Film / Reviews

A second look at bloody WWII novel 'Fires on the Plain'

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Japanese war films typically frame themselves as anti-war, even when they glorify the sacrifices made by brave Japanese boys in defense of the homeland, as in the 2013 hit “Eien no Zero” (“The Eternal Zero”).

Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 war film “Nobi” (“Fires on the Plain”) is a rare local example that totally rejects this sort of soft nationalism. Based on Shohei Ooka’s semi-autobiographical novel about Japanese soldiers in the Philippines during the desperate last days of World War II, the film spoke the truth as starkly as the era would permit.

So when veteran indie iconoclast Shinya Tsukamoto announced that he was shooting his own version of Ooka’s novel, I was skeptical that he could improve on Ichikawa’s classic.

Fires on the Plain (Nobi)
Run Time 87 mins
Language Japanese
Opens July 25

He has, by being true not to Ichikawa’s film but the no-limits, no-concessions Tsukamoto who made “Tetsuo” (“Tetsuo: The Iron Man”) in 1989 and other pioneering cyberpunk sci-fi films. Tsukamoto’s “Nobi” (“Fires on the Plain”) is neither punk nor futuristic in the least, though the ominous rumbles and piercing howls of its electronic score — by longtime collaborator Chu Ishikawa — are more 2015 than 1945.

The film’s intense, close-up focus on the the hero’s present moment and personal experiences — the shock of exploding body parts, the beauty of light shimmering on the long grass — has been compared to the films of Terrence Malick, but this has also long been Tsukamoto’s directorial strategy. Whatever his references, every shot is his own.

Tsukamoto is also his own star, as he has frequently been since “Tetsuo” onward, but not as his usual crazed, violent hero. Instead he plays Tamura, an emaciated, tubercular private in the Philippine jungle. Ordered to the field hospital by a brusque superior, he finds a hellish antechamber to death. Seeing that Tamura can talk and walk, however unsteadily, the medic in charge contemptuously tells him return to his unit and then claims all his food.

While Tamura is being ping-ponged back and forth, an air raid blows his unit to pieces. He survives with only a few raw yams to eat and no matches to light a cooking fire. Searching inside a Catholic church, he dozes off until he is startled awake by a spooning young couple. In a moment of panic (which a shaky camera and rapid crosscuts make chillingly palpable) he pulls the trigger of his rifle — and runs from the now-bloody scene.

Soon after, he encounters other Japanese soldiers on their way to be evacuated from the island. A grizzled corporal (Tatsuya Nakamura) tells him, with a manic grin, that he is immune from bullets, while the others hungrily eye his food sack. Tamura temporarily buys peace by giving them salt, which they devour. Then, traipsing through the jungle past the dead and dying, he reunites with two men from his unit: the half-loony Nagamatsu (Yusaku Mori) and the wily, limping veteran Yasuda (Lily Franky), who induces the younger man to hunt for what they call “monkey meat.”

Weakened by hunger, illness and fatigue, Tamura looks ready to be reclassified from human to simian.

The film has been criticized for excessive gore, but from the accounts of combat I have read, Tsukamoto is simply portraying the grisly truth. And given his tiny production budget, he has done a far-better-than-expected job of conveying the incongruous mix of lush natural beauty and disturbing human degradation the film’s real-life models experienced in their jungle war.

The widening distance between that war and the present, with its instant amnesia toward anything not trending on social media, has given Tsukamoto a sense of urgency. For him “Fires on the Plain” represents a last chance to make the reality of war undeniable and unforgettable.

More than nearly any other Japanese war film, this is not only a testimony but a warning.

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