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Among the great Japanese directors who came to international prominence in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Kon Ichikawa resides sadly near the bottom of the totem pole. He’s not as well known as Akira Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu, and he’s not as critically talked-about as Kengi Mizoguchi or Mikio Naruse. Most of his movies have never been screened in the West; he’s probably best known here for his WWII films The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain (1959); his comic film noir Kagi (Odd Obsession) (1959); and his classic sports documentary Tokyo Olympiad (1965).


Ichikawa might suffer from the same underrating as Louis Malle; they’re both such versatile directors, always tackling new subject matter and genres, that they are inevitably overshadowed by those with a more rigidly distinct style (you can spot an Ozu film in about five seconds).


cover art

cover art

Fires on the Plain

Shohei Ooka

(Tuttle Publishing)

As far as I know, no Ichikawa film has been available on DVD in the US until Criterion’s releases of The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain. It’s especially interesting to see these films now in light of Clint Eastwood’s recent Letters from Iwo Jima, which also depicts WWII from the Japanese perspective. Of course, this is not as transgressive an act for Ichikawa as it is for Eastwood. Both directors largely avoid politics or simple moralizing, but it’s notable that Eastwood focuses more on distinctly “Japanese” concerns: the bushido code of honor; the transition into modern forms of warfare, the varying levels and forms of patriotism.


Fires on the Plain‘s story, on the other hand, transcends any specific war or culture. It takes place on that existential, post-Atomic battlefield limned by Samuel Beckett in plays like Waiting for Godot and Endgame.  More than any political or social reading, what Fires on the Plain is really about is life in extremis—life on the border of death.


The screenplay was written by Natto Wada, Ichikawa’s wife. She adapted it from the well-known Japanese novel of the same name by Shohei Ooka.  The story is set in the Philippines jungle during the waning days of the war, when the Japanese Imperial Army had been all but annihilated. Starving, deranged, disorganized, the men stagger through the jungle like feral zombies, their limbs and torsos so skinny it seems as if they could snap in two. The political justifications for war—and even the individual justifications for the men enlisting—have long since faded from memory. All that is left is survival and endurance in a world seemingly bereft of coherence or morality.


In this bleak scenario, Ichikawa raises profound questions that directly implicate the viewer. What kind of person are you? Can morality survive the breakdown of social order? When a starving soldier resorts to eating “monkey meat” (human flesh), is he merely being pragmatic or is he renouncing some essential element of his humanity? Most of all, Ichikawa is concerned with the ineradicable, possibly insane human urge to keep going, to live, to avoid death at all costs – better to occupy a twilight zone between death and life. 


Essentially plotless, the film unfolds in a series of stark tableaux, alternately feverish and detached, loosely organized around the experiences of Pvt. Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi). A lowly foot soldier that’s been diagnosed with tuberculosis, Tamura is a lost man, rejected by both his unit (he’s too weak to work and could infect the other men) and the hospital (which, because he can walk, doesn’t consider him seriously ill).


Ordered by his commander to kill himself if he’s turned away by the hospital again, Tamura instead joins a group of squatters, similarly lost men hovering near the hospital. There he meets Yasuda (Osamu Takizawa), a canny veteran with a busted foot, and Nagamatsu (Mickey Curtis), a cynical young upstart, who together are trying to stay afloat dealing tobacco to the other soldiers.


After a raid decimates the area, Tamura moves on, wandering through abandoned villages before eventually meeting up with three other men, the dregs of a destroyed unit. Together, they join the loose exodus towards Palompon and the vague promise of evacuation to safety. But the Americans gun down most of them, and in the final stretch of the film, the lonely, wandering Tamura re-encounters Yasuda and Nagamatsu, who have degenerated into a fiercely dysfunctional codependency. Nagamatsu entices Tamura to dine on “monkey meat,” and ultimately proves just how far he will go to survive.


Although seemingly filmed with documentary realism, the film has an odd, hallucinatory quality. Moment-to-moment, things seem to happen not as a result of conventional human psychology (the characters are mostly opaque) but as a manifestation of the physical environment. The film strips away causality and leaves only violence and chance. Tamura does not survive by skill or daring, but merely by dumb luck. At several points, nearly everyone around him is mowed down by enemy fire; but he lives, barely believing it himself.


His own acts of violence are similarly unconscious. When he happens upon a Filipino couple sneaking back into their abandoned village, he attempts to convey friendliness, but the woman’s hysterical shrieks so unnerve him that he shoots her dead, as if to just shut her up (the man runs away). The world conveyed seems post-moral.


