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Fires on the Plain

Fires on the Plain(1962)

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The Kon Ichikawa never secured the international reputation of fellow studio professionals Akira Kurisawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, or Yasijiro Ozu, but the versatile director made an indelible mark with two of the most powerful anti-war dramas made in or out of Japan. The lyrical and introspective The Burmese Harp (1956) follows the odyssey of a Japanese soldier in Burma during the waning months of World War II who steals the robes of a Buddhist monk to make his way back to his platoon and undergoes a spiritual transformation as he witnesses the destruction and wholesale death left in the wake of battle. After a career of studio assignments, largely satirical comedies and melodramas, this passion project from Ichikawa made an impression on critics in Japan and became his first film to be seen outside the country, picking up a prize at the Venice Film Festival and securing distribution in the U.S. and Europe.

Fires on the Plain made three years later, stands in stark contrast, stark being the operative word. Based on the novel by Shohei Ooka (who drew from his personal experiences as a soldier and POW) and scripted by Ichikawa's wife and collaborator, Natto Wada, it too takes the form of soldier's journey through the battlefields of World War II, this time an island in the Philippines in 1945 as the Americans drive the Japanese out. The striking photography and imagery is the unmistakable work of the same creative artist, but otherwise Ichikawa takes a very different path. Where the serenity amidst death of The Burmese Harp is about the healing of wounds caused by the war, Fires on the Plain is a grim and gruesome and at times macabre autopsy of its (selectively Japanese) victims.

Ichikawa opens the film with, literally, a slap in the face in startling close-up. Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) is too weak from tuberculosis to fight. His barking commanding officer berates him for his uselessness and orders him to the hospital, where he must gain admittance (and thus become their problem to feed) or use his grenade on himself. "I don't care if you're coughing blood," the administrator of the overstuffed hospital tells him. "If you can walk, you're not a patient." He joins a nearby group of soldiers similarly in limbo and waits to be captured by the Americans or die. At least until the camp is bombed and his will to survive kicks in, sending him trudging through the jungles with his fellow survivors.

According to Ichikawa, Funakoshi prepared for the role with a resolution that would make a die-hard Method actor think twice. Starving himself to a cadaverous dimensions, the production had to delay its start due to Funakoshi's malnutrition. Even after he "bulked up" to a healthier state and production restarted, he looks like the walking dead from the first frame, his sunken eyes half closed with exhaustion and his uniform hanging off his emaciated frame like a second hand costume on a weathered scarecrow. He barely speaks through the film, letting his hollow eyes speak for him as he witnesses the horrors of war.

Tamura wanders into an empty village – everyone is either dead (the corpses mere piles of uniforms and bones on the steps of a church) or fled – and even his best intentions backfire when he panics during a confrontation with a young Filipino couple. He joins the zombie march of scattered soldiers trying to reach the evacuation point and crosses paths with the dregs of the army's survivors: bullies, profiteers, mercenaries, and those who sacrifice their dignity and consciences to attach themselves to these schemers. As the numbers dwindle, he joins a particularly feral pair (Osamu Takizawa as a gangrenous hyena and Mickey Curtis as his amoral leech of an accomplice) hiding in the jungle and surviving on "monkey meat" and witnesses the human animal at its worst, a horror so barbaric that even his dead eyes recoil with revulsion.

"I began as a painter and I think like one," Ichikawa once remarked, and his roots as a graphic artist and cartoonist can be seen in his eye for composition and imagery on his black and white widescreen canvas. The imagery of Fires on the Plain has a primal beauty that becomes increasingly stark and severe through the course of the film, with scenes are so brutally beautiful and bizarre you'll not soon forget them: crippled patients squirming like worms to escape the bombing of a hospital, smoke clearing to reveal the rag-doll bodies strewn across an old battlefield, a platoon of soldiers crawling across an open road under cover of night like an army of insects scrambling for cover, and of course the plumes of smoke in the distance from the fires on the plain, like an obscure signal that every soldier reads differently.

The film was even more successful than The Burmese Harp, though it has been criticized for focusing on the Japanese suffering while neglecting the well documented atrocities that the Japanese perpetrated during their brutal occupation. At best Ichikawa suggests the terrible history through the terrified reactions of the Filipinos he meets along the way. But like Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima, Fires on the Plain uses the Japanese experience in the final days of World War II as a microcosm for the way war destroys the soul and spirit of all involved, how the will to survive can drive men to acts of cruelty and brutality that make death look kind.

Japanese film scholar Donald Richie offers historical perspective on the film and an illuminating overview on the career of Ichikawa in his 12-minute introduction. He explains that it was Ichikawa's versatility and genre-jumping that kept him from establishing himself as a kind of artistic brand name along the lines of Kurosawa.

Criterion's disc also features new interviews with Ichikawa (who, at over 90 years old, is still actively directing) and co-star Mickey Curtis, a one-time pop idol cast (according to Ichikawa) because he was "thin." Curtis (who speaks fluent English) recalls with a laugh that he was cast because they thought he looked like Jesus Christ! An accompanying booklet features a new essay by film critic Chuck Stephens. The anamorphic widescreen disc features a crisp and clear transfer of an excellent B&W print with strong contrasts.

For more information about Fires on the Plains, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Fires on the Plains, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker