I first watched Fires on the Plain a few years ago, back in 2007, before I started this blog, when I was just happy to spot a new DVD with the big C logo on it appear on the shelf at my local library. I took it home, watched it once in short segments over the course of a few days, at times that spared my wife and children from exposure to the brutality of a hard-hitting Japanese war movie that involved cannibalism and other atrocities. I promptly returned it a few days later, and in hindsight I now understand that I really didn't give the film its due attention and consideration. I was still learning a lot about how to appreciate and understand foreign films back then, and lacking much in the way of context or preparation for what I saw, all I was left with was an under-informed impression that Fires on the Plain is a pretty damn depressing war movie.
Cut from there to where I'm at in 2011, with several hundred viewings of various art house classics and a more disciplined approach to these works cultivated over the past few years. Gearing up to take another look at Fires on the Plain, now much more familiar with pre- and postwar Japanese cinema, I was ready (so I thought) to properly consider Kon Ichikawa's solemn, uncompromising portrayal of the horrific sufferings and deprivations that his fellow countrymen endured in the waning days of the Pacific War, where intense battle fatigue, starvation, panic and confusion drove the defeated soldiers to commit unthinkable deeds simply for the sake of survival. I knew a bit more about Ichikawa's style (so I thought) based on my viewing of The Burmese Harp, a seeming companion piece to Fires on the Plain that Ichikawa released a couple years earlier, and which was issued by Criterion in packaging that makes them look practically like parts 1 and 2 of a series.
Sufficiently prepared then to grapple with the appalling shock and wretched misery I knew I was about to encounter on the screen, I was halfway through my most recent viewing when it just seemed like something wasn't going down quite right. There was a disconnect between what I was expecting to see and what was actually happening as I watched shell-shocked Private Tamura wander through the smoldering wasteland of Leyte, an island in the Phillippines where a straggling company of soldiers is being tracked down by American troops on the one hand, while trying to steer clear of vengeful Filipinos on the other. Chaos runs rampant, life itself is reduced to blunt impulses streaked with occasional bursts of lucid insight and the value of continuing on toward some ill-defined purpose is a debatable proposition at best if one could only gather and hold one's thoughts long enough to make the argument.
None of that surprised me, nor was I especially startled at my second encounter with the crisply, even beautifully, rendered visuals of emaciated men stripped of all dignity who succumbed through various debased behaviors to incomprehensible mental and physical pressures. What I expected, but never did experience, was a more blatant appeal to my emotions, some kind of grand statement that would mandate me to empathize with Tamura's plight and leave me pitifully shaking my head at the profound sorrows and sadness that war heaps on its victims, both the vanquished and the conquerors alike. That emotional appeal, coming particularly from the Japanese tradition of antiwar movies such as Twenty-Four Eyes, No Regrets for Our Youth, The Human Condition and the aforementioned The Burmese Harp, directed by Ichikawa himself, is almost completely lacking in Fires on the Plain. It's not that we don't find plenty to lament as Tamura staggers from the face-slapping opening scene to his inevitable death by rifle shot from a non-visible, anonymous and detached executioner at the end. Tamura is bitterly scorned and rejected by his commanding officers, dismissed and mocked by his peers, deceived by the native Filipinos, hunted by enemy combatants and even terrorized by a ravenous stray dog. Along the way, he commits war crimes of his own,and the one seemingly genuine friend that he makes turns out to be an agent of the most heinous corruption of all. The material for raw manipulative pathos is endless.
And yet the brilliance in what Ichikawa does with it all is found in how he eschews the opportunity to take us down the familiar heart-rending path that so often seeks to ennoble or validate the sufferings inflicted and sacrifices demanded by war. Fires on the Plain sidesteps any temptation to stage big battles or revel in the awe-inspiring spectacle of brave and desperate foolish men firing powerful weapons at each other. Even when the bullets fly on a few occasions, they arrive mainly as a randomized spray of death, just little upkicks of dust on the ground with the capability of snuffing out a life if they so happen to land on a human body. Or one loud emotionless blast and collapse to get it over with. We see blood ooze out of wounds from time to time, and the lives of the victims expire a little too quickly and quietly to be fully believable. But the end result is mere silence anyway, in the movies and real life, so why embellish the film with exaggerated performances? In this context, that would represent an even greater obscenity than the vile "eating" scenes (those who've seen Fires on the Plain will no doubt remember what I'm referring to) that rightfully mark the lowest depths to which Tamura and his woeful comrades descend.
What set Fires on the Plain apart from most if not all of its contemporaneous war movies, and still makes it distinctive today, is its lack of a political agenda or any other sentiment that might serve as an apologetic for the necessity of armed conflict between nations. Private Tamura isn't an Everyman with whom the audience can identify, since he's given no backstory at all, other than that he's got tuberculosis and hasn't died yet. Otherwise, he's nondescript, too ambulatory to gain admission to the hospital, but too weak and contagious to be earn his keep among the ever-diminishing rank and file troops. So he's turned out to roam aimlessly and fend for himself, until he stumbles across a few assets (a couple of yams, a pouch full of salt, mostly) to make himself at least temporarily worthwhile to others. But there's no overt blaming for what happened during the war, no apparent desire to even teach viewers a lesson about why such calamities should be avoided either now or in the future. The obliteration of minds and bodies is destined to happen again and again.
Ichikawa, along with his wife and screenwriter Natto Wada, understand this grim sentence that humanity is destined to serve and they are simply documenting a local eruption in Japan's recent past for the sake of posterity. The numerous moments of bleak, absurdist humor that popped up more frequently than I anticipated, which provoked that disconnect between expectations and experience that I mentioned to begin this essay, are just as important in delivering the impact of Fires on the Plain as the more graphic and extreme shock sequences involving mud, blood, feces, chunks of flesh and the screams of the dying.
The territory that Ichikawa opened up in this film, that disturbing breach between graphic horror and dark comedy, had not been so frequently explored as it is nowadays, where gore and cannibalism and physical torments are genre conventions, routinely depicted in extremis for cheap shocks and casual laughs. Such is the jaded trajectory of our current entertainment environment that relentlessly plows through whatever taboos are still left standing. And yet, it's easy to see the visual parallels between "zombie walk" cliches of recent years and Ichikawa's choreography of wounded warriors spilling like maggots from a roadkill carcass as their jungle hut hospital under aerial bombardment. I hardly need point out that Ichikawa aimed a bit higher than mere gasp-inducing exploitation, but even so, I think it was only a bit, and there's nothing wrong with that at all. If we feel dismayed, hollowed out, psychically consumed ourselves after watching this film, we've landed pretty much where Ichikawa intended to take us. Exploitation itself is his subject, and exploitation of whatever resources are at hand for the purpose of unthinking survival, after all, is the fuel that ignites the Fires on the Plain.