Sunday, 24 May 2009

Fires On The Plain

Kon Ichikawa's anti-war masterpiece Fires On The Plain is set during the final devastating days of the Imperial Japanese Army's campaign in the Philippines and follows Private Tamura, exiled from his unit (for having TB) and left to wander through a bleak and dangerous landscape. Along the way he encounters peril from American forces and more deadly still, his own comrades who due to starvation and desperation have resorted to murder and cannibalism. All the while throughout his journey he passes the mysterious fires on the plain, which may be a sign of benevolent farmers or death-traps set by guerillas...

50 years after it was made Fires on the Plain remains a powerful experience. With a searing honesty it begs the question of how it was received by Japanese audiences in 1959, with its depiction of soldiers murdering their comrades to feast on their flesh. Certainly the scenes where the wasting Japanese soldiers debate surrendering to the Americans in the hope of being fed is a departure from other contemporary war films like Toho's 1960 epic Storm Over the Pacific (aka I Bombed Pearl Harbor), which portrayed the Japanese as men of great courage and sacrifice. However Kon Ichikawa who saw first hand the destruction of Hiroshima in 1945 has no time for ideology - his message is clear: war is a sheer hellish miasma. War debases all men, on all sides.

Before production began on Fires on the Plain, Daiei the studio financing the picture wanted Kon Ichikawa to shoot the film in color as was standard of Daiei films of that era. Kon Ichikawa insisted he make the film in black and white and won. His decision was correct - Fires on the Plain looks extraordinary. The black and white cinematography by Setsuo Kobayashi (who also lensed Kon Ichikawa's brilliant color film An Actor's Revenge in 1962) lend the film an incredible documentary like texture. It's a visually arresting film too - one scene has Tamura wander through a field of fallen soldiers, while in an early part of the film Tamura stumbles upon crows feasting on a mound of dead soldiers. Needless to say its an infernal vision, but its not without its moments of humor - look out for a scene where a soldier casts off his broken booths only to be picked up by another soldier to replace his own. Sterling performances too from the cast - the film is unusually underplayed for a Japanese film of the period, and adds much weight to the grim story.

Criterion's DVD of Fires on the Plain is addition to their line of classic Japanese Cinema. The complex visual scene (all dense jungle and rain) is transferred faithfully to DVD and overall the 2:35 transfer is mostly excellent. Supplements include an introduction by Japanese Film scholar Donald Richie and an excellent 20min interview with Kon Ichikawa and actor Mickey Curtis.


  1. Wow - what a grim story - you have added this one to my To See list! Thanks, Wes!

  2. Yeah, a very strong film I think and a good companion to the 1987 documentary The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On which focuses on the experiences of Japanese soldiers in the Second World War.