Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Fires on the Plain (1959)

I’m not sure that I want to admit that Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain (1959) was one of the seminal films of my youth.  Ichikawa’s film is, after all, largely about war, death, dismemberment, and cannibalism.  Come to think of it, it might explain why I can be in my forties and still be fond of Metallica. But let’s not pursue that particular line of inquiry.  Besides, Darcy and Karen ordered Fires on the Plain for our local video store; let them explain.

Fires on the Plain had its first real North American exposure some 25 years ago on U.S. Public Television.  The print at C.B. Video was produced by Janus Films for that series on masterpieces of world cinema.  In an earlier review, I mentioned how much this series influenced me both in regards to my love for film and my fascination with different cultures.  Admittedly, Akira Kurasawa’s Yojimbo and Seven Samurai were a lot more fun, but Fires on the Plain was a revelation to a sixteen-year-old high school student whose only experience of war movies didn’t go much beyond PT 109 and John Wayne in The Alamo.  It was the first great anti-war film I ever saw, to be followed shortly by Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion.  Like all great works of art, Fires on the Plain haunted me for years.  It seems fitting to call it to mind again shortly before this year’s Academy Awards, where two of the contenders for Best Film are World War II stories: Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

Ichikawa’s film tells the story of a young Japanese soldier, Private first class Tamura, struggling to stay alive on the island of Leyte after the annihilation of the Japanese main force by American troops.  General MacArthur committed a quarter of a million American troops to capture that island, held by 60,000 Japanese.  Forty-eight thousand of them died.  A survivor of the initial assault, Tamura is trapped on a part of the island stripped of food and short of water, inhabited only by a few surviving Filipino farmers with a lethal shoot-first, take-prisoners-later attitude towards what’s left of the occupying Japanese army.  Tamura is a last-minute recruit, not a career soldier.  He isn’t one of the fanatics who would hide out in the jungle for 30 years rather than surrender and disgrace the Emperor.  Oddly enough, the actor who plays Tamura, Eiji Funakoshi, reminds me of a young Tom Hanks.  He’s an innocent, an everyman, forced to deal with a reality whose horror beggars the imagination.  We first see him in close-up, being chewed out by his superior officer for having returned to his base camp instead of conveniently dying at the hospital he’d been sent out to.  Things go downhill from there.

At first it seems as if Tamura is nothing more than a whipping-boy. He seems born to take the abuse of those more ambitious or more brutal than he is.  By the end of the film, however, we realize that he is the only one of the characters we meet who has not surrendered his soul.  There is blood on his hands (who can be innocent on a battlefield such as Leyte in 1945?), but as he descends the rings of Dante’s hell towards an encounter with a (human) fiend uglier than Lucifer he manages to recall another, more pedestrian life.  Smoke in the distance, the fires of the film’s title, represents, for Tamura, not war but sanity–farmers going on with their changeless lives, burning the husks of old corn crops.  As long as he can see that smoke, Tamura can believe that there is still a possibility of going home.  If he is mistaken, it is an error that preserves his humanity even more than the fact that his teeth are too rotten from malnutrition to allow him to eat human flesh and his TB makes him an unappetizing prospect for less scrupulous scavengers.

Fires on the Plain is shot in black and white.  The effect is chilling.  Can you imagine a Southeast Asian jungle as bleak?  Setsuo Kobayashi’s black and white photography evokes a landscape as hostile as that of the moon.  It seems cold.  Bodies litter it like bones bleaching in the sun.  In one village a whitewashed church has its doorway overflowing with corpses.  This is the tropical equivalent of Stalingrad.

One of the film’s most powerful images is of a dying soldier leaning against a naked tree on a windswept hill.  His hands are keeping his ripped bowels from spilling out between his legs.  He hallucinates himself as the Buddha, but instead of enlightenment he offers Tamura his own flesh as food.  Much has been made (and legitimately so) of the impact of the combat scenes in the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan; if you saw Spielberg’s film you owe it to Kon  Ichikawa to see what a master storyteller could do with a total cast of ten people and an almost nonexistent budget.

