dir. Kon Ichikawa
Jeff Larson, NEW YORK CITY
February 19, 2007 - 35mm/IFC Film Center
In Fires on the Plain, Kon Ichikawa’s WWII masterpiece, a soldier walks. He does not fight, and only twice sees the enemy. It’s 1945 and the Japanese have no hope of winning, or even, as the film contends, returning to the realm of the living. Fires on the Plain imagines, in stark black and white, a world where even surviving is more harrowing than the hells that wait beyond the grave.
In a small hut on the island of Leyte, the soldier Tamura, who is suffering from tuberculosis, is reprimanded for returning to his unit unwell. The squad commander tells him the dire situation facing the Japanese on the Philippine front: there is no food, little water – a supply officer fills out requests for supplies with no one to send the requests to – a burgeoning guerilla war, and, now, here is this young soldier who is too sick to help his men dig air shelters. Tamura, played by an angelic Eiji Funakoshi, waits through this scene with an abject stiffness that seems to be a remnant of some long lost muscle memory of military decorum, and as the film progresses, his slowly stiffening limbs parody any semblance of discipline. He is ordered back to the hospital, whether he is admitted or lies dying outside is of no consequence, and reminded that he has a hand grenade to blow himself up before starving to death.
At the hospital, the chief medic refuses to admit Tamura on the basis that he can still walk. And while waiting outside among the sick-but-still-walking, Tamura watches the medical staff desert their post shortly before the hospital is destroyed by air raid. His dying comrades scamper like ants from the huts serving as the hospital before an unseen enemy drops his bombs. The resulting scene is the first of many striking apocalyptic visions: the ground is strewn with scores of the dead and the dying, and the movie stops to indulge in the bleak and devastating landscape.
Without bombast -- except, oddly, in the score -- an atypical theme arises out of the destruction: on Leyte, comrades-in-arms are only helpful as survival tools, there are no letters to write home, girls to fantasize about, or even any hope for escape. Ichikawa’s camera pauses on the most horrifying scenes long enough for them to become terrifyingly beautiful in their stillness: Tamura ventures, at one point, up to a deserted church which is literally bursting with the bones and flayed limbs of his fellow soldiers, shortly before he shoots and kills a young girl for a pouch of salt. The film’s sensational score drops out in the village, as if it embodies an observer who received more than he bargained for and is obediently reverent to this desecrated chapel.
Ichikawa’s morals in this film are hard to pin down -- one would be hard-pressed to simplify the message as merely anti-war. Tamura’s hardship always arises out of following orders, and being a largely heroic soldier. He is generous with his small amounts of food, he is strong and good-looking despite his health condition, and he blindly follows orders. In a lesser film, we would admire his hardships, but his outstanding qualities are moot: there is no one to fight, and everyone will die.
After rendezvousing with the retreating Japanese forces, he marches, without shoes, towards an evacuation at Palompon. Tamura is following the rest of his comrades because he has nothing else left to do, and he is hardly alone in his despair. In one scene, after being strafed by enemy aircraft, the survivors slowly get to their feet and leave the dead where they lie. In another, a soldier eulogizes over a seemingly dead soldier. “Are we all going to end up like that?” he asks. The exhausted, yet not dead, soldier lifts his head from the mud and answers, “What?” On the hellish Island of Leyte, simple conceptions of heroism and honor have broken down. This is the rare war film with no warriors. Surprisingly, without war, Ichikawa manufactures a plausible and veritable war zone, but even more amazing is how he creates an army of broken individuals through subtle and motionless camerawork, the lines around a man’s eyes, and a patience that conveys a devastating stillness and an odor of death. Fires on the Plain is a necessary movie, and even a slice of it affects us more deeply than all of the most successful scenes in all of the Saving Private Ryan clones. Fires on the Plain breathes death, and yet is tasteful enough not to rely on simple sleights of hand to invoke the horrors of war.
Near the end of the film, Tamura happens upon a survivor who proclaims he is the Buddha on the mountain. Like all Buddhas – past and future – salvation is coming to him. He is waiting for a helicopter to save him while surviving on a diet of his own shit and the maggots who are living in it. Tamura looks to the sky and sees no helicopter. “What kind of birds are those?” he says. The shit-eating Buddha retorts, “those aren’t birds, they’re flies.” Indeed.
(All six of you reading this should buy the DVD when it is released on March 13.)