Over the Fence (オーバー・フェンス, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2016)

over the fence posterNobuhiro Yamashita may be best known for his laid-back slacker comedies, but he’s no stranger to the darker sides of humanity as evidenced in the oddly hopeful Drudgery Train or the heartbreaking exploration of misplaced trust and disillusionment of My Back Page. One of three films inspired by Hakodate native novelist Yasushi Sato (the other two being Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s Sketches of Kaitan City and Mipo O’s The Light Shines Only There), Over the Fence (オーバー・フェンス) may be among the less pessimistic adaptations of the author’s work though its cast of lonely lost souls is certainly worthy both of Yamashita’s more melancholy aspects and Sato’s deeply felt despair.

Shiraiwa (Joe Odagiri) wants nothing to with anything or anyone. His wife has divorced him and he doesn’t see his child but he still wears his wedding ring and feels like a married man, unable to move on from the suspended end of his marriage. Having no place else to go, Shiraiwa has come back to his home town of Hakodate – a run down harbour town on the southern point of Hokkaido. For no particular reason other than it allows him to continue claiming unemployment benefits, he’s enrolled in a back to work scheme at a vocational school which teaches carpentry skills. Keeping himself aloof and explaining to anyone that takes an interest that he’s “human scum” and they’d best keep away, Shiraiwa is eventually convinced to go drinking with fellow student Dajima (Shota Matsuda) at his favourite bar.

Dajima introduces him to a much needed motivating factor in his life, a free spirited hostess girl with the strangely manly name of Satoshi (Yu Aoi). Satoshi argues loudly with customers in the street and dances with wild abandon in the middle of a room of quiet drinkers but on getting to know her better her rapidly changeable moods and occasional fits of violent despair speak of a more serious set of problems which Satoshi herself feels as ill equipped to deal with as Shiraiwa has been with the failure of his marriage.

Failure is something which hangs heavily over the film as the grey dullness and stagnant quality of the harbour town seems to bear out its inescapability. Unsurprisingly, in one sense, everyone at the vocational school is there because they’ve already failed at something else though some of them have more success with carpentry than others. Shiraiwa takes the work seriously even if he doesn’t really see himself heading into a career as a carpenter but there’s an additional reason why the environment is so oppressive and the uniforms not unlike those of a prison. Everyone is here because they have to be and they can’t leave until they’ve completed their re-education. The teacher at the school is always quick to remind everyone how it was when he worked in the field, only he never did, he’s a failure and a prideful fantasist too.

The other men face various problems from age and dwindling possibilities, to intense pressure to succeed leading to eventual mental breakdown, and trying to build a new life after leaving the yakuza, but Shiraiwa is unique among them in the degree to which he has internalised his essential failures. Having convinced himself that he’s “human scum” Shiraiwa wants everyone else to know too as he intentionally refuses any sense of forward motion or progress in his life to reassure himself that there is no possible future for him. Satoshi has convinced herself of something similar though her dissatisfaction and fear of rejection are deeply ingrained elements of her personality which are permanent personal attributes. Pushing Shiraiwa to address the questions he could not bear to face, she helps him towards a more positive position whilst simultaneously refusing any kind of reciprocal self analysis.

There’s an additional cruelty in Satoshi’s manic declaration that Shiraiwa drove his wife insane that’s in part self directed and raises a mutual anxiety between them as Shiraiwa may be falling for a woman who already feels herself to be “mad”. Satoshi’s strange impressions of birds and animals point to her closeness to nature and separation from conventional society but also perhaps of her fear of hurting other people through her periodic descents into self destructive cruelty. As caged as the animals in the zoo where she works, Satoshi decides to try letting them out only to discover that the eagle has no desire to leave his perch.

Hakodate becomes a kind of purgatory for all as they each attempt to conquer their demons and win the right to move on to better and brighter things. Melancholy as it is, Yamashita adds in touches of his trademark surrealist humour but even in its sadness Over the Fence leaves room for hope. Climaxing in an inconsequential yet extremely important softball game the meaning of the film’s title becomes apparent – you’ll never know if you can hit that ball over the fence until you find the courage to take a swing but you may never be able to find it without the help and support of a kindred spirit.


