Fires on the Plain (1959)
Director: Kon Ichikawa
Cast: Eiji Funakoshi, Mantarô Ushio, Yoshihiro Hamaguchi
Plot: In the closing days of WWII, remnants of the Japanese army in Leyte are abandoned by their command and face certain starvation.
Genre: Drama / War
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
“Come back! You can eat me!”
As anti-war films go by, Kon Ichikawa's treatment of the theme in Fires on the Plain is somewhat out of the ordinary. One of his better-known works, it revolves around a Japanese soldier marooned in a foreign land he has invaded with his comrades.
Set in The Philippines during the tail end of Japan's reign during WWII, the film expresses human despair in an agonizing way, sometimes to the point of madness, and sometimes, beyond empathy. We see the remnants of the Japanese army, scattered in small units, at a loss about what to do. They have been abandoned, and seem to ask themselves: Why are they here? Why are they suffering?
These are questions of existence, yet seemingly rendered unimportant as severe hunger hits them in the gut. Starving and doomed (or condemned) to die, like the countless lives they have ended prematurely, is it human for us to extend our condolences?
In many ways, Fires on the Plain's portrayal of human despair is strong. Some soldiers turn to solitude or cannibalism for comfort; others are contemplating surrendering to the American forces. Well, at least they serve beef burgers to their POWs, they hope.
It can be painful to watch the events that unfold and much of the film's tone is terribly bleak, though Ichikawa could afford to inject a measure of irony in certain scenes. A memorable one involves a few crestfallen soldiers trading their worn out boots for a better pair left behind in the mud one after another.
In some odd way, the boots represent a sort of metaphorical food chain – as soldiers find a glimmer of hope in a better pair of boots, they also leave their carcass behind. Food, or the severe lack of it, is a constant throbbing reminder of Man's vulnerability. Ichikawa's treatment here offers the viewer no solace, and nowhere to hide.
Despite its subject matter and all-round excellent performances, Fires on the Plain struggles to be engaging. Perhaps it is because we can’t decide on what or how to feel. We become desensitized to the soldiers’ predicament, while at the same time feeling the moral weight of history bearing down on us – these soldiers have made so many suffer in the war, now it is simply their turn. It is their karma. But in truth, did they even have a choice in the first place?
Verdict: Agonizing in both good and bad ways, this Ichikawa effort struggles to be engaging even if its portrayal of human despair ultimately proves to be strong.
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