion. Tamura’s mission: stagger back to the filthy, overcrowded field hospital and check himself in. Failing that, he is ordered to blow himself up. (“You weren’t given a hand grenade for nothing!”)

SPOILER ALERT: Tamura dies at the end.

The rest of the film consists of Tamura’s descent into oblivion, insanity, annihilation; a TB-and-starvation-addled odyssey through the muddy jungles and rocky wastelands of Leyte, first to reach the hospital, and – later – to reach Palompon (where the Japanese will supposedly be evacuated). Tamura, the only remotely sympathetic character, struggles to retain his humanity as his options narrow, his health fails, and those around him resort to savagery and entrail-feasting.

Tamura, five yams and a hand grenade in his backpack, sets off into the jungle. He walks toward smoke rising on the horizon, and comes across a peasant Filipino man, cooking a stew. For a moment, it seems that this invading soldier and this frightened local might at least share a hot meal, and thereby symbolize the possibility of cross-cultural reconciliation. But no; the peasant flees into the jungle to warn his neighbors. Tamura angrily kicks over the pot of stew and leaves before the guerilla reinforcements arrive.

Tamura reaches the hospital, but is once again turned away: “I don’t care if you’re coughing blood! If you can walk, you’re not a patient!” Tamura isn’t the only sick soldier hoping for admittance; there are several other men, at various stages of near-death, loitering in the hospital’s waiting room. And when I say “waiting room” I mean a small clearing in the jungle outside the hospital.

Night falls, and the men (or at least those who are still conscious and not doubled over with diarrheal cramping) barter with each other for the remaining yams. Luscious, tempting, delicious yams. One of the men has bartered unfairly, and squats at a fire nearby, cooking his dinner. “Wily bastard!” one of the men complains bitterly. “Everything’s falling apart, and the fucker’s steaming yams!”

“I hope the Yanks take us prisoner,” muses another man. “They’ll say, ‘you guys fought hard’ then fill us up with corned beef!” This man is insane, and will die soon.

The unconscious soldier dying of malaria has urinated on himself. His compatriots try to help him up, but he violently waves them away. “Deserters!” he croaks, wild-eyed.

Again, Tamura sees smoke on the horizon. “Aren’t they shelling your company?” someone asks. The bombs fall nearer and nearer. As doctors run for their lives, and dying patients crawl from their sickbeds, the hospital is demolished by the heroic Allied Forces.

Tamura runs, even as he notes the irony: “I was told to die, and I intend to. So why run?” Given the existential despair awaiting Tamura, this is an excellent question, never answered by the film.

As the smoke clears, we see that the field is littered with corpses (that’s a phrase I’ll be using frequently). “Some of you may still be alive,” muses Tamura, “but I will not come to your aid. I’ll be dead soon myself. Then we’ll be even.”

“Many days passed, and many nights” the title informs us, as Tamura wanders groggily through jungles and across mountains.

He rinses his feet in a stream, and an ant crawls up his leg. Tamura picks up the ant, marveling perhaps at its tenacity, its persistent will to live. Then it bites him, so he kills it.

In the distance, he sees a cross atop a church. (In the novel on which today’s film was based, Tamura survived largely through reliance on his Christian faith. This aspect of the novel is – I think wisely – completely absent from the film version.) Tamura approaches the village, despite the danger, and finds only horror: The church is overflowing with the bloated and vulture-pecked corpses of Japanese soldiers. Although the village appears to be deserted, Tamura is surprised by the arrival of a young Filipino couple. In the ensuing confusion, Tamura shoots and kills the unarmed woman. Leaving the village, he sadly drops his rifle into the river.

Tamura trudges on and meets three Japanese soldiers in a yam field. Delighted to find that Tamura has a bag of salt, they allow him to join their gang, warning him that if he can’t keep up, they might kill and eat him. After all, their leader says ominously, we’ve done it before. In New Guinea, to be precise, and this is a historical fact of which most Japanese citizens were unaware at the time of the film’s release.

Again they see the smoke on the horizon – Guerilla smoke signals? Or a farmer’s burnt trash? “What’s all the fuss?” demands the leader of the group. “They’re just fires on the plain…” Ta-DAA!

Coal-black humor permeates the film. When a group of bedraggled Japanese soldiers hear an Allied plane approaching, they all lie in the mud and pretend to be dead. After the plane has strafed the road and moved on, the soldiers wearily rise and continue walking. Nobody mentions the fact that several of their comrades remain face-down and motionless.

When an abandoned pair of boots is found in the road, the first soldier compares them to his own. Finding the abandoned pair in better shape, he exchanges his boots for the abandoned pair.