Over the Fence was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Scoop! (Hitoshi One, 2016)

scoop!Hitoshi One has a history of trying to find the humour in an old fashioned sleazy guy but the hero of his latest film, Scoop!, is an appropriately ‘80s throwback complete with loud shirt, leather jacket, and a mop of curly hair. Inspired by a 1985 TV movie written and directed by Masato Harada, Scoop! is equal parts satire, exposé and tragic character study as it attempts to capture the image of a photographer desperately trying to pretend he cares about nothing whilst caring too much about everything.

Shizuka (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a man out of time. Once the best photojournalist on his paper, he’s ridden the waves of a changing industry and become a high earning freelance paparazzo. Shizuka’s nights are spent in all of the fashionable if occasionally squalid drinking holes of the city in which the elites of the entertainment world attempt to disappear. Sadako (Yo Yoshida), the editor of Scoop! – a once proud publication now a seedy scandal rag, worries about her old friend, his debts, and his legacy. Offering to pay him well above the going rate for anything useable, she saddles him with the latest new recruit – Nobi (Fumi Nikaido), a naive young woman dressing in the bold childhood nostalgia inspired fashion trends of Harajuku. As might be assumed the pair do not hit it off but gradually a kind of closeness develops as Nobi gets into the thrill of the paparazzo chase.

In keeping with his inspiration, One shoots with a very ‘80s aesthetic of a city bathed in neon and moving to the beat of electropop and synth strings. Grainy and grungy, the images are seedy as is the world they capture though this is the Tokyo of the present day, not the bubble era underground. Shizuka claims his major inspiration came from the famous war photographer Robert Capa though now he can’t even remember if he really meant to become a photographer at all. Chasing cheating celebrities and exposing the odd politician for the kind of scandal that sells newspapers is all Shizuka thinks he’s good for, any pretence of journalistic integrity or the “people have a right to know” justification was dropped long ago.

Sadako, however, has more of a business head than her colleagues and is starting to think that Scoop! could be both a serious news outlet and nasty tabloid full of gravure shots and shocking tales of the rich and famous. Getting Shizuka to mentor Nobi is an attempt at killing to two birds with one stone – unite the plucky rookie with the down on his luck veteran for a new kind of reporting, and help Shizuka return to his better days by paying off those massive debts and getting his self esteem back.

Unfortunately Shizuka is his own worst enemy, hanging around with his strange friend Chara-Gen (Lily Franky) who is intermittently helpful but a definite liability. The world of the newspaper is certainly a sexist one – Sadako and Nobi seem to be the only two women around and the banter is distinctly laddish. An ongoing newsroom war leaves Sadako lamenting that the men only think about their careers and promotions rather than the bigger picture while the suggestion that she may win the position of editor has other colleagues bemusedly asking if a woman has ever helmed such a high office. The men ask each other for brothel recommendations and pass sexist comments back and fore amongst themselves with Shizuka trying to out do them all even going so far as to put down the new girl by describing her as “probably a virgin”.

Sadako’s plan begins to work as Shizuka and Nobi become closer, she becoming the kind of reporter who files the story no matter what and he finally agreeing to work on a more serious case. Having spent so long believing everything’s pointless, Shizuka’s reawakening maybe his undoing as a noble desire to help a friend who is so obviously beyond help leads to unexpected tragedy. Nevertheless, the presses keep rolling. A throwback in more ways than one, One’s 80s inspired tale of disillusioned reporters and mass media’s circulation numbers obsessed race to the bottom is all too modern. Unexpectedly melancholy yet often raucously funny, Scoop! is an old fashioned media satire but one with genuine affection for the embattled newsroom as it tries to clean up its act.


