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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Classics Review: Fires on the Plain (1959)

Updated: Nov 25, 2021

War is hell. But before Vietnam, most films wouldn’t really portray it as a complete and true vision of hell – a place where redemption is near impossible to achieve, a place that feeds on your worst fears and perpetuates suffering upon you. One side of the spectrum would romanticize it through patriotism and honour, redacting most elements of the trauma and horror of it all. The other side wants to show the hell and depravity of it all, but it is never entirely despondent as they still add elements and messages of hope and triumph along with its condemnation of war. This at least allows for these films to speak on personal and human levels to their broader audience as it evokes necessary feelings of anger, sorrow and reflection.

However, Fires on the Plain, a Japanese film from 1959 is part of a very small number of pre-1970s war films that show it in its truest, ugliest state: a hopeless nightmare where no one really wins as all hints of hope are removed from the picture entirely – a work of complete and total nihilism. Even though history is written by the victors with events like the first and second world war being entirely necessary for defeating the evils that have unfortunately started to gain mainstream popularity again, films would often focus on the triumphs instead of really discussing the toll all of this takes on our souls as we look inward, questioning our humanity that made us say “never again” in the first place.

Even with anti-war films, there are very few works that remove any semblance of hope beneath the shit, blood and dirt of war - there’s always some kind of glimmer of light at the end of the dreary tunnel. But then there are works that are so pitch black and nihilistic in their approach to not only war, but the very idea of our humanity as we question if there is any point in saving ourselves at this point. Come and See is the obvious first choice for most, but a film that needs to be discussed for its symbolism and the resounding influence it would have on anti-war films going forward is that of Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain - a hellish, surreal nightmare following a Japanese soldier’s journey of survival in the Philippines during the final days of WWII.

The opening moments of Fires on the Plain have Ichikawa at arguably his most confrontational, setting up the idea of what our central character, as well as the audience, are in for going forward. Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) is suffering from tuberculosis - just another thorn in the side to an ailing, demoralized Japanese military as their final days are numbered. The fight isn’t coming to them and they’re physically incapable of taking it to the impending US forces. Yet, we still find Tamura being lambasted by his superior as he orders him to commit suicide if he can’t be admitted into the military hospital a few miles from them. It’s a simple dialogue/response scene on paper, but how Ichikawa frames the scene sets up the proposed journey we are about to endure. Instead of opting for straightforward over-the-shoulder shots, Ichikawa takes us on the cusp of breaking the fourth wall, with Tamura and his commanding officer framed center of the screen as they look just past us. The general is invasive and dominant as he shouts at us, all while Tamura remains dead-eyed and submissive as the ravages of war and starvation have begun taking their toll on him. These two responses and reactions to the situation speak volumes as to the nature of Fires on the Plain’s many, complex ideas and observations of war’s grasp on our souls. The general is reactive, angry and seemingly desperate for some sort of order and resolution, while Tamura is malleable, at least where we are in his story, as we see a husk of what he was, now broken and fatigued that even the order of suicide is not far from the realms of rational thought.

Tamura’s potential journey of recovery and the reclamation of his humanity are met with an ever-spiraling descent into madness and the hell that houses it. It’s a road movie of sorts as he is the lonely protagonist wandering aimlessly, struggling to find his eventual endgame. Does he want to be a deserter? Does he want to live? Does he want to hide? Just what is the plan? But things get truly apocalyptic once he reaches the hospital as bombs begin shelling the area, hitting the vacinity as wounded soldiers crawl from out the huts, slowly inching towards the hope of survival as they are destroyed in the process. Death is obviously a common occurrence in war films, but the literal imagery of inescapable death feels like a spiritual attack from Ichikawa, showing us the unavoidable internal fears and truths one faces at any given moment: Cruel, violent death is inevitable.

