86485840228b9d174ae44b6a189f8c0bIt’s a fallacy to think Japan doesn’t make war films. Or perhaps, more that they didn’t make them until the recent swing to the right in Japanese politics seems to have made it OK to make Hollywood style war movies. Up until the sixties, Japanese cinema was willing and able to engage with the darkness of the recent past and several wonderful films such as Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (Ningen no Jouken 人間の条件) or Okamoto’s The Human Bullet (Nikudan 肉弾) not to mention Ichikawa’s own The Burmese Harp (Biruma no Tategotoビルマの竪琴) presented the still fresh sorrow and regret associated with Imperialist ’30s onwards. None of them, however, come close to the hellish world of Fires on the Plain (Nobi 野火).

Based on Shohei Ooka’s novel of the same name, Fires on the Plain begins with the beleaguered conscript Tamura (Funakoshi Eiji) being berated (at length) by his commanding officer for returning from the field hospital earlier than expected. Despite having been given five days food, Tamura has returned after just three days because the hospital refused to admit him. Sick with TB, Tamura is told the hospital feels its duty is to the battlefield wounded – not those who’ve been unlucky enough to catch a debilitating and often terminal condition. Of course, his CO doesn’t want him back either – with only so many resources left and staring defeat in the face, why waste food and effort on a man who can’t pull his weight and is probably going to die anyway. And so, Tamura is sent back to the field hospital with no additional food and instructed to wait there until they let him in or alternatively, there’s your grenade – isn’t there? Do the decent thing. Thus begins Tamura’s bleak odyssey into the depths of human depravity, trying desperately to survive in the unforgiving Philippine jungle.

Legend has it that Funakoshi was so dedicated to the part that in true method fashion he’d been living on a starvation diet prior to the film’s starting and in fact actually caused it to be halted almost immediately when he collapsed from severe malnutrition. That might in part explain his miraculous performance with vacant, staring eyes like someone whose soul has gone somewhere far away. His halting and confused speech, understanding and not understanding, desperate to survive but terrified of what he might become – Tamura has no choice but to keep on walking, trying to find something to cling on to. Everybody knows the war is lost, yet there’s nothing they can do but keep on fighting. Tamura even considers the unthinkable – surrender, but another soldier beats him to it and is promptly mown down by a machine gun wielded by a Filipina resistance fighter working with the Americans. The most pressing problem is the lack of food. There is very little to live on left on the island which has been well and truly wrecked by every side. You can steal food from the indigenous people (if you can find any) or there’s ‘monkey meat’. The great taboo – cannibalism. Ultimately Tamura decides sometimes the price for survival is just too high if you won’t be able to live with what you’ve done.

In the west, particularly in the US, the film was criticised for its ‘sympathetic’ portrayal of Japanese soldiers – that it was another instance of Japan ‘playing the victim’ which was a common American reaction to the more contemplative war films of Post War Japan. It is true, the films glosses over the immediate situation of the Japanese occupied Philippines though the film largely takes with the Japanese on the run from American troops and the Philippine resistance. The fact there have been atrocities is never directly addressed though it hangs in the background like a grim, guilty spectre. It might explain why Tamura’s early meeting with a pair of villagers who’ve made a stealthy visit to their abandoned home to retrieve a parcel of salt buried under the floor becomes so fraught. In the first instance, Tamura was foolish to enter the house and approach them – even his disordered mind he must have known it was very unlikely they’d react kindly to his presence. If he just wanted to know what was buried under the floorboards, he had only to fire a warning shot and scare them off before they could dig it up and then retrieve it himself. When he does show himself the male villager runs off but the female is so scared she can barely move and can’t stop screaming. Tamura shoots her and takes the salt for himself. Disgusted with his actions he throws his rifle into the nearest pond. That isn’t to say the film lets Tamura, or indeed the other men or the whole Japanese war machine, off the hook. Only that they’ve become this way because of what war reduces you to – less than animals, surviving by any means even if that means betraying your fellow men.

Fires on the Plain was adapted from Shohei Ooka’s novel of the same name by Ichikawa and his screen writing wife Wada Natto who, while keeping broadly to the tone and spirit of the book, made several changes. The most obvious being to the structure of the novel which has more of a framing sequence, an unreliable first person narrator and a complicated structure. In the novel Tamura, a fictionalised version of the author, is a Christian and the book is written with a Christian view of the world rather than the traditionally Japanese viewpoint common to the majority of soldiers. Therefore, Ichikawa decided to remove the Christian themes from the film in order to present Tamura as more of an everyman though the Tamura of the book is presented much more ambiguously. This also explains the changes to the film’s ending which is bleaker and less forgiving that than that of the novel.