Scoop! was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dead or Alive 2: Birds (DEAD OR ALIVE 2 逃亡者, Takashi Miike, 2000)

dead-or-alive-2-birds

How do you make a sequel to a film which ended with the apocalypse? Takashi Miike is no stranger to strange logic, but he gets around this obvious problem by neatly sidestepping it. Dead or Alive 2: Birds (DEAD OR ALIVE 2 逃亡者, Dead or Alive 2: Tobosha) is, in many ways, entirely unconnected with its predecessor, sharing only its title and lead actors yet there’s something in its sensibility which ties it in very strongly with the overarching universe of the trilogy. If Dead or Alive was the story of humanity gradually eroded by internecine vendetta, Dead or Alive 2 is one of humanity restored through a return to childhood innocence though its prognosis for its pair of altruistic hitmen is just as bleak as it was for the policeman who’d crossed the line and the petty Triad who came to meet him.

Signalling the continuous notions of unreality, we’re introduced to this strange world by a magician (Shinya Tsukamoto) who uses packets of cigarettes to explain the true purpose of a hit ordered on a local gangster which just happens to be not so different from the plot of the first film. Because the gangster world has its own kind of proportional representation, neither the yakuza nor the Triads can rule the roost alone – they need to enter a “coalition” with a smaller outfit no doubt desperate to carve out a little more power for themselves. The free agents, however, have decided on a way to even the power share – hire a hitman to knock off a high ranking Chinese gangster and engineer a turf war in which a proportion of either side will die, leaving the third gang a much more credible player.

Mizuki (Sho Aikawa), bleach blond and fond of Hawaiian shirts, is an odd choice for a secret mission but his sniper rifle is rendered redundant when a man in a dark suit does the job for him – loudly and publicly. So much the better, thinks Mizuki, but the memory of the strangely familiar figure haunts him. Finding himself needing to get out of town, Mizuki has a sudden urge to go home where he encounters the suited man again and confirms that he is indeed who he thinks he is – childhood friend, Shuichi (Riki Takeuchi).

Revisiting an old theme, Mizuki and Shuichi are orphans but rather than being taken directly into the yakuza world they each spent a part of their childhood in a village orphanage on an idyllic island. Miike frequently cuts back between the violent, nihilistic lives of the grown men and the innocent boyhood of long hot summers spent at the beach. The island almost represents childhood in its perpetual safety, bathed in a warm and golden light at once unchanging and eternal. Reconnecting with fellow orphan Kohei (Kenichi Endo) who has married another childhood friend, Chi (Noriko Aota), the three men regress to their pre-adolescent states playing on the climbing bars and kicking a football around just like old times.

Returning to this more innocent age, Mizuki hatches on an ingenious idea – reclaim their dark trade by knocking off those the world would be better off without and use their ill gotten gains to buy vaccines for the impoverished children of the world. In their innocent naivety, neither Mizuki nor Shuichi has considered the effect of their decision on local gangland politics (not to mention Big Pharma) and their desire to kill two “birds” with one stone will ultimately boomerang right back at them.

Innocence is the film’s biggest casualty as Miike juxtaposes a children’s play in which Mizuki and Shuichi have ended up playing a prominent role, with violent rape and murder going on in the city. Whether suggesting that the posturing of a gang war is another kind of playacting, though one with far more destructive consequences, or merely contrasting the island’s pure hearted fantasy with the cold, hard, gangland reality, Miike indulges in a nostalgic longing for the simplicity of childhood with its straightforward goodness filled with friendship and brotherhood rather than the constant betrayals and changing alliances of the criminal fraternity.

The question “Where are you going?” appears several times throughout the film and perhaps occurred to Mizuki and Shuichi at several points during their journeys from abandoned children to outcast men. Neither had much choice in their eventual destination and if they asked themselves that same question the answer was probably that they did not know or chose not to think about it. All of these hopes and ruined dreams linger somewhere around the island’s shore. Kohei is about to become a father but the birth of a child now takes on a melancholy air, the shadow of despair already hanging over him. There is no way out, no path back to a time before the compromises of adulthood but for two angelic hitmen, the road ends with meeting themselves again and, in a sense, regaining lost innocence in shedding their city-based skins.