Ichikawa cleverly baits us with the pretense of hope throughout. His symbolism goes beyond just the visual communication of death as a result of war and conflict. He also paints this death with a light coat of hope that many other war films tend to over-indulge in as they try to find the intrinsic goodness in humanity that prevails over evil. It soon becomes obvious that this is wishful thinking. Tamura wanders the jungles and plains of the island with a constant pillar of smoke on the horizon- one that could either be danger or salvation. A smoke signal from his fellow soldiers? Or a bringer of doom and destruction from his enemies? Tamura is often conflicted in following it, but eventually steers away from it even though he almost always finds himself heading towards the smoke. But then Ichikawa introduces the image of a church’s steeple on the horizon, a different kind of smoke pillar - a supposedly clear-cut saviour instead of the potentially dangerous looming smoke as it rises over the horizon. Tamura only ever follows death, and it is here where that path continues to amplify itself as he finds himself even more lost than before. If religion can’t seem to find a road to salvation for him, then what can?

Ichikawa’s symbolism goes deeper the further we trudge along with Tamura. There’s a particular telling scene of him dropping his backpack. Some yams and a grenade fall out, but as he packs the grenade back, he seems to forget the yams in a moment, prioritizing a literal symbol of death over something that can provide life. It’s obviously a source of sustenance for these soldiers, but its symbolic meaning within the region goes beyond that of basic nutrition. A multivalent symbol of male pride and the body, the yams have become secondary to Tamura as he has subconsciously chooses man-made death over himself.

But it’s not in the yams or pillars of smoke that has earned Fires on the Plain its tags as being one of the bleakest, darkest and most horrifying depictions of war. Cannibalism is a frequent practice and occurrence throughout the film as Tamura encounters desperate soldiers clinging onto life, willing to do anything to survive spiritual and physical death. It goes hand in hand with the physical, moral and spiritual degradation found within Fires on the Plain. These soldiers become more skeletal the deeper we venture into the heart of darkness, losing touch of their humanity as they become hollow shells of themselves, as men. There is an interesting scene that has soldiers coming across a single boot on a trail, as each soldier passes, they replace their shoe with it, effectively passing their worn-out, broken footwear further down the line. It eventually leads to a final boot for Tamura with it literally being a shell of a shoe as we see the sole is completely missing. The metaphor of degradation here is easy to see and interpret, but cannibalism and how it relates to conflict among men is possibly one of the most interesting observations of war and how it shapes us from being normal people and turning us into actual monsters. War devours life, it’s a petty squabble between powerful men, so when these soldiers resort to cannibalism, it turns them into something far scarier, it turns them into real-life monsters as we swallow our own kind - a bloodthirsty war machine as we become increasingly uninterested in our own redemption, but that of devouring those around us just because we can. If Tamura becomes a cannibal, is all sense of his humanity now gone? Could he ever be fully redeemed if he did so?

It’s all shot with Ichikawa’s distinctive eye for style and tone with which he is known for, separating himself from more known Japanese auteurs in Kurosawa and Ozu. There is some striking imagery and uncomfortably dark humour found within Fires on the Plain that ranks up among the most gorgeous and equally terrifying images in any film. Soldiers sit in the shade as the darkness creeps in around them as tiny glimmers of light reflecting off their eyes. Ichikawa hints at some sort of life in all of them before the darkness takes them away entirely, even when a soldier is found underneath a tree gorging on himself. But like all else in Fires on the Plain, a cruel, violent death is inevitable.

Fires on the Plain is comparative to that of Come and See in that it puts the hopeless, ugly face of war right into your peripheral without ever wanting you to see anything other than it being a harbinger of death and despair. War is the degradation of humanity and that is just what Fires on the Plain wants to discuss. Ichikawa takes the intrinsic good in humanity that is implied within most war movies and subverts expectations entirely. By giving us a false sense of hope with dashes of it scattered about, he shows no interest in letting them gestate and blossom into beautiful flowers. Instead, he wants them to wither away and die alongside mankind’s irrational attempt at trying to save themselves from certain destruction as each character shows the true nature of themselves and humanity as a whole. One of the darkest, scariest films ever made.

Where you can watch it: The Criterion Channel (USA), YouTube (Worldwide)

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