“You’re a sinner, old man.”
“That’s why I’m happy to die in this hell-hole.”
A war film unlike any other, Tsukamoto Shinya’s Fires on the Plain is far more visceral and gruesome than most but at its centre lies a perception about humanity and the extent to which it is rejected, within a situation that is utterly unbearable, as a soldier attempts to survive in the most deplorable of environments. Based upon the award winning 1951 novel Nobi by Ōoka Shōhei, Fires on the Plain had been filmed before by the great Ichikawa Kon in 1959, its anti-war sentiment and dismissal of nationalistic fervour gaining critical recognition. An adaption reflecting all of the philosophical -as well as the gruesome – aspects of the worst sides of human nature is something that Tsukamoto Shinya has managed to achieve in just 90 minutes. The film is succinct and displays non-exploitative, yet nauseatingly graphic scenes which echo the horrors of war amidst fear and starvation.
During World War 2 the Japanese army is fighting in the Philippines but is suffering deeply at the hands of local resistance guerilla groups armed by the American forces. Tamura of the Muayama squad is seriously ill with tuberculosis and his corporal (Tatsuya Nakamura) demands that he seek medical aid from the hospital, telling him to “Come back when you can serve your squad,” and giving him three yams to eat on his walk. When he arrives he discovers the building filled with the bodies of the dead and seriously wounded and is informed that he is not sick enough and told to return to his squad. This riles his corporal who tells him to go back, adding “If the surgeon won’t treat you, kill yourself, you’ve got a grenade.” Again he is refused treatment. The hospital is attacked by the enemy and razed to the ground, but Tamura miraculously survives. Riddled with hunger and disease, he embarks on a harsh journey which takes him through a beautiful yet desolate landscape. He finds a bag of salt in an abandoned chapel and when he eventually comes across a small group of Japanese soldiers, they allow him to join them on condition that he shares his spoils. Their plan is to escape the despicable environment and to reach Pamplona in the province of Cagayan, where they believe they can rendezvous with the army and eventually get back home. And so begins another journey which will see Tamura facing more revulsion than he has previously encountered with limited chances of surviving the ordeal.
Tsukamoto Shinya is not afraid to depict graphic images and events in his films, from his debut feature Tetsuo and his other prolific output including such wonderfully individualistic films as Bullet Ballet (1998), Tokyo Fist (1995) or Kotoko (琴子, 2011). Fires on The Plain is no less graphic, indeed it is monumental in its depiction of savagery and slaughter, but it offers an entirely different perspective. His previous output, often featuring body-horror science-fiction themes such as the Tetsuo series, have always been based primarily within contemporary city environments. Fires on The Plain is a historic drama, set in the 1940s, and a wholly different location; that of a wild island far, far away from Japan. Based in part upon the real life situation that faced Japanese troops towards the end of World War 2 and Ōoka Shōhei’s famous novel, it sees humanity stretched to its limits within a context of utter, abject despair. The horrors lie with the details as our protagonist walks alongside piles of corpses, their decomposing bodies riddled with maggots, or has to come to terms with comments from compatriots who declare that, “We survived Hell in New Guinea by eating human flesh,” partly in macabre jest but also signposting that cannibalism may have to become a reality as starvation takes hold. This becomes all too apparent when a dying associate declares that, “You can eat me.” Any bravura at macho proclamations are deemed a likely necessity to comrades.
The extras are a worthy addition to this DVD release from Third Window, from an audio commentary by Tom Mes, author of Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto, and an utterly engrossing hour long ‘making-of’ featurette commenting on the film’s inception twenty years before production started, as well showing the director’s trips to the Philippines for inspiration, location scouting and it includes the discovery and blessings of the skeletal remains of those from the war. Tsukamoto places the film in the context of his previous films and the way that this pet project relates to them in construction and theme. And why make a war film now? As he succinctly states, “the younger people think war is science fiction,” but that the experience was “the beauty of nature, the humility of humanity.”
Fires on The Plain is a war film that raises far more questions than you would expect in a poignant and graphic manner that depicts the inhumanity within situations that are beyond reason and often beyond hope. This film was released uncut as a 15 rating by the BBFC, a sensible decision considering its importance but it is a film that makes Saving Private Ryan look like a birthday party with its extreme graphic violence and depictions of decomposition and cannibalism. A necessary film which emphasises the profound and dehumanising aspects of war, Fires on the Plain does not make for easy viewing at times but that is the point and what makes it so intrinsically well constructed and such powerful viewing.