Out now in the UK from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Welcome to the Quiet Room (クワイエットルームにようこそ, Suzuki Matsuo, 2007)

welcome-to-the-quiet-roomEveryone has those little moments in life where you think “how did I get here?”, but thankfully most of them do not occur strapped to a table in an entirely white, windowless room. This is, indeed, where the heroine of Suzuki Matsuo’s adaptation of his own novel Welcome to the Quiet Room (クワイエットルームにようこそ, Quiet Room ni Yokoso) finds herself after a series of events she can’t remember but which seem to have involved pills and booze. A much needed wake up call, Asuka’s spell in the Quiet Room provides a long overdue opportunity to slow down and take a long hard look at herself but self knowledge can be a heavy burden.

After her initial confusion, Asuka (Yuki Uchida) is informed by the no nonsense matron, Eguchi (Ryo), that she’s been brought in after an overdose. Everyone seems to assume it’s a suicide attempt, though Asuka can’t remember a thing. Apparently her roommate found her and called and ambulance and has now signed the committal papers which means Asuka is stuck here until the doctors say she’s fit to leave. Aside from the obvious, this is bad news because Asuka has a series of tight deadlines she’s been busting her gut to meet and is worried about losing her contracts. Whatever she might feel about it, it seems as if Asuka will have to rely on the kindness of strangers a little longer before she can finally get back to her exciting freelance world.

Aspects of Asuka’s previous life are illuminated gradually through flashback accompanied by her post-committal deadpan voiceover. After a brief career as a model, Asuka got married, divorced, and then hooked up with her present roommate, Tetsuo (Kankuro Kudo), who hooked her up with a series of freelance writing gigs which have only contributed to her stress levels with their ever present deadlines. Prior to her hospitalisation, Asuka was a rather silly, perky woman with a self confessed preference for “idiots” when it came to her circle of friends. Slowly and in the absence of her regular methods of self medication, all of Asuka’s illusions about herself and the way she was living her life begin to crumble. Finally able to cut through the noise, Asuka is forced to come to terms with a significant amount of guilt relating to a decision taken during her marriage whilst also acknowledging the effect crippling depression has had on her way of life.

Whilst in the hospital, Asuka comes in to contact with the other residents who have various needs and demands, each exemplifying the problems plaguing modern women. Tellingly, the majority of the women on the ward are younger – some just teenagers or young adults, all suffering with various kinds of eating disorders. One such patient, Miki (Yu Aoi), quickly befriends Asuka and teaches her how to survive in the increasingly surreal hospital environment. Asuka later makes friends with another recovering overdose patient around her own age, Kurita (Yuko Nakamura), but conversely finds herself harassed by the ward’s resident fixer, former adult video actress Nishino (Shinobu Ootake), while other residents make repeated escape attempts or go to great lengths to set their hair on fire.

Asuka’s Wizard of Oz inspired outfit, hair, and the silver Dorothy slippers which play into a repeated motif of Asuka’s memories of a high school culture festival, all reinforce the idea of the hospital as a strange otherworldly place in which Asuka will be residing temporarily until she completes her quest. The temporary nature of the space gives Asuka’s journey a rather melancholy atmosphere as she’s encouraged to forget all about her time there when transitioning back to the “real world” meaning that the fragile bonds and friendships created during in her hospital sojourn will have to be left behind. Finally learning to calm down and take charge of herself, Asuka rediscovers a long absent inner strength and the last image we see of her is in raucous laughter after an catching sight of an improbable event through a car window.

Matsuo opts for a less madcap treatment than the far out comedy of Otakus in Love but carefully balances an absurd sense of humour with dramatic weight as Asuka’s personal discoveries are intercut with increasingly surreal episodes. Yuki Uchida shines in a early comeback role as the two very different Asukas even if she almost has the show stolen out from her by another beautiful performance from Yu Aoi as the sensitive goth Miki. Tackling a weighty subject with warmth and good humour, Welcome to the Quiet Room is another characteristically off the wall character piece from Suzuki, but all the better for it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Otakus in Love (恋の門, Suzuki Matsuo, 2004)

koi no monReview of Suzuki Matsuo’s Otaku’s in Love (恋の門, Koi no Mon) first published on UK Anime Network in February 2014.


