Fires on the Plain / Nobi
Directed by Kon Ichikawa
Japan, 1959, 104 minutes, 35 mm, B&W
In Japanese with English subtitles
When: Friday December10, 2010 at 7:30 PM
Where: Japan Society,333 East 47th Street,
This weekend Japan Society is presenting a mini-series called Shadows of the Rising Sun: Cinema and Empire. The four films to be shown explore Japan's quest for empire, which began in the 1930s, and its disastrous, tragic, and painful consequences. Japan Society must be applauded for presenting such a series, and high kudos to all involved in preparing it.
Fires on the Plain is the first of four films in the series and will be screened on Friday evening The film is doing double duty since it is also part of the Zen & Its Opposite: Essential (& Turbulent) Japanese Art House film series. The Japan Society film program has explained that each film in that series "was picked because it illustrates one or several of the 'Six Planes of Existence'—a Buddhist concept commonly referred to as 'Six Paths' (Rokudō or Rokudō-rinne) in Japan—within 'the realm of Birth and Death' (Samsara). Fires on the Plain is associated with The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts: Preta-gati in Sanskrit. Gakidō in Japanese. The realm of hungry spirits, characterized by agonizing craving and eternal starvation."
Set on the Philippine Island of Leyte in February, 1945, as the Japanese forces are in retreat from U.S. and Allied forces, the film stars Eiji Funakoshi as Tamura, a hapless soldier with tuberculosis. We follow his wanderings, along with various of his fellow soldiers, as he deals with hunger, artillery shellings, and a tank attack. But mainly there's the the hunger and the increased weakness, both physical and mental, that it brings, a hunger that is assuaged for some by resorting to cannibalism.
Fires is based on the acclaimed 1952 novel by Shohei OOka, which is still available from Tuttle Classics. I haven't read the book -- at least not yet -- but Ichikawa has been forthright about changes he and his wife & co-writer, Natto Wada, made. They eliminated the protagonist being a Christian, feeling that this would require explanation, and changed the ending, which I am not about to give away by writing how.
Ichikawa's film differs from the other three in the series in that it does not address the brutality of the Japanese and the atrocities they committed against Prisoners of War and civilians. Perhaps this focusing on the plight of the defeated Japanese soldiers is faithful to the book, perhaps its another change. Whatever the case, it makes the shooting of a Japanese soldier who is trying to surrender into an incident without context. Interestingly here, as well as in another scene, the U.S. forces come off quite well: it's a female Filipino guerrilla who fires at the Japanese and an American attempts to intervene. According to actor Mickey Curtis, this was the first time that a Japanese film depicted a Japanese soldier surrendering.
In any case, Fires on the Plain is an incredible, powerful film that must be seen, as should his earlier film The Burmese Harp (1956).
ACF Rating: 4 out of 4 stars; highest recommendation.
Buy tickets for Fires on the Plain.
For information about the Shadows of the Rising Sun mini-series, click here.
Fortunately for those who cannot attend Friday's screening, The Criterion Collection offers a single disc DVD of the film. It's another typically outstanding offering from Criterion. The transfer is first rate, as are the extra features. These include a video with Donald Richie, a most highly regarded writer about Japanese Cinema. There is also a video piece featuring relatively recent interviews done separately with director Ichikawa and actor Mickey Curtis, who played Nagamatsu in the film. Also included is a booklet that includes a substantial essay by Chuck Stephens, another noted writer who has contributed to other Criterion offerings and who again does not disappoint in the slightest.