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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Leyte. 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.”