Appellate Judge Dan Mancini says this Japanese war flick ain't about a weenie roast.
"I was told to die and I intend to do so."—Tamura
One of the many reasons for the viciousness of the Japanese military during its conquest of Manchuria in the 1930s was the nearly complete absence of supply lines. Rather than working through the complex logistics of supplying their soldiers, the Japanese high command deployed thousands of troops with the instructions to live off of the fat of the Chinese mainland. That meant pillaging villages and murdering civilians if necessary in order to survive. The Japanese military took a similar approach during World War II. Unfortunately, islands in the Pacific didn't have the land mass or populations necessary to support influxes of tens of thousands of foot soldiers. Japanese grunts often faced a hard choice between starvation and the worst of human depravities in order to survive.
In the 1950s, Kon Ichikawa would've seemed the least likely film director to execute a head-on assault on the depravity of war. Often capped in a black beret and wearing an impish grin, he appeared more suited to the many, many light comedies that dominated the earliest phase of his career. But take on the depravity of war is exactly what he did—bluntly and without compromise. The result was Fires on the Plain, probably Ichikawa's finest movie and one of the most direct and uncompromising war films made by any director anywhere in the world.
Facts of the Case
It's February, 1945. Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi, Gamera) is among a regiment of Japanese soldiers fighting in the Philippines. A consumptive, he isn't wanted by either his squad commander or the doctor at the military hospital—food is scarce and neither want to feed him. When he attempts to return to the front after a brief hospital stay, his commander sends him away with a few yams and a hand grenade with which to kill himself if the doctors refuse to take responsibility for him. Tamura wanders the countryside, encountering squads of Japanese soldiers, most of whom suffer on the edge of starvation.
When the command finally comes for the army to gather for evacuation from the island, Tamura falls in with a squad of soldiers who only want him around because of his small supply of salt. Fearful they'll kill or abandon him once his salt runs out, he leaves them and joins up with Yasuda (Osamu Takizawa, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo) and Nagamatsu (Mickey Curtis, Yakuza Demon), a duo trying to survive by trading tobacco for food and eating the "monkey meat" Nagamatsu hunts in the Philippine jungle.
Fires on the Plain moves steadily towards a harrowing climactic revelation. As such, it's a little challenging to dissect in a review. Rest assured, I won't be giving away its big surprise. To do so would undermine the power of Kon Ichikawa's finest film. It would also be entirely unnecessary as plenty of words can be expended on Ichikawa's exquisite craft without having to strip bare its magic.
The film opens on a tight close-up of Eiji Funakoshi's wan, drooping face as his Private Tamura is berated by an officer for returning to the front even though he suffers from tuberculosis and can only be a burden to the other men. It's a cold reversal of the usual war film formula in which soldiers are lauded for having the courage to stay in the fight despite injury or sickness. In fact, courage has nothing to do with Tamura's return—he's been kicked out of the hospital by apathetic doctors who don't want to be bothered caring for him. Throughout the picture, Ichikawa treats Funakoshi's lanky frame and weary, dead-eyed face like an alien landscape, lingering on sunken cheeks hidden beneath a coarse beard, grotesque fingernails long untrimmed, and tattered military uniform.
Kon Ichikawa began his career as an animator, then moved into live-action comedies before making dramas like The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain. His early experience, though earning him little acclaim, helped him to build a formidable eye for composition. Fires on the Plain's relatively sparse dialogue reveals the characters' souls or propels the narrative forward, but Ichikawa does most of his communicating through the dense tapestry of visuals he constructs. The Philippine jungle and the haggard grimy, exhausted, and hungry Japanese soldiers who inhabit it are so naturalistic and authentic, the movie has a documentary feel even though Ichikawa's compositions have the tight, polished order we associated with studio-financed facsimiles of reality.
Fires on the Plain fascinates because of the directness with which it confronts the ugliest aspects of Japanese militarism during World War II. Frankly, it's flabbergasting that Ichikawa managed to get the film made at all (in the video introduction on this disc, Donald Richie observes that it would never be made in Japan today). Ichikawa pulled off this feat by making his film direct but not overtly political. No war film—even the most lunkheaded actioner—can avoid being political, but Ichikawa lulls us with his emphasis on Tamura's very personal plight even as he bludgeons us with the almost supra-political universality of man's hideous cruelty to man. The end result is a harsh critique of Japanese militarism that comes off on first blush as little more than a gripping character study. In fact, the movie is both personal and political. It is also a singular war film, one of the greatest of the genre.
Criterion's DVD treatment of Fires on the Plain is light on extras, but offers a nearly pristine transfer. The 2.35:1 anamorphically enhanced black-and-white image sports perfect contrast throughout and negligible source damage. Skin texture, beads of sweat, and the dense foliage of the Philippine jungle come across in sharp detail. Digital artifacts are practically non-existent and definitely not distracting.
Digitially restored, the original Japanese mono track is presented in a single-channel mix that places all dialogue and effects in the center speaker of 5.1 systems. The track is clean, clear, and almost entirely free of crackle, hiss, or distortion.
Supplements on the disc include a video introduction to the film by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie (The Japan Journals: 1947-2004), who provides so much information in 12 minutes about Ichikawa's career and the production of the film that you'll wish Criterion had tapped him for a feature-length commentary. Video interviews with Ichikawa and actor Mickey Curtis—conducted by Criterion in 2005 and 2006, respectively—are combined into a 20-minute piece that covers a variety of aspects of the film's production. Both of the video pieces are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.
A 22-page insert booklet contains a lengthy essay by Film Comment contributing editor Chuck Stevens, as well as the detailed notes about the video and audio transfers that are a standard (and welcome) feature of Criterion releases.
Because Kon Ichikawa is a lesser-known Japanese filmmaker, Fires on the Plain is a lesser-known classic. But a classic it is. Whether you're a fan of war films, anti-war films, or films in general, you must see it.
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Scales of Justice
• Video Introduction by Japanese Film Scholar Donald Richie
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