Ichikawa was sort of an enigma among Japan’s great directors.  He had an incredibly productive career that spanned 60 years and some 0 films, from his first picture in 1936 to his last in 2006. He apprenticed under Japan’s most famous master of cinema, Akira Kurasawa.   For much of his career, his main collaborator and production assistant was his wife, Natto Wada.  She wrote many of his most powerful screenplays, including Fires on the Plain.  Outside of Japan, Kon Ichikawa is perhaps the least well known of the major Japanese directors.  He presented a maddening target for critics.  He was a master at screen adaptations of Japanese literary masterpieces, yet didn’t hesitate to indulge a taste for comedy, black humor, and horror.  As he himself said, “People are always surprised at my humour and then they are always surprised at the bleakness of whatever philosophy I have.  To me they seem perfectly complementary.”  Even in Fires on the Plain there is a Chaplinesque sequence where three soldiers in turn find abandoned, increasingly ragged pairs of boots.  By the time Tamura finds the last pair in the mud, they are mere shells without soles.  He eyes them with a look of martyred patience, then removes what’s left of his own boots and continues on barefooted.

Natto Wada’s screenplay was based on a novel by Shohei Ooka.  That book has been called the greatest Japanese novel to come out of the war.  It is semi-autobiographical.  Ooka himself was one of the raw recruits sent into the killing fields of the Philippines as the Japanese war effort began to collapse.  He was a 35-year-old intellectual whose only experience of war was translating 19th century novels by Stendahl.  On a photograph of himself in uniform he wrote, “I must try to keep my hatred for the military from turning into hatred for mankind.”  Both Ooka and Ichikawa were mesmerized by the vision of ordered Japanese society reverting to a Hobbesian state of moral and physical chaos, of survival at any cost, and which witnesses the violation of any and all taboos.  In such a state, you’re either a predator or you’re “monkey meat”.  Critic Pauline Kael called Fires on the Plain a “post-nuclear-war film–a vision of the end, the final inferno.”  Private first class Tamura might represent a Christ-like redemption for humanity in the midst of holocaust.  Or he might be humanity’s last feeble gasp before being swallowed by savagery.  Neither the novelist nor the film-maker seems to have been sure.


Looking Back & Second Thoughts

 These, truly, are the Walking Dead.  Fires on the Plain remains as harrowing a film now as when I first saw it on PBS almost 50 years ago.  Director/producer Kon Ichikawa died in 2008, having made 86 films between 1946 and 2006.  Although one critic labeled him “one of the lesser Japanese directors,” that kind of condescension would be rare nowadays.  How many other Japanese directors have nine films released in English through the Criterion Collection?  David Thomson, in the New Biographical Dictionary of Film, describes Ichikawa as “a director of contradictions, a haphazard obsessive, disconcertingly versatile…restless, speculative, and unresolved.”  The range of his work is astonishing, from his earliest satirical comedies of the 1940s to the Tokyo Olympiad of 1965 to the Chekhovian Technicolor wonderland of The Makioka Sisters in 1985.  If Fires on the Plain is one of the most brutal anti-war films ever made, The Burmese Harp (1956) is one of the most moving pleas for peace since Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion.  Ichikawa benefited enormously from his collaboration with his screenwriter wife, Natto Wada, who helped him translate to film the works of some of Japan’s greatest writers—Suseki Natsume, Yukio Mishima, Junichiro Tanizaki, and Toson Shimazaki.  In a review of The Makioka Sisters included in the anthology Foreign Affairs, Micheal Sragrow noted that “[Ichikawa] and his long-time cowriter, wife Natto Wada, would lie with the original material for weeks, bringing the screenplay along (he once said) as one would a child or a puppy.”

According to Thompson, “Ichikawa was a cartoonist when he first left school (Walt Disney was one of his earliest influences), and he worked on animated films during the 1930s and the war years.  This led to employment as an assistant director at Toho and his first project—Musume Dojoji—a puppet film banned by the occupying authorities.”    Fires on the Plain was, after The Burmese Harp, one of his most successful films on the international stage.  It was the subject of an eloquent & powerful review by Pauline Kael, included in her first anthology of criticism, I Lost it at the Movies.  Ichikawa was one of the early masters of the use widescreen Cinemascope, working with superb cinematographers like Kazuo Miyagawa and Setsuo Kobayashi.  He had an excellent sense of composition (seen to particular effect in Fires on the Plain) and was closely involved in the lighting, camera set-ups and set design of his films.  Much of his work, unfortunately, has not been seen in the West.

