Reviewed by Chris MaGee
A human being can survive for three weeks without food, only three days without water, and if they don’t have access to sodium and proper shelter significantly less than that. Pvt. Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) knows that if he doesn’t get these simple things he’ll end up just another of the desicated corpses littering the war ravaged landscape around him; and as Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 anti-war masterpiece unspools Tamura learns that the bodies of his former comrades in arms no longer need their guns, their boots, and in some cases, the flesh on their bones.
We first meet Tamura at the beginning of “Fires on the Plain”, gaunt, listless, suffering through a verbal barrage from his commanding officer for having wasted rations for a trip to and then back from an army hospital where he sought treatment for tuberculosis. This is the Philippines, 1945. General MacArthur has successfully liberated large portions of the country and driven the Japanese forces into the forests and hills. There’s no excuse for wasting rations, especially not on a soldier sick with TB, so Tamura is given one last command: return to the hospital, and if they do not take him in then do the only honourable thing, blow himself up with his last grenade. It’s a suicide mission, Tamura, his commanding officer, and his fellow platoon members know it, but still Tamura sets off on odyssey the likes of which cinema had never seen before, and hasn’t seen since.
During the battles of the Philippines tens of thousands of Japanese troops lost their lives, but not all from combat. Japan, dangerously low on resources by the end of the war left their forces in places like Burma, the Philippines, Okinawa and as far as the Aleutian Islands to fight to the death. Without resources in what was now enemy territory these troops no longer fought valiantly for their country, but simply for their lives. In the character of Tamura Ichikawa and screenwriter Natto Wada (working from the novel by Shohei Ooka) present us with an everyman, someone to embody these abandoned and starving soldiers. Through his eyes we see the evil that erupted in the Pacific and in the souls of the Japanese at the end of World War Two.
From the fearful native Filipinos lashing back at their occupiers through the last surviving members of a massacred platoon desperately trying to reach their rendezvous point and escape back to Japan, to a lone Japanese soldier sitting atop a mountain living on an unspecified rotten meat yet convinced of his Buddhahood we witness the horrifying aftermath of war. The one thing that defined the whole experience of watching “Fires on the Plain” for me though, was that through all of the hardship, insanity, and degradation Tamura never completes his mission, that being committing suicide with his grenade. It’s the human condition to fight death, to suffer every indignity just for that next breath, that next heartbeat. “Fires on the Plain” is more than a war story, it’s a story of survival, but an entirely different kind than the heroic, cathartic, step by step leading to a tearful rescue kind of film Western audiences are used to. This is a powerful document of hell.