The word “otaku” is a difficult one to pin down. In the West, it’s often come to be a badge of pride and respect, a label that many fans of what most people would perceive as a niche subculture actively identify with and eagerly apply to themselves. However, the roots of the term are much darker and in its native Japanese, “otaku” can be far from a nice thing to call another person. Of the central couple in this film perhaps only one can be thought of as a traditional “otaku” the other being more of a “tortured artist” whose eccentric behaviour makes it difficult for him to survive in the real world. Well, to be honest finding a base line for “normal behaviour” in this film is a pretty tall order, we run into bizarre anime conventions, cosplay obsessives, broken hearted ex-mangaka (manga) bar owners and a bizarre cult like office environment where the only rule is you must be “happy!” all the time. Otakus In Love is an endearingly odd film that is jam packed full of in jokes and meta references that knows its audience very well and never fails in the humour stakes as a result.

Mon is a down on his luck, in fact totally broke, manga artist. Well, he calls himself a “manga artist” but his work isn’t exactly what most people would expect. In a touch of the avant garde, Mon makes his manga out of rocks. Mon’s “manga” are, in fact, a collection of rocks painted with a single kanji character and arranged inside a custom made wooden box. Needless to say each of Mon’s works is a one off piece and his sales record is not exactly going to get him on the best seller list. He can’t seem to hold down a part time job either due to his extreme reactions to people not taking his art seriously and his strange appearance which is something like a seventies guru come glam rock god whose ragged clothes have an oddly deliberate look to them. One fateful day he has an interview for Tsugino Happy Inc which turns out to be a cult-like office environment which seems to advocate happiness through total subjugation. He lasts about an hour at this job before punching his new boss in the face for failing to appreciate his artistic qualities.

However, on the way there about to pick up a particularly fine looking rock, he meets Koino who turns out to be a colleague of his at Happy Inc. The two go out for drinks which ends up at Koino’s apartment where upon Mon wakes up the next morning to find out he’s been a victim of forced cosplay! Unwittingly dressed up as Koino’s favourite character from Soul Caliber II, he’s quickly posed by Koino for her cosplay wall and dragged into a world of doujinshi, comiket, cosplay and all things geeky. Koino is an amateur manga artist who claims to have made a small fortune selling her home made manga at conventions and is well and truly an otaku. Can two such different people really find love? There’s only one way to find out!

Otakus in Love is based on Jun Hanyunyuu’s manga Koi no Mon (also the original Japanese title of the film) and as such carries over various extremely clever meta visual references. Directed by well known actor Suzuki Matsuo (Ichi the Killer) the film is often about as close as you could get to being a live action manga as Matsuo manages to make standard manga tropes like reaction shots and surreal action scenes work in a totally believable way. In the course of the film we’re treated to full on musical sections and ridiculous comic motifs that resurface at fairly predictable moments which could all end up just being far too much, but under Matsuo’s steady hand the film comes out on the right side of crazy and is never anything less than totally zany fun.

The film isn’t afraid to wear its otaku badge on its sleeve, either. Jam packed with references from video games, anime, and manga, Otakus in Love gets its audience completely and trusts it to understand all of its allusions and homages without needing to repeatedly bash the viewer over the head with tie-ins. It also takes an affectionate side swipe at fan culture with some bizarre interactions with cosplay, conventions and ani-singers which any anime fan can probably relate to. The film also has a fair few cameos from such well known personages as Hideaki Anno, Shinya Tsukamoto and Takashi Miike to name but a few.

At a 114 minutes it does run a little long and occasionally feels like it’s going to run out of steam but for the vast majority of its running time Otakus in Love is a genuinely hilarious, truly bizarre, romantic comedy. Full of warmth and exuberance, it’s difficult to image anyone not being swept away by its surreal humour and though it’s certainly on the broader side of comedy it never feels particularly over the top (or at least not in a bad way). Otakus in Love is a romanic comedy that no self confessed otaku should miss out on seeing.


Reviewed at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2014.