The next soldier does the same, and the next, and the next. When Tamura finally comes across the pair left by the previous soldier, the boots are barely more than shoelaces attached to tiny scraps of torn cloth. Shrugging bemusedly, he just takes off his own boots, leaves them in the road beside the first pair, and continues on, barefoot.

By this time, the small band of soldiers has melted into the larger collection of soldiers all making their way to Palompon. To get there, they must cross a road to the forest beyond. One problem: The road is patrolled constantly by Allied troops and Filipino guerillas.

Many consider surrender, and one soldier actually makes a white flag and approaches an Allied soldier with his hands raised. Predictably, he is shot down in cold blood. His friends, watching from the treeline, realize that their only hope is sneaking across the road at night and somehow navigating through the forest beyond to the (rumored, but probably non-existent) evacuation ships at Palompon.

Night falls, and hundreds of Japanese soldiers crawl across the road, like crabs.

When they make it into the open field beyond, some dare to hope that escape is within their grasp. That, of course, is the moment that the floodlights come on, and Allied tanks mow them down without mercy. All is chaos… characters that we have followed throughout the film are dying face down in the mud… the ground erupts in geysers of dirt and rock… mortars burst like lightning flashes… searchlights sweep the corpse-strewn field, and then… silence.

Morning breaks, and Tamura, incredibly, is still alive. As night approaches once again, Tamura begins the long retreat back across the road, through the marsh, and into the relative safety of the treeline.

Another wounded soldier approaches. “Is Palompon this way?” he asks Tamura. “Yes, but there are Yanks in the way. We can’t get past.” “It’s been raining forever,” responds the soldier calmly, and dies. Tamura takes his boots.

Tamura meets another soldier, collapsed against a tree.

“What kind of birds are those?” Tamura asks, peering at a wheeling swarm overhead. “They’re not birds,” responds the man. “They’re flies.”

“When I die, you can eat this” the man offers, extending his scrawny arm. Tamura flees in horror. Later, he finds a severed hand, and looks at it for a long time.

Tamura meets up with Nagamatsu, a friend from his time in the hospital waiting room. Nagamatsu gives him some suspicious-looking “monkey meat,” but Tamura can’t chew; all of his teeth have fallen out. Nagamatsu leads him deeper into the jungle, where his wounded friend Yasuda is hiding, and where he has a place to sleep.

There is unexplained tension between Nagamatsu and Yasuda, and we come to realize that the “monkey meat” is actually what Polynesians might call “long pig” e.g. human flesh. Ultimately, anger boils over and Nagamatsu kills Yasuda. As Nagamatsu greedily stuffs the most succulent entrails into his mouth, his beard drenched with blood and viscera, Tamura retrieves a gun and shoots him.

Smoke appears once more on the horizon.

Tamura stumbles, half-mad, toward the smoke, arms raised in surrender, and is shot dead.

Closing Title: The Philippine Front, February 1945

What I Liked

Once again: Cinematography! The widescreen composition, on specially-requisitioned Eastman b/w stock, is absolutely stunning. As in L’Avventura, the landscape becomes one of the most important characters. The torrential rain, the sucking mud, the tangled forest, the desolate rocky outcroppings, the blasted field littered with corpses… About an hour into this movie, I started to feel oppressed and trapped and wanted out of that environment. I could smell the filthy soldiers, their rotting teeth, their sweat-soaked uniforms, their animal desperation. Fires on the Plain is one of the most viscerally affecting b/w films I’ve ever seen.

The acting is also excellent. Tamura’s hopeless struggle to retain his humanity – particularly in the final scenes – is painful to watch. Although the theatrical acting style – probably derived from kabuki or noh traditions – in Japanese films can sometimes be off-putting to Western audiences, that is not the case here; Eiji Funakoshi underplays his role to heartbreaking effect.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

I liked Fires on the Plain a lot more before I read up on the historical context. As I mentioned at the beginning of the synopsis, the Japanese have a lot to answer for in the Philippines. Fires on the Plain suckers us into feeling sympathy for sad-sack Tamura, and we are allied with him in our fear of the apparently cruel Filipino guerillas. But the movie chooses to omit any explanation re: why the Filipino peasants and freedom-fighters might justifiably hate the Japanese Imperial Army. I don’t think the central theme of the film would have been compromised by such an acknowledgment, though our allegiance to Tamura would have been more complicated.

Interestingly, while the film omits this crucial background info, the film also punishes Tamura more severely than the novel. In the novel, Tamura’s Christian faith sustains him, and he survives to tell the tale. In the film, he espouses no such faith, and dies, raving, in the dirt. Make of that what you will.

Should You See It?