One of the most horrifying depictions of war ever put on screen, Fires on the Plain lays bare the true horror of warfare. Trapped in a sort of purgatory, forced to wander the jungle waiting for the inevitable yet desperately clinging on to life, Tamura’s story can’t be described as anything less than hellish. Wading past corpses, mud, blood and those who’ve already gone mad – this is humanity at its lowest point. Even if you meet another soldier, they can’t be trusted – it’s every man for himself. Ichikawa’s world is bleak beyond belief with no hope in sight, the only possibility of salvation lying in the large fires that appear at distant points along plains. Everyone assumes them to be a signal of some kind but nobody knows what they mean or for whom they are intended. A descent into hell, Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain is one of the most realistic and most powerful anti-war films in cinema history.

Fires on the Plain is unavailable in the UK but is available in the US from the Criterion Collection. Shohei Ooka’s book is likewise unpublished in the UK but is available in English in its original 1957 translation by Ivan Morris currently in print from Tuttle in the US though it should be noted that Morris’ translation is itself heavily edited. 



  1. Great review!

    I started watching this after we discussed the solitary Japanese film at the Venice Film Festival and I made it part of the way through. I’m super-excited to see what Shinya Tsukamoto will come up with on the basis of the stuff I did watch. It was strong stuff. Now you’ve spoiled the rest 😛

    It’s hard not to read a political point in Tsukamoto’s decision to tackle this subject even before seeing the film. It seems like Japan’s swing to the right (thanks to the growth of China), and the absence of the war from school books has created a generation unwilling and unable to talk about the war so it feels alarming when someone like Koji Wakamatsu and Nagisa Oshima passes on because there aren’t any filmmakers who are outspoken like they are. It’s hard to believe we will see the types of documentaries that Shohei Imamura made, or things like The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On and fiction films like this.

    Tsukamoto is our only hope. Him and the chap who made A Woman and War.

    1. Thank you!

      Ha – sorry, I did my best to avoid spoilers but at least I managed not to give the ending away! Well, sort of. It is strong stuff though isn’t it? The Human Condition gets pretty bleak in a different way (though I think the protagonist creates a lot of problems for himself unnecessarily which is part of the point I suppose) but you could put this one next to Dante’s Inferno.

      Funnily enough, there’s an interview with Donald Richie on the Criterion disc, I think from about ten years ago, where he says a film like this could never be made now. I think when you look at film history it seems like there was a tipping point when the directors who were already adults who may or may not have served in the military during the war gave way to the younger generation who didn’t have that immediate experience. Their focus was less on war guilt than on the problem of the American occupation and a conflict between Westernisation and traditional values. After the economic miracle people just wanted to forget about the past and move forward but that just really creates its own problems in the end. Mind you, I feel like a hypocrite when anyone brings up the topic of Japanese school books – it’s not like my history lessons at school were chock full of the horrors of colonialism. It’s not as if that’s any further in the past either, it just has a longer history but nobody wants to talk about that very much either.

      I am very interested in what Tsukamoto is going to do with this though and what he’s going to say with it (and especially how it will be received in Japan and abroad). When I was looking at the book (which I haven’t read but I really want to because it sounds exactly like my sort of thing) it seems it gets a lot stranger as Tamura starts hallucinating and becoming delusional fairly early on. Actually there’s not a lot of that in this film – the ‘reality’ is pretty straightforward from the audience’s perspective, there’s not much of a sense that Tamura is seeing things that aren’t really there just that he often doesn’t clearly understand what’s going on. I saw a short film that was part of a horror omnibus that Tsukamoto made, I think based on a Dazai story? In which the ghost of soldier oozed out of a wardrobe which was the only really unsettling moment in what was billed as a ‘horror’ anthology. I’m really looking forward to seeing how he deals with altered realities though as that’s something I really like about his films.

      I think it’s more of a worry that there isn’t much of an outlet for films that deal with these ‘difficult’ subjects – they aren’t going to make money domestically and it might also be difficult to get them into festivals with out any ‘established’ names attached and even a lot of those directors who’ve already made their name might be reluctant to take on a controversial subject in fear of harming their careers. I guess it’s the same everywhere but a little more heightened in Japan.

      1. Interesting stuff.

        Japanese cinema seems to have no ground whatsoever for titles that are indie or dare to be different so one which brings up troubling history is going to get shot down while patriotic stuff like The Eternal Zero breaks the box-office. I haven’t see the film, I just have trouble sympathising with suicide bombers taken straight from the pages of a book written by one of Abe’s cronies. Maybe I’ll change my mind when I see the film.

        That’s what makes the Tsukamoto film so interesting because he does make different and challenging work but I haven’t seen anything from him about WWII. Judging by your description, he’ll be able to go to town and make something wilder than Kotoko. Also grisly. I’d love to see that and be fascinated by the reaction in Japan. Probably deafening silence.

        History in the UK is Normans, Tudors, Elizabethans, Victorians, WWI, WWII and the Cold War. I can’t remember anything about slavery or colonialism, I had to learn about that stuff at home. I guess the narrative that schools all over the world foster is, ‘The glorious homeland has seen better times” and ‘Foreigners are trouble’. The two are then usually linked.

        No wonder we can’t end wars.

        That written, I’ll watch a popcorn film like Dawn of the Dead… (2004) 😛

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