1950s Fires on the Plain (1959)

Published on April 11th, 2011 | by Chris

1

Fires on the Plain (1959)


Reviewed by:
Rating:
4
On April 11, 2011
Last modified:October 3, 2012

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.

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 Fires on the Plain - Criterion Collection
List Price: $29.95
Sale Price: $14.46
You save: $15.49 (52%)
  Eligible for free shipping!
Availability: Usually ships in 1-2 business days

Description

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...

DVD Information

Binding: DVD
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audience Rating: Unrated
Brand: Collection
Manufacturer: Criterion
Original Release Date:
Actors:
  • Eiji Funakoshi
  • Mantarô Ushio
  • Yoshihiro Hamaguchi
  • Osamu Takizawa
  • Mickey Curtis

Features

  • Factory sealed DVD

Reviews

Customer Reviews
Average Customer Review
24 Reviews

37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Descending, June 27, 2000
By 
John Cardenas "opera nut" (Ontario, CA United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This is a film about man in extremis. Retreating, defeated batallions of Japanese soldiers in WWII on the island of Leyte in the Phillipines find themselves sinking ineluctably toward barbarism. The wounded, the desperate, the starving--all are paraded before us in Ichikawa's pitiless, sometimes bitterly ironic pageant of man's descent toward his basest impulses. The fires of the plain of the title refer to distant smoke from fires on the horizon that the soldiers see from time to time. The fires are symbols of hope of release from the carnage and despair surrounding the soldiers. The final irony is how fraudulent too this hope turns out to be. All are caught in the web of deceit, of trickery, of brutality that man in his primitive state so easily reverts to. Just about every sacred cow--brotherhood, respect, honor--is refuted. Man is both a figurative and literal cannibal, preying on his fellow soldiers, his friends. The film is harshly realistic yet surreal and... Read more
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Descent into Hell, December 3, 2006
By 
Randy Keehn (Williston, ND United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
Over 25 years ago, I was watching a Public TV station on a Saturday afternnon in Milwaukke. They were showing a movie called "Fires on the Plain" and I watched it more out of curiosity than intent. Although the picture on my screen was fuzzy, I gradually became mesmerized as I understood what the movie was all about. The film haunted to where I bought and read the book (by the same title) by Shohei Ooka and later his worthwhile book "The Shade of Blossoms". I finally had the chance to see the movie again on IFC and was as impressed as I was the first time. It was a clear picture this time with subtitles.

"Fires on the Plain" tells the story of Tamura, a Japanese soldier in the Philipines in February, 1945; a time when defeat was turning into chaos. We witness the gradual metamorphis from civilized soldier to desperate animal as Tamura searches for a path to hope. It is a disturbing film but it is an educational film as well because of the way it allows us to examine... Read more
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Where you sink to after you've already reached the bottom, January 25, 2006
By 
Bomojaz (South Central PA, USA) - See all my reviews
This excellent movie is a powerful and disturbing depiction of a defeated Japanese army unit on Leyte in 1945 trying to make its way across the island to possible safety. Starvation plagues the men all the way until cannabalism is resorted to. Eiji Funakoshi is magnificent as the emotionless man at the center of all this misery: he has TB and consequently nobody wants to eat him, and when he's finally had enough of this wretchedness he surrenders in order to get something to eat - and is gunned down. Although graphically horrifying, it's not exploitive; in fact, there is something almost dignified about these men caught up in a living hell. Our attention is riveted on Funakoshi and his quiet, distant, yet intense portrayal of a man trying to hold his humanity together in a piece, and at the same time somehow survive. More than an anit-war movie, it's more about surviving hell when the fire's going full blast and there's no way out. It's the kind of "grace under pressure" that... Read more
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


Share your thoughts with other customers:
 See all 24 customer reviews...
Fires on the Plain (1959) Chris

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.

4.0


User Rating: 0 (0 votes)


About the Author

I've been watching war movies for probably 25 years now. Since December 2006 I've been sharing my habit and passion for these movies here on this site.



One Response to Fires on the Plain (1959)

  1. warmoviebuff says:

    Great review of a very good movie. It is fascinating. It has striking images. It is crisp black and white. It has interesting camera angles It is well acted. As you mention, it is in some ways a horror movie. But it also has some humor.

    I guarantee you if you watch this movie, you will never eat monkey meat again.

Leave a Reply

Back to Top ↑
  • Subscribe via E-mail!

    Get notifications, exclusive contests and offers, and more!
  • More War Movies

  • Large Association of Movie Blogs
  • Recent Comments

  • Facebook

  • Archives