If you have some delusions about the glory of combat, then YES, Fires on the Plain should be required viewing. If you appreciate stunning b/w cinematography, if you are interested in WWII history, if you can handle a bracing jolt of nihilistic despair (with a side dish of bloody entrails), then YES. If you are really looking forward to the release of the next Sandra Bullock film, then probably NO.

Next: Fists in the Pocket

2 Comments

  1. I hate war. War is diabolical. I hate war movies. Most war movies are stupid propaganda, or just plain stupid. However, there have been a few exceptions, and Fires on the Plain is one of them.

    The story opens with Tamura, a Japanese soldier based in the Philippines, being reprimanded for having left the hospital and returned to his unit’s camp. The doctors at the hospital would not treat him because he only has tuberculosis, and they are running out of resources to treat the more seriously sick and injured, not to mention running out of food to feed themselves. The Japanese army has no more use for him exactly because he does have tuberculosis, and they are in the process of being defeated and are facing starvation, surrender, or death by other wartime means. So begins his journey and our education on the events leading to the physical and psychological breakdowns he and others suffer in war, and the resiliency of the human spirit:

    First, there is treachery. On the way back to the hospital, Tamura comes upon the home of a Filipino, and after being invited in for food, the native tells Tamura to wait while he goes to get more potatoes. In fact, the native runs off with the intention of getting help in capturing Tamura.

    Then there is generosity. Finally back at the hospital, Tamura shares his crumbs of food with the even more destitute ragtag group of rejects encamped near the huts that make up the hospital.

    Then there is horror. Tamura sees first-hand the gruesomeness of war when the hospital and many of its inhabitants are bombed to literal bits. (This is only one of many examples of the horrors of war in this movie.)

    Also, there is guilt. After coming across an abandoned village, and then fighting off a wild, probably rabid dog that would have eaten him alive, I’m sure, Tamura’s rummagings are interrupted by another couple who have come to scavenge. He ends up confronting the couple and then shooting the woman dead when she starts screaming. The other man runs off, and Tamura, showing the signs of mental deterioration, pushes the woman’s body out of the way of the stash of salt that they were after. On his way out of the village, with a knapsack full of mineral, he looks at his gun and, with deliberate repentance, throws it into the river.

    There is cosmic irony. After meeting back up with other Japanese soldiers, who are trying to make it to a certain location for possible evacuation, he is forced to carry another gun.

    There is the triumph of right over wrong (with a wrong). When Tamura finally sees the truth first-hand (no pun intended) that two of his fellow soldiers have been eating human flesh to stay alive, he shoots and kills the last one standing. (It is also a comic irony that when he unknowingly tries to eat a piece of “monkey meat,” several of his teeth fall out, along with the piece of meat, which he then cannot eat.)

    There is self-preservation. Although many of the actions taken by the characters in this story are motivated purely by survival instinct, the sequence of boot exchanges is to me most memorable. While on the march in the pouring rain to the evacuation location, a soldier comes upon a pair of boots left in the mud. He takes off his worse-for-wear pair and exchanges them for the ones he’s found and continues on. The camera stays on the fresh pair of castoffs, and a second later, another solider comes upon them. He exchanges his worser-for-wear pair and continues on. Eventually Tamura comes upon the boots that are left and holds them up one by one, so that we can see they are completely soleless (a fitting metaphor). He calmly removes what is left of his own boots and continues on barefooted. In a later scene, another soldier sits down and dies in front of Tamura, who within moments removes and puts on the dead solder’s good boots, thereby regaining his sole/soul. It is not long afterward that:

    There is hope. In the final scene, Tamura decides to walk directly toward one of the fires on the plain, instead of running from it as he has the previous fires, thinking that they were the terror to avoid. His intention to surrender to the farmers, who are burning their corn husks, is an act of hopefulness that he will finally be able to escape from the true terrors that have surrounded him as he avoided the fires. And he meets with success.

    The director deservedly won the Tokyo Blue Ribbon award for this 1959 film. The performances he elicited from the actors were stellar. The use of lighting, both artificial and natural, was brilliant. The choreography of the army of ant-men swarming across the road, crawling left-knee/right-knee together as one, was literally poetry in motion. (A horrible poem, but poetry nevertheless.) And how the filmmakers created the true color of blood red in a black-and-white movie is genuine cinematic magic. (Gruesome magic, but magic nevertheless.)

    Some day, when I am steeled enough inside, I will watch this movie again, the same as I will again someday watch Schindler’s List. Both movies should be required viewing for high school students. The images from Fires on the Plain will not soon be forgotten, and hopefully neither will its lessons.

    PS: Jason and Matt, you both crack me up, which is something I never would have thought possible in a review of (imho) a heavy war movie. Thank you both for your humor. It is most refreshing!