The title comes from the mysterious pillars of smoke that periodically appear on the horizon. They may be villagers burning leaves, they may be American troops, they may be allies—it’s never made clear. But their presence is like a carrot dangled in front of a horse, continually leading him on.


The fires on the plain represent to Tamura people “leading normal lives”. The fires are a promise of a return to civilization and normalcy, and they’re a reason to keep moving, to go on living. They symbolize the (possibly deceptive) promise of continued life.


Tamura is a peaceful man, with a rather beatific face, out of place in this harsh milieu. (After the incident with the Filipino woman, he throws away his gun). He seems to have an appreciation of life that his fellow soldiers lack. At one point, he soaks his raw, bony feet in a stream and notices an ant crawling on his ankle. He picks up the insect and for a moment the film pauses for a Buddhist contemplation of life and the natural world; the ant then bites him and the moment is lost—the movie returns to harshness.


As mentioned above, at the beginning of the film, Tamura is given a grenade by his unit leader and ordered to use it on himself if the hospital rejects him again. But without ever seeming to consciously make the choice, Tamura rejects this command of senseless suicide. Indeed, he never articulates, in either his sparse dialogue or his sporadic voiceovers, the motives for his actions. There’s no preaching, but there’s also no reassuring frame of conventional narrative.


Why does he not kill himself? Why does he refuse to join the others in feasting on “monkey meat”? Ichikawa is not so sentimental as to suggest that Tamura is clinging to some old-fashioned sense of humanism—he’s clearly so physically deprived that he’s operating more out of impulse than mental choice.


Tamura is also a doomed man: his TB will eventually kill him. So maybe this death sentence influences the way he chooses to live his remaining days (and, paradoxically, why he refuses to surrender either to death or to the Americans like some of his fellow soldiers). And even if one can argue that Tamura is clinging to some basic human morality, Ichikawa gives us no proof that this is a wise or beneficial thing.


In war, and especially in mechanized, 20thcentury war, the playing field has changed irrevocably and the old rules of morality might not apply. Fires on the Plain presents a world beyond morality and asks if it is possible to go on being human.


More than anything, Fires on the Plain contains some of the starkest and most stunning images of human bodies under duress every captured on film. Early on, when the makeshift prison hospital is under siege, the flimsy structure implodes and out of it come scurrying patients—near-corpses—like pale arachnids, their white, skeletal limbs starkly contrasted with the dark jungle foliage.


Another unforgettable shot: during the exodus to Palompon, we see a phalanx of emaciated men trudging through the mud, operating out of physical compulsion rather than mental process. The sound of gunfire from above breaks out, and instantaneously all of the bodies drop into the mud, collapsing weightlessly. The American planes pass. About half of the bodies pick themselves up and continue marching, zombie-like. Are they alive or dead? Does it matter?


Later, during the exodus, one soldier comes along a body lying facedown, his head in a mud puddle. The living soldier muses, “Is this where we’re all headed?” The body raises his head, looks up, says, “What’s that?” and places his head back in the puddle, as if choosing death were like settling down for a long nap.


Late in the film, Tamura encounters a feverish soldier sitting by a tree. The man speaks of waiting for a “great plane” coming from the West and raves that he is a “Buddha”. There are vultures circling overhead and flies buzzing around him. Then, compulsively, he begins eating his own feces. He assures Tamura that he’ll be dead soon and that then, “you can eat me”. There are bits of Eastern philosophy mixed up in this scene, but the essence is primal and universal: men consuming each other, man consuming himself. It’s apocalyptic and overwhelming. The movie is a masterpiece.


The extras are somewhat sparse by Criterion standards, but worthwhile nonetheless. Japanese film scholar Donald Richie shares some thoughts on the film and Ichikawa’s oeuvre in general, stressing the film’s rigorous avoidance of any political ideology and pointing out some odds moments of gallows humor. He also makes the interesting point that Ichikawa’s technical flexibility—and lack of auterist “stamp”—is tied to a philosophical open-mindedness, which in turns explains the lack of ideology.


There are also interviews with the still alive and kicking Ichikawa and Curtis. The former (over 90) discusses the origins of the project, including how his personal experiences with Hiroshima influenced the film’s intense depiction of physical decay. The latter (looking and sounding a bit like David Carradine) reveals that he was a teeny-bopper rock star at the time the film was made and was apparently shooting two other movies simultaneously. There are also liner notes by Chuck Stephens. A full-length commentary track would have been nice, but as it is, it’s great just to see this film readily available (and in such a good print).


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