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Fires on the Plain (Criterion Collection)
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An agonizing portrait of desperate Japanese soldiers stranded in a strange land during World War II and the lengths they go to survive, Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain is a compelling descent into psychological and physical oblivion. Denied hospital treatment for tuberculosis and cast off into the unknown, Private Tamura treks across an unfamiliar Filipino landscape, encountering an increasingly debased cross-section of Imperial Army soldiers. Grisly yet poetic, Fires on the Plain is one of the most powerful works from one of Japanese cinema's most versatile filmmakers.
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"Fires on the Plain" tells the story of Tamura, a Japanese soldier in the Philipines in February, 1945; a time when defeat was turning into chaos. We witness the gradual metamorphis from civilized soldier to desperate animal as Tamura searches for a path to hope. It is a disturbing film but it is an educational film as well because of the way it allows us to examine the other side of victory.
I have always been curious about the demise of the defeated sides in WWII. Both fought well past the point of no return and suffered through incredible destruction until only a skeleton of its' empire remained to surrender. What must that have been like to experience? I have read books by Heinrich Boll that have given me something of an idea and other authors have as well. I recently finished an excellent book entitled "Japan at War: An Oral History". The eyewitness accounts of the disintegrating forces in the Philipines and other places fit the descriptions show in "Fires on the Plain". It is a disturbing portrait of a world of near-anarchy where survival is about the only instinct remaining. Truth IS stranger than fiction.
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+]
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