  2. “Fires on the Plain” or what I would affectionately call: “Gilligan Goes To War”

    Okay, films like “Fires” are hard to categorize. Are they dramas? Are they comedies? Are they “dramadies?” (shudder) In this case I really don’t know. “Fires” never really reaches the absurdity of the football game in “M*A*S*H” but it has its moments – boy does it have its moments.

    The film starts out with our hero (?) Tamura getting ripped a new one by his squad leader. Seems Tamura has TB and when he went to the hospital for help the hospital sent him back to his unit. This is all explained in some excruciating expository dialogue. Whenever, though, the focus is on Tamura he looks bored, stoned, stupid as a rock. Is it getting through his thick head? Doesn’t he understand he’s putting everyone at risk?

    Within five minutes he’s told to return to the hospital and, if they don’t accept him, to use a hand-grenade and blow himself up.

    What the film turns into then is a “road movie” (of sorts) where we follow Tamura back to the hospital to get well.

    As he travels back to the hospital he meets other soldiers. When he returns to the hospital he is once again kicked out but instead of returning, or blowing himself up, he hangs out with a bunch of other squatters who are not sick enough to be in the hospital but sick enough to be slowly starving to death when they can’t find yams. Oh, there’s lots of yams in this film. The film is filled with yams.

    When the hospital gets bombed (with some cheesy effects, I might add) the squatters go running. Everyone meets up and are told to head to a city for help and evacuation.

    Tamura, though, clueless as he is wanders off on his own and ends up in small town.

    Now, up to this point, the film has been a pretty tame depiction of war. Yes, the hospital gets blown up and there are people who are dead from the results but we don’t linger on them.

    In the town, though, Tamura encounters a dog which he quickly kills in brutal fashion. He also finds the many bones of dead Japanese soldiers. When a young Philippine couple runs into the town for a little R & R (i.e. sex) he follows them for a little look-see.

    The girl, though, is after some hidden salt and when she sees Tamura and starts screaming he quickly kills her (I don’t recall what happens to her boyfriend).

    Tamura takes the salt and then promptly dumps his gun in the water. Is he ashamed at what he has done? Is he even affected by the two (or three) deaths and the dead soldiers? I don’t really know as his face is, pretty much, a blank slate.

    Reuniting with a few other soldiers he had encountered before, Tamura now has gold (salt) to share and he and the group start heading towards the town for evacuation.

    Finally meeting up with a large group, they all decide to wait until night fall before they cross a road where American soldiers drive.

    At night they all cross only to be met by tanks that rip them to shreds (in beautiful blood-soaking black and white).

    Tamura, who stayed behind for some reason (maybe Jason explains it), continues on his way as best as he can. Meeting up with a couple of the squatters from the hospital. Seems they’re dealing in tobacco and monkey meat (though we never actually see the monkey).

    Throughout all this, we have some voice-over narration by Tamura, and we see these plumes of smoke on the plains.

    In the end, in hopes of getting some food (yams?) or some shelter or something, Tamura is killed.

    Fin!

    WHAT I LIKED:

    Well, golly…like I said before, this film is hard to categorize. Some of it is hilarious. Some of it is brutal. Tamura’s resemblance to Gilligan doesn’t help and his acting style (or non acting style) puts me in an awkward position to actually know WHAT he wants. He wanders aimlessly around the Philippine islands of 1945 and, well, so does the story.

    Oh, back to what I liked. I actually liked his performance. The scenery (albeit in B&W) is breathtaking (this was the first film of the collection I watched on my big screen).

    If this film is a statement on the brutality and stupidity of war, there are a couple moments that I particularly liked. One is a scene where a pair of boots have been left in a mud puddle, one soldier comes along and takes off his worn pair of boots for this pair. Another soldier picks up his cast offs and replaces his boots with those, leaving completely worthless boots for Tamura to pick up. He chooses, instead, to go barefoot.

    Another moment I liked was when in his travels Tamura comes across a man face down in a puddle dead as yesterday. He makes a comment to the man and the man inexplicably lifts his head up, makes a comment (I think) and then puts his head back down in the puddle to die.

    There were some moments like that – that I really enjoyed in a poetic sort of way.

    WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

    This is a tough one. There wasn’t a lot I actually liked about the film, but there wasn’t a lot that I really didn’t like either.

    The film was surprisingly brutal (for 1958) and the language used (lots of subtitled “F” words) was also quite frank for the year.

    BOTTOM LINE:

    Interesting. Worth seeing just to see it.

    Side note: In the opening credits there is listed someone by the name of “Mickey Curtis” – there are only a couple American Actors in the film and their lines go by so quickly I can’t imagine that one of them was “Mickey Curtis” – so I assume that one of the Japanese actors changed his name to the all American sounding “Mickey Curtis.”

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