John Gillett, in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, says that the director “has often been accused of eclecticism because of the bewildering variety of themes he has treated.”  James Monaco, on the other hand, in The Encyclopedia of Film, lauds him for “a wide spectrum of moods, from the comic to the overwhelmingly ironic and even the perverse.”  Monaco calls him a “great visual stylist and perfectionist” who “tends to present strongly etched, complex characters.”  Monaco also points out that “at various points in his career, [Ichikawa] has shown that he is capable of appealing to a popular audience without compromising his artistry.”  John Gillett writes, “His early feature films were often satirical comedies, a rarity in Japanese cinema, and revealed a wry sense of humor that prompted some local critics to call him the ‘Japanese Frank Capra.’….Ichikawa is a highly proficient film craftsman with a keen eye for visual texture.  He is a meticulous technician who labors long and carefully on every scene in advance of production.”  Donald Richie, in A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, calls Fires on the Plain “the most powerful of Japanese anti-war films.”

Some critics, Gillett included, see a decline in Ichikawa’s work after his wife’s retirement from screenwriting in 1965.  Thomson sums up his career by saying “When all is said and done, the variety is alarming, the inconsistency his most striking trait.”  The only later work of Ichikawa that I’ve seen is The Makioka Sisters, and it still seems to me to be the work of a master.

Anyone interested in learning more about the World War II Battle of Leyte in the Philippines, which novelist Shohei Ooka used as the setting for Fires on the Plain, can check out the Wikipedia article here:  Japanese casualties were 49,000 dead—80% from starvation or disease.

I’d like to close with a few excerpts from Pauline Kael’s review.  When Ms. Kael is good, she is very, very good:

“[Fires on the Plain] has the disturbing qualities of great art: it doesn’t leave you quite the same.  A few hours after seeing it, or a few days or weeks, it rushes up and overwhelms you.”

“an obsessive, relentless cry of passion and disgust”

“A work so powerfully felt and so intensely expressed that it turns rage into beauty.  Fires on the Plain is an appalling picture; it is also a work of epic poetry.”

“a new vision of hell….And what is both shocking and, in some terrible sense, beautiful is the revelation of man’s extraordinary passion for life even in an inferno.”

“It is not an anti-war film in the usual sense.  We see no causes, no cures, no enemy; it goes beyond nationalism or patriotism.  All men are enemies.  It is a post-nuclear-war film—a vision of the end, the final inferno.”

“As in Céline’s novels, there is the poetry of disgust, of catharsis….mankind devouring its humanity.”

Movie Information

Genre: War
Director: Kon Ichikawa
Actors: Eiji Funakoshi, Mantarô Ushio, Yoshihiro Yamaguchi
Year: 1959
Original Review: March 1999


Opening Shots Project

Compiled by Jim Emerson at, this is an extensive series of film essays looking at the way in which the opening shots of a film can set the theme & tone for everything that follows.  I’m not sure how many entries there are, but you’d get a pretty good education in film art by reading your way through them (and watching the movies themselves if you haven’t seen them).  The first dozen-plus entries cover Memento, Badlands, The New World, They Live by Night, The American Friend, The Player, Another Woman, The Conversation, The 400 Blows, Watchmen, Shotgun Stories, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, The Producers, Le Samouraï. 

Here’s an excerpt from what Jim Emerson had to say about the original project:

“Any good movie — heck, even the occasional bad one — teaches you how to watch it. And that lesson usually starts with the very first image. I’m not talking necessarily about titles or opening sequences (they’re worth discussing, too — but that’s another article); I’m talking about opening shots. As those who have been reading Scanners (and my Editor’s Notes on know, two of my cardinal rules for movie-watching are:

1) The movie is about what happens to you while you watch it. So, pay attention — to both the movie and your response. If you have reactions to, or questions about, what you’re seeing, chances are they’ll tell you something about what the movie is doing. Be aware of your questions, emotions, apprehensions, expectations.

2) The opening shot (or opening sequence) is the most important part of the movie… at least until you get to the final shot. (And in good movies, the two are often related.)

Every Stephen King Movie, Ranked From Worst to Best

List of adaptations of works by Stephen King

Compiled by Will Leitch and Tim Grierson for in 2017, this annotated list is both entertaining and a great overview of Stephen King’s ongoing relationship with the silver screen.  The commentaries are enlightening, with some wry humor.  For completists, the Wikipedia entry will give you the whole enchilada and keep you current.  Has any individual author every been more successful in getting his/her works on film?


