Published on April 11th, 2011 | by Chris1
Fires on the Plain (1959)
Fires on the Plain manages to compress all of the inhumanity, desolation, and desperation of war into the scope of a two hour span, and yet still manages to maintain the humanity, albeit just barely, of the main character, Tamura. (Eiji Funakoshi)
Taking place in the Philippines as Allied forces sweep over Leyte in 1945 reclaiming their lost ground and scattering the Japanese forces, Tamura is forced to contend with the elements, starvation, disease, human failings, and the Allied advance.
What struck me most about this movie was the acting on Funakoshi’s behalf. As part of the preparations for shooting this film, the actors were basically starved and sleep deprived and made to “look the part” if you will. Throughout the movie, the fatigue and desperation never leaves his face, even as he struggles to maintain his last shreds of humanity.
He’s separated from and rejoined to his unit, among others, a few times. Each time the situation becomes worse and worse, until he’s finally left to contend with a wounded superior and another of his comrades, who have taken to cannibalism to survive. Even through this, he manages to uphold some semblance of respect, right up until the final scene…. But who is it that finally ends the struggle? The local guerillas? The Allied forces? It’s never shown, and I think that’s important. Because it doesn’t matter. Neither does it matter the source of the “fires” that he keeps seeing the smoke from…. It’s a mystery that is never quite resolved, and again, it really doesn’t matter. But it gives him some sort of hope, some sort of question to find the answer to.
I’m not sure what else to say here. The plot really just involves Tamura finding himself in one demoralizing and troubling situation after the next. That alone isn’t really what makes this movie what it is. It’s the acting and the atmosphere, along with a fairly spooky soundtrack (at times reminding me of the LOST soundtrack, which made it seem even more interesting!).
There are a few moments, though, that sum up this movie perfectly. Take for example the scene with the shoes. One soldier after another finds a pair of boots, better than the ones they are wearing, but with each exchange the pair left in the puddle gets worse and worse. Along comes Tamura, and instead of trying to salvage the last remaining pair, completely removes his shoes and goes barefoot, almost with a smile on his face……
Also interestingly enough, is that while (like most Japanese WWII films) you won’t find any sort of resignation (for lack of a better word) or thinly veiled plea for sympathy (see Battle of Okinawa) or recognition…. The experience is what it is, and it just as well could have been portrayed from the opposite end of the spectrum.
The entire film appears to be on YouTube (in parts of course), and here’s the first of those….
Fires on the Plain – Criterion Collection
Timeless and unforgettable, Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain ranks highly among the most potent anti-war films ever made. Freely adapted from the 1952 novel by Shohei Ooka and set on the Japanese-occupied Philippine island of Leyte in February of 1945, the film presents a horrific landscape that instantly conveys the nightmarish conditions that existed during the final days of World War II…
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audience Rating: Unrated
Brand: Image Entertainment
Original Release Date:
- Eiji Funakoshi
- Mantarô Ushio
- Yoshihiro Hamaguchi
- Osamu Takizawa
- Mickey Curtis
Summary: Fires on the Plain manages to compress all of the inhumanity, desolation, and desperation of war into the scope of a two hour span, and yet still manages to maintain the humanity, albeit just barely, of the main character, Tamura.