"Fires on the Plain" is not a film you forget once you've viewed this descent into madness and hell: And the nature of man's primal instincts that befall a group of Japanese soldiers on the island of Leyte in the Phillipines. The year is 1945, and Japan has been for all intents and purposes defeated. The soldiers that do remain in the Pacific Theatre have been cut off from any and all resupply by the once, but no longer, powerful Japanese Imperial Navy. In the Phillipines, the Japanese Imperial Army has been reduced to nothing more than a ragtag army hiding out in the jungles. One of them is Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi).
This is more than an anti-war film, it is a film of survival in defeat, and the primal nature of man to survive. Directed by Kon Ichikawa, one of the first scenes depicted is the vicious slapping of Private Tamura by one of his superiors. His crime? For having the audacity to return to his unit. You see Private Tamura is suffering from tuberculosis; as are many other soldiers; and his superior is angry that the private can no longer fend for himself; and instead must rely on his fellow soldiers who can barely fend for themselves. The unit is suffering from a shortage of food, and it's difficult enough for them to find food for themselves, let alone a weakened soldier.
The superior sends him back to the hospital with a few potatoes: and also in his possession is a hand grenade to kill himself with when he can no longer continue. Tamura constantly struggles with this: should I live, or die? However, when Tamura arrives at the hospital, he is refused: Only those near death are allowed in this hospital. Tamura must make a choice, unwanted in his own unit, and not allowed in the hospital, what is he to do? He decides the best course of action is to organize a group of stragglers who have also been let loose from their units. When the Americans begin bombing the Japanese, however, Tamura races off on his own.
He comes across a small village, and it is here that a very ugly encounter ensues with the native Filipino's, whom the Japanese army have treated harshly during their occupation. There nothing but hatred for the Japanese army by the local population who have endured years of brutal occupation. The film shows the brutality of the war, and how the Japanese army, who have deserted these stragglers to fend for themselves, live what remaining days they have left. For many, it is pitiful.
The film shows the viewer the true nature and horror or war. And director Ichikawa shows the viewer that underneath the veil of a once boastful and victorious army, what is left are no more than the primal instincts of survival at all costs: Even if for only another day, or another hour. Many in the Japanese army have now descended into the cannibalitistic animal whose primal instincts of survival even mean the preying on of ones own fellow soldier: which they refer to as monkey meat. This is a brutal film, and Ichikawa deserves credit for filming a subject that is rarely acknowledged or mentioned in Japan. Highly, highly recommended. [Stars: 5+]