An inexpensive streaming service that invites you to “Watch the Best of World Cinema.”  From the home page: 

“Filmatique streams acclaimed art-house and festival films—bold and daring works from filmmakers working in the vanguard of cinema.

Filmatique releases one new film per week, alongside exclusive filmmaker interviews and scholarly essays, carving out a space of discourse and visibility around often underseen films.”

Note: essays and interviews are available on the site without a subscription.

Films Worth Talking About:

La Dolce Vita, Les liaisons dangereuses, Austerlitz, Some Like It Hot, La femme et le pantin (The Woman and the Puppet), Spartacus, Rio Bravo, The Cousins, The 400 Blows, Hiroshima mon amour, Black Orpheus, Look Back in Anger, Nazarin, The Nun’s Story, Anatomy of a Murder, The World of Apu, North by Northwest, Ballad of a Soldier, Ben Hur

The Bigger Picture

FilmsThe Burmese Harp (1956), The Makioka Sisters (1983), An Actor’s Revenge (1963), Odd Obsession (1959), Conflagration (1958), Being Two Isn’t Easy (1962), Mr. Pu (1953)

Music:  selections by Fires on the Plain composer Akutagawa Yasushi available on YouTube

Books:  Shohei Ooka, Fires on the Plain; Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

The Word on the Street

This is undoubtedly the most harrowing black-and-white war film that I’ve watched; as a matter of fact, the only Western director during this time to remotely approach its level of intensity and sheer visceral power in his work was Samuel Fuller….In the supplements, Ichikawa remembers that Method-practicing lead actor Eiji Funakoshi (whose portrayal is unforgettable, by the way) arrived on the set at starvation point – with the result that production was forced to shut down for two weeks until he recuperated! Donald Richie’s perceptive interview favors the nihilism of the film over the underlying patriotism behind such gut-wrenching recent Hollywood fare as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998).   [Bunuel1976]

Every American who thinks he or she understands World War Two should see this movie. Few Hollywood films about the war have defied the stereotype of Japanese soldiers as emotionless brutes obeying orders without thinking. We like to think that every Japanese man was ready and able to fight to the death, right up to the day we bombed Nagasaki. “Fires on the Plain” shows a different reality: troops pathetically undersupplied, demoralized and starved to the point of cannibalism. They euphemistically refer to human flesh as “monkey meat.” The movie and novel on which it was based also put to death the myth that Japanese soldiers all preferred death to surrender: They had good reason to believe that their enemies were in no mood to take prisoners. To me it raises a question most Americans would rather avoid: If the Japanese military was so beaten down at this point in the war, why was it necessary to nuke Hiroshima?   [mrreindeer]

[In answer to the above question:]  …because Japan had not yet surrendered and stopped fighting.
However, if the Japanese military was so beaten down at this point in the war why didn’t the Japanese leaders stop the fighting and stop the suffering by stopping the war?

This criticism of the atomic bomb fails to recognize that no one knew in August 1945 when Japan would stop fighting. Also this approach seems not to recognize that even without an atomic bomb the fighting and dying would continue as long as the war continued, not only in Japan but in China and elsewhere. Even another two months of war (and conventional bombing and blockade) would have killed more people than died at Hiroshima AND Nagasaki combined.   [danfeit]

That is Nobi’s [Fires on the Plain] greatest success; the stark and brooding depiction of the suffering of war in simple but evocative images, without melodrama or pseudo-heroism. Soldiers cross a marsh, wading knee-deep in mud, move across the opposite bank and into a field only to discover enemy tanks hiding in the woods, their lights shining like malignant eyes as they scan the dark. A procession of injured soldiers, dirty and half-mad, crossing a road, dropping to the ground on the sound of enemy planes. Buzzards feasting on a pile of dead bodies. An abandoned village. A mad soldier that believes himself to be Buddha sitting under a tree, covered with flies and his own excrement, offering his arm to be eaten by Tamura when he’s dead. These are the images Kon Ichikawa conjures for our eyes, merciless and unflinching in their poignancy but honest and raw.
Nobi doesn’t rush to get somewhere. It is content to follow Tamura’s travels through the war-torn land as he tries to reach the regrouping center of Palompa, and observe the madness and obscenities of war. The movie wades through the sludge of the horror of war, slow and brooding, just like the characters it follows. The final thirty minutes with Tamura taking refuge with two deserters who feed on ‘monkey meat’ are the closest Nobi comes to adhering to conventional narratives and they’re no less powerful for that matter. Strikingly photographed in black and white, with great performances from the cast, and Ichikawa’s assured direction, Nobi is not only among the best war movies to be made but also among the finest of Japanese cinema.   [chaos-rampant]

