What is an ‘anti-war film’? A straightforward question perhaps if we accept that the single purpose is to promote the idea that war is always a bad thing. But that is in itself a contentious statement. Audiences often reject invitations to go along with a film’s perceived intention. They are more inclined to find their own pleasures in what is presented. It would be wrong too to think that there is only one kind of anti-war film. Fires On the Plain is one of several films I’ve considered for an event supporting the release of Nadine Labaki’s new film Where Do We Go Now?
Fires on the Plain is almost the polar opposite of the other famous anti-war film made by the husband-wife team of director Ichikawa Kon and writer Wada Natto. The Burmese Harp (1956) is a film which explores loss and defeat in Burma in 1945 but does so with optimism and humanism and which sees the possibility of Japanese soldiers returning home for a new life. Like the earlier film, Fires On the Plain is a literary adaptation, but this time the theme is the brutality of war and the ultimate degradation of the human spirit. It’s not an easy watch but its status on IMDB (with a score of 8.1) suggests that it continues to make an impression on audiences in North America. The DVD is not available in the UK and must be imported from Criterion in the US or Korea. The Criterion release has several ‘extras’ and an essay by Terry Rafferty on the label’s website.
The first few weeks of 1945, the last year of what the Americans term ‘The Pacific War’, see the Japanese occupation force of Leyte in the Philippines reduced to a rump by the much stronger American forces who are moving through the islands on their way to a possible invasion of Japan. The forlorn hope of the Japanese survivors is to reach the town of Palompon where a ship may be waiting for them. To get there they must march across rough terrain during the rainy season and avoid the Americans who occasionally attack but who are otherwise too busy preparing to move to other islands to bother too much about these soldiers ‘left behind’. We infer from what happens that the Japanese Occupation of Leyte had itself been brutal in the treatment of the local population who are now not going to help. Starvation is the likely outcome for the Japanese who scramble to find a few yams left behind in the fields after harvest.
The central character is Tamura (Funakoshi Eiji), a slightly older draftee who we see spurned by the hospital and by his own field commander. He has TB but the hospital has no room for him and his commander does not want another mouth to feed. He finds himself wandering towards Palompon, often alone but also meeting up with small groups of Japanese soldiers with the same intention. The film’s title refers to the pillars of smoke that Tamura often sees in the distance. He believes that they are smoke signals sent by Filipino guerillas and he avoids them. Other Japanese tell him that they are just fires lit by farmers to burn corn husks. By the end of the film we cannot be sure what it is that Tamura sees – or what sense he makes of it.
I found the film quite difficult to get into at first, but gradually the narrative took hold. By the end it was difficult to tear myself away from the screen. Ironically, for all the brutality and degradation, the film is actually very beautiful. Shot in rich black and white ‘Scope by one of Ichikawa’s regular contributors Kobayashi Setsuo, it includes beautifully composed ‘figures in a landscape’ as well as close-ups of the ‘everyman’ face of Tamura. Funakoshi Eiji manages to be quite handsome, very miserable, bemused and tortured with equal facility. Ichikawa began his career as an animator and he was also interested in graphics. The strong visual imagery and especially the widescreen compositions are to be expected. (The landscapes were actually shot on the Izu Peninsula, not far from Tokyo in a region used by Kurosawa for his jedaigeki films – but I was convinced this was the Philippines when I watched the film.)
As an anti-war film, Fires on the Plain raises several issues. It doesn’t explain the events which led up to the situation or offer us any kind of back story – there is no attempt to suggest who is ‘responsible’ for what happens. There is a suggestion that Japanese officers have perhaps a better chance of survival, but really we only see what happens to a group of Japanese soldiers – some individuated but others not. The Americans come out of the film quite badly I think with attacks on the straggling Japanese soldiers when they are clearly not a threat to anyone. Having said that we only see the Americans from the perspective of the Japanese (who, it is suggested, think that the Americans will always kill them rather than take prisoners).
The more inhuman the behaviour of the soldiers becomes the more ‘humanist’ is the effect of the film. In one famous sequence, Ichikawa offers us a darkly comic moment when one of the dead soldiers answers an aside by Tamura and this is followed by a little sketch in front of a static camera that borrows directly from Chaplin’s little tramp. Be warned, things get much worse a little later on. How much of what we see is ‘real’ and how much is the product of delirium and despair is for us to judge. The only hope that you can take away from a film like this is that somehow the human spirit will survive. But I think it is clear that war will charge a very high and unacceptable price to prove the point.
Checking the release of the film in the UK, I discovered it was a Compton release – a distributor associated with X Certificate films in the early 1960s. At that time Japan was the source of the ‘extreme’ cinema of the period (as it was again in the 1990s) and I’m reminded of the most gruesome, yet most humanist, war film I’ve seen, Masumura Yasuzo’s Red Angel (1966).
If we are going to have ‘canons’ of films that we recommend to students, I’d certainly place Fires on the Plain on that list. Here’s a tiny snippet to whet your appetite: