Fires on the Plain (1959)

Fires on the Plain (1959), directed by Kon Ichikawa.

Horrific tale of Japanese soldiers in hell during the final months of the war in the Philippines. Many beautifully shot but painful to watch scenes. In an excess of Method, the actors really starved themselves and didn't bathe for weeks.

The director's The Burmese Harp (1956) was also about soldiers as victims of the war, but the earlier film was more of a fable. This is much darker, a realistic depiction of the collapse of an army starving and dying of disease.

Pvt Tamura has TB and neither the hospital nor his own unit want him. He wanders, weaker and weaker, with a handful of yams for rations and a grenade for suicide. Often he is alone but sometimes he falls in with other strays looking for a way off the island. He would like to surrender to the Americans, but is afraid they or the Filipinos will shoot him.

His grip on reality is weak at times, but he can't stop and die. He hides and scouts. He wantonly kills a civilian woman, then discards his rifle. In the final segment he encounters two comrades who are killing and eating other soldiers. Debased as he is, Tamura cannot bring himself to eat "monkey meat".

That's a hopeful bit, as are the earlier intermittent acts of kindness between the soldiers. Unbelievably, there are also comic aspects, as when a line of ragged, staggering soldiers discard and put on rotten boots on a muddy road.

It sticks in the mind because it is really not a "message" film, and we keep turning it over, looking at it in different ways. Anti-war? Sure, war is hell, but a proper anti-war story would be about choices, and whatever happened before, none of the soldiers have many choices now.

They are not shown as more noble or base than they probably were. Tamura has both good and bad in him. Does he achieve a stressed glimpse of transcendence at the end, or is he just tired and wanting to finish it?

Criterion DVD.

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