Actor and director Shinya Tsukamoto often takes violence to strange extremes. In his first film, the 1989 horror “Tetsuo” (“Tetsuo: The Iron Man”), a businessman accidentally kills a crazed metal fetishist (played by Tsukamoto himself) with his car and, becoming “infected” by his victim, horrifically transforms into an ambulant pile of death-dealing scrap metal. The follow-ups “Tetsuo II: Body Hammer” (1992) and “Tetsuo: The Bullet Man” (2010) were made in a similarly hyperviolent style.
So his new film “Nobi” (“Fires on the Plain”), based on Shohei Ooka’s semi-autobiographical novel about Japanese soldiers in the Philippines during the closing days of World War II, may seem like an uncharacteristic departure from much of his work to date — until you see Tsukamoto speak in person.
Following a screening of “Fires on the Plain” at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on July 14, 55-year-old Tsukamoto was the soul of politeness as he answered the audience’s occasionally awkward questions, and passionate when the subject of Japan’s current drift toward nationalism and militarism was raised.
“When I was growing up (in the postwar period), people generally believed that war was something evil,” he said at the Q&A session. That attitude, he noted, changed during the two decades that he struggled to complete “Fires on the Plain” — and not for the better. Though he once assumed that the film’s anti-war stance would be universally shared by the local audience, he now feels “a sense of crisis that (Japan) is quickly heading in the direction of war.”
“I thought I had to make this film now, more than ever,” he added.
That urgency informs every frame. Tsukamoto plays a sick, starving soldier who, after his unit is destroyed in an air raid, wanders the countryside with fellow survivors in search of food and discovers, to his horror, that some have turned to cannibalism. The same shocking motif was present in the Kon Ichikawa 1959 film that was also based on Ooka’s book, but “it was not central to mine,” Tsukamoto said.
When he interviewed former soldiers who had served in the Philippines, they told him they had more pressing matters to consider than the morality of eating human flesh — namely filling their stomachs. Eventually, they were reduced to eating maggots in other soldiers’ wounds and sometimes the flesh those maggots were clinging to.
“In those circumstances,” Tsukamoto confessed, “I might eat that flesh. But we should never allow that situation to happen again.”
When I interviewed him after the Q&A session, he spoke of the “sense of mission” that drove him and his staff to make the film, despite difficult conditions and a micro-budget. Money was so tight that volunteer extras doubled as equipment carriers. And the sides of a military transport truck that figured in one key scene were constructed of cardboard.
Completed in June 2014, “Fires on the Plain” had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in September that year.
“I didn’t aim to specifically release the film on the 70th anniversary of the war’s end, but it ended up happening that way by necessity,” Tsukamoto explains. “By the 70th anniversary most of the veterans (in Japan) will be over 90. We are losing these precious memories of how painful war is. So I needed to make this film before they die out and Japan forgets the lessons of war even more.”
To impress viewers, especially young ones, with the depth of that pain, Tsukamoto filmed his hero behaving with anything but standard war-movie heroism. In one scene he panics and shoots a young Filipino couple who intrude on a deserted church where he is sleeping. Shortly after, he throws his rifle into a river.
“I would never feature a heroic (soldier) in a film about war,” Tsukamoto says. “Many great Japanese war movies are told from the viewpoint of the victims but in this film I wanted to tell the story from the viewpoint of the soldiers, that is, the perpetrators. What is terrifying is not that they die; it’s how they lose their humanity and become killers once they get into a war.”
“They’re shocked,” he says of audience reactions to prerelease screenings of the film around Japan. “People tend to start talking about it a few days after they’ve seen it, when the shock has worn off.”
Not all, however. One elderly woman, whose husband was a WWII veteran, approached him after a screening.
“She thanked me for making the film,” he says. “A lot of mothers have come to see it,” he adds. “They have strong feelings about the subject matter because they don’t want their own children to be drafted. They want a world without war. What made me the happiest, though, were the young people who told me how anti-war they felt after watching the film.”
I ask if he thinks Japan will repeat the mistakes it made in World War II.
“It’s a shame that Japan is moving toward war again considering that we have a 70-year legacy of peace,” Tsukamoto says. “That’s totally wrong.”