Tokyo Fist (東京フィスト, Shinya Tsukamoto, 1995)

tokyo-fist_still_7Following on from their excellent remastered Tetsuo set and the more recent Kotoko, Third Window Films have again brought us another classic film from the back catalogue of one of Japan’s most underrated auteurs – Shinya Tsukamoto.

Tsuda (played by Shinya Tsukamoto himself) is a hard working insurance salesman in mid ‘90s Tokyo. He lives with a beautiful fiancée in a pretty nice flat and everything seems to be going pretty well for him except that he’s been so unbearably tired lately. Then, one fateful day a colleague asks him to deliver some money to a boxing club (which sounds kind of dodgy in itself) where he’s spotted by an old acquaintance, Kojima (played by Shinya Tsukamoto’s boxer brother Koji). Though it’s clear Tsuda doesn’t wish to resume a friendship with Kojima, somehow he still manages to worm his way into his life. This unwanted intrusion from the past begins to deeply unsettle the civilised life Tsuda and Hizaru had been living up to this point and sets them on a path of atavistic disintegration.

When you look at Tsuda at the beginning of the movie, it’s easy to think he’s ‘happy’ because the life he seems to be living is ‘normal’. He works hard, he lives with a woman he intends to marry and they seem settled and well matched. However, if you look more closely, you can see the cracks are all there even before Kojima turns up. His ‘tiredness’ is perhaps a symptom of the dissatisfaction he might not even realise he’s feeling with his boring, ordinary city life. When Hizaru, his girlfriend, asks him sensitively about his tiredness and suggests maybe he’s overworking and that she wouldn’t mind continuing to work even after they get married Tsuda’s reaction is quite telling. He doesn’t say anything particularly, he doesn’t argue, but it’s clear that he resents the suggestion and is clearly annoyed by it. This, and her subsequent comments to Kojima regarding Tsuda’s physique further undermine his masculinity and you can see that even before the catalyst of Kojima’s arrival, Tsuda’s mental state is quite fraught and his rage is already simmering quietly beneath thin layer of civility that is city life.

When Kojima finally does arrive, he does so like a pathogen infecting Tsuda first at the boxing club. Tsuda brings him home (inadvertently) to his girlfriend who is then also infected with a new strain of individualism. When Tsuda visits Kojima’s apartment to confront him about making a pass at Hizaru, what he finds is a lithe, glistening, insect-like physical force. His movements are uncanny, seemingly too fast for a human yet slightly jerky and lacking in grace. Despite the fact that everyone at the gym thinks Kojima is a terrible boxer (even when he actually wins a fight everyone seems bored) he possesses  the physical strength to knock Tsuda not only across the room but through a wall. The exaggerated, manga-like violence only further intensifies Kojima’s total dominance over Tsuda. Hizaru looks on with a curious expression which seems part way between wonder and disgust at Kojima’s increasingly bug-like appearance.

As a couple, Tsuda and Hizaru seem to have a fondness for watching old, subtitled European movies of an evening – Carol Reed’s The Third Man and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Both films, of course, that have something to say about ‘the city’. In The Third Man, Harry Lime’s crimes are only possible because of the unique situation of post-war Vienna. In Metropolis, famously, the city is an organism worked by an underclass of slave workers who are little more than cogs in the machine. The city assumes part of your own personality, strips you of your individuality and replaces it with a job title. It numbs you to the finer emotions and the only way left to re-assert your existence is to open yourself up to pain. In Tokyo Fist, the city is of course Tokyo, but really it could be any city any time. Living in such a codified way etches away at your humanity until barely a husk remains as you live out the day to day demands a city makes of its people. By the end of the film, the three central characters have been through an extended battle with this ‘city tax’ but whether the result is a death of the soul or a recovery is perhaps a matter for debate.

Tokyo Fist certainly a very rich film which repays repeat viewings and is open to a great number of interpretations. Like his earlier Tetsuo: The Iron Man, the film often works on a purely sensory level and needs to be experienced rather than considered but that isn’t to say it’s without plot or action. The fight scenes are intense and frenetic, captured in Tsukamoto’s trademark style, yet the boxing scenes do also have a very authentic ring to them. Tokyo Fist is a masterpiece of modern Japanese cinema that has long been underserved by sub quality releases. This remastered HD presentation from Third Window Films, supervised by Tsukamoto himself, finally restores the film to its rightful position with a truly outstanding blu-ray release. Tokyo Fist is a hugely intriguing and important film which richly deserves a place in any collection.


