In the first shot of "Fires on the Plain," a soldier is slapped in the face by his superior. It is one of the kinder gestures one man will make to another man during the course of the film. Much like Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" begins on a high note and ratchets ever higher to its almost impossible crescendo, "Fires on the Plain" opens this note of human cruelty only to plunge further and further into the depths of abject misery. As a litany of human suffering, the film has few cinematic equivalents. Nelson Pereira dos Santos' "Vidas Secas" comes close but at least it is alleviated by a few moments of compassion. Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Salo" may strike closer to home for its sustained sadism without so much as the faintest promise of redemption.
Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) has just returned to his unit after being "cured" of tuberculosis in a mere three day hospital stay. His superior tells him the unit has so no use (and no food) for a man who can't pull his weight. He is ordered to return to the hospital where, if he is not admitted, he is then ordered to kill himself. Tamura follows orders though he holds little hope. His pessimism is confirmed when the hospital coordinator informs him: "If you can walk, you're not a patient." He is permitted to linger outside in the muck with several other similarly "displaced" soldiers with no food besides the few yams he has managed to hold onto. And then things start to go bad.
Surprisingly, director Kon Ichikawa doesn't use this bleak backdrop to generate sympathy for Tamura or any other Japanese soldier. The film is set on the Philippines front in 1945 when the war is all but over. Though largely unspoken in the film, the specter of Japanese brutality against the Filipinos looms over the film. The only overt nod to this atrocity is one scene when a frightened Tamura callously guns down a female villager, and tries to kill her fleeing husband (or perhaps brother) simply to cover up his crime. For obvious reasons, the locals have no sympathy for the Japanese suffering, and the soldiers are too absorbed in their own misery to help each other out.
Japanese corpses litter the landscape, providing not just a dismal visual spectacle but also hinting at the film's most grotesque manifestation of human abjection: cannibalism. At first, the mention of the ultimate taboo appears as a joke. One soldier teases Tamura that his company ate human flesh on their previous campaign; in another scene, a dying soldier holds up his arm and suggests to Tamura that it will soon be his next snack. The joke turns deadly serious later on. In the film's final sequence, Tamura is terrified to let his guard down with two of his fellow soldiers for fear that he'll wind up on the menu as "monkey meat."
Ichikawa based the film on a book by Shohei Ooka, and the story was already fairly well-known at the time the movie was released. It seems incredible that a film acknowledging a military failure so complete that its soldiers resorted to cannibalism could be made, let alone be a success, but Ichikawa experienced little resistance in making "Fires on the Plain." It's difficult to imagine an American equivalent today: even the numerous films critical of American involvement in Vietnam don't go nearly as far as "Fires."
"Fires on the Plain" may or may not have surprised audiences in 1959, but it sure as heck seems shocking today, nearly fifty years later. Plenty of films have played on the "war is hell" motif, but I can't think of any that have taken it to such infernal extremes. Ichikawa does not alloy his bleak vision with any hint of heroism or honorable sacrifice. The war is shown as stupid, ugly, pointless, and utterly devastating. "Saving Private Ryan" is a Disney ride next to Ichikawa's bleak vision; even Sam Fuller's pitch black "The Big Red One" seems positively optimistic by comparison. A few odd notes of black humor only underscore the grotesquerie. "Fires on the Plain" is stern stuff indeed.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Everybody sing along with me now, you know the tune: the Criterion transfer is superb, surely the best version of the film anyone is likely to see. Yadda yadda. Criterion has set the bar so high now, they risk being taken for granted by viewers and reviewers alike.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.
Like Criterion's other Kon Ichikawa release this month, "The Burmese Harp" (1956), the DVD is very light on extras. There is no commentary track, and the only two features are a short video introduction (12 min.) and a similarly brief interview (20 min.) with Ichikawa and actor Mickey Curtis.
The slim insert booklet offers a very meaty and insightful essay by film critic Chuck Stephens.
As with "The Burmese Harp," "Fires on the Plain" was scripted by Ichikawa's wife, Natto Wada. She scripted more than 30 of his features, making for one of the most enduring and unusual director-screenwriter duos in cinema history. Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are perhaps the greatest husband-wife filmmaking collaborators of all time, but they shared directorial, editing and writing credits. Is there a similarly prolific husband-wife director-screenwriter team to compare to Kon Ichikawa and Natto Wada?