I got this movie out a week after the death of Ichikawa Kon – I suppose if there is one way to mark the passing of a great director, its to raise a glass of wine to him while watching one of his greatest movies. Ichikawa had one of the finest careers in Japanese film, but as he never had a distinctive style or theme he often seems to be overlooked compared to his near contemporaries such as Ozu and Kurosawa (he was a little younger than them, but not by much). He is one of those directors who defies auteur theories – its likely that his wife (who wrote the screenplay for this and many other of his movies) was as much responsible for the quality of the movies as he was. But at his best, he was as good as any Japanese film maker at the time. In particular, he had great technical skills, allowing him to tell complex stories in an accessible manner. But in terms of theme, this movie could hardly be simpler – war is hell. No really, its seriously hell….In typical Ichikawa style, its not all just grim – its oddly funny in parts (a very black humour of course).   [GyatsoLa]

The film is filled with incredible scenes, one after another. Like Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, Ichikawa knew how to use his camera to paint beautiful and stunning pictures. There are many stunning shots of men in barren empty plains surrounded by nothing but smoke in the air and dead or dying bodies on the broken earth. There is another incredible scene where dozens of Japanese soldiers attempt to cross a road guarded by Yanks in the middle of the night, all crawling on their hands and knees as the camera watches on from above.
The film gets its name from the columns of smoke rising up from fires on the plains seen throughout the film. They represent to the soldier’s life a little more ordinary; the lives of Japanese farmers back home burning husks of corn. Their beacons of hope for the normal life however are in hostile hands.
The film caused a stir in its day with its graphic content. Much emphasis is placed on the horror of war, not just with the enemy but within your ranks and yourself. Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plains is an incredibly authentic and moving, and somewhat disturbing, portrait of the horror suffered by the men making up the lower ranks of the Imperial Army. Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, while it is a very good film, comes nowhere close to realizing the horror of war depicted in Fires on the Plain. (Eastwood was no doubt influenced by the film, seeing as he claims to be such a classic Japanese film buff.) Many war films show that war is hell through the eyes of the winners. In Fires on the Plain, we’re shown that war is even more hellish when you’re on the losing end.   [MacAindrais]

When people think post-war Japanese cinema, they automatically think of Akira Kurosawa. His exported samurai epics have done a good job creating a sense of history, nobility and grace among the art cinema crowd. Yet arguably more important to Japan’s unique cinematic history during that era, are the humanistic war stories brought to life by the likes of Masaki Kobayashi, Nagisa Oshima and Kon Ichikawa. Comprising a portion of the Japanese New Wave, these war dramas challenged their viewers head-on, illustrating the ugliness of war in all it’s absurdity and horror. These movies were noble in their own way by angrily confronting the attitudes tolerated by Japan during it’s peak nationalist period. Fires on the Plain is just as incendiary as it’s title would suggest and serves as a prime example of such a film. It may also just be the most engaging and accessible war tale Japan has ever produced….

If Kurosawa is considered the Spielberg of Japan than director Kon Ichikawa is it’s Martin Scorsese. Known less for an all-permeating thesis that seeps into his oeuvre, Ichikawa gives his work an idiosyncratic style and a visceral veneer. Throughout his career Ichikawa was known for taking on all popular genres, all of which balanced his knack for realism and expressionism. His worlds always have a beautiful wholeness and lets the pathos from each situation dig into the audience’s cranium through all sides. Sometimes he accomplishes this with shock, other times with a mischievous sense of humor. One such iconic moment happens in Fires on the Plain when a platoon of soldiers march upon a pair of jungle boots. One soldier swiftly puts them on and discards his own, the next soldier takes the previous soldier’s boots, and so on and so forth until Tamura looks down on the tattered remains of the last guy’s boots, takes his off and keeps walking barefooted.   [bkrauser-81-311064]

What intriguing is that I read that this is based on a novel about the redemptive power of Christianity. The director removed all over the religious references to hope and salvation and instead used it as to show that life stinks, war stinks worse and that there is, ultimately no hope.   [dbborroughs]