Available now on blu-ray in the UK from Third Window Films!

More Tsukamoto reviews:

First published on UK Anime Network in November 2013.

Fires on the Plain (野火, Shinya Tsukamoto, 2015)

fires on the plain 2015 posterShinya Tsukamoto is back with another characteristically visceral look at the dark sides of human nature in his latest feature length effort, Fires on the Plain (野火, Nobi). Another take on the classic, autobiographically inspired novel of the same name by Shohei Ooka (previously adapted by Kon Ichikawa in 1959), Fires on the Plain is a disturbing, surreal examination of the effects of war both on and off the battlefield.

Late in the war when it’s almost lost though no one wants to admit it, Corporal Tamura (Shinya Tsukamoto) finds himself suffering with TB on the Philippine island of Leyte where supplies, and tethers, are running short. Shortly after being punched in the face by his commanding officer, he’s given five days’ worth of supplies and ordered to march to the field hospital for treatment as no one wants a sick man weighing down the unit. Only, when he finally arrives at the field hospital, they have their hands full (literally) with the battlefield wounded. Marching back to his unit again, Tamura is ordered back to the field hospital and told to use his grenade to ease the burden on his fellow soldiers if refused. So begins Tamura’s fevered, mostly solitary odyssey across the beautiful landscape of the Philippine jungle suddenly scarred with corpses, the starving and the mad.

Tsukamoto’s adaptation sticks closer to the original novel than Ichikawa’s 1959 version, though both eschew Ooka’s Christianity. Tamura is a man at odds with his fellow soldiers. Formerly a writer he’s “an intellectual” as one puts it, and a little on the old side for a corporal. Coughing and wheezing, he shuffles his way through just trying to survive. Unlike Ooka’s original novel in which the protagonist’s Catholicism makes suicide an unavailable option, it’s the memory of Tamura’s wife which stays his hand on the pin of his grenade. Tamura wants to go home, to escape this hellish island full of the walking dead, hostile locals and hidden clusters of enemy troops.

To get home, to survive, what will it cost? There was barely any food left to start with. The original five days’ worth of rations Tamura was given amounted to a handful of yams. On his second trip to the military hospital he was given nothing at all. There’s no wildlife, even if you manage to find some plant roots they’ll need cooking. Of course, there is one abundant source of food, except that it doesn’t bear thinking about. Tsukamoto’s version takes a less ambiguous approach to the idea of cannibalism than Ichikawa’s which removed Tamura’s moral dilemma by having his teeth fall out through malnutrition and rendering him unable to indulge in “monkey meat” even if he might have succumbed. Death feeds on death and there’s no humanity to be found here anymore where men prey on men like animals.

There’s no glory in dying like this. Half starved, half mad and baking to death in the heat of a foreign jungle abandoned by your country which cared so little for its men that it never thought to conserve them. When you make it home, if you make it home, you aren’t the same you that left. The things you had to do to get there stay with you for the rest of your life, and not just with you – with all of those around you too. Wars don’t end when treaties are signed, they survive in the eyes of the men who fought them.

A timely and a visceral look at the literal horror of war, Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plain is a refreshingly frank, if stylised, examination of the battlefield. Limbs fly, heads explode, organs are exposed and brain fragments leak out of ruined corpses. At any other time, Leyte would be a paradise of lush vegetation, colourful flowers and beautiful blue skies but it’s corrupted now by the fruits of human cruelty. This is what it means to go to war. There’s nothing noble in this – just death, decay and eternal grief. Though the film often suffers from its low budget and some may be put off by the stark, hyperreal cinematography, Fires on the Plain is another typically troubling effort from the master of discomfort and comes as a warning bell to those who still think it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.


Reviewed at Raindance 2015.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

First published by UK Anime Network.