The first hour of Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain was slower and less gripping than I remembered, but it’s all a setup for the last forty-five minutes of sheer hell. The structure is conspicuously Dante-like, as our tubercular soldier hero, stranded with his fellow starving and injured soldiers on an island of the Phillipines where the Japanese are badly losing ground, encounters horror after horror, cannibalism representing the absolute deepest form of amorality and evil.
The most memorable scene comes at midpoint, where a group of wounded, starving soldiers are trudging down to base camp, walking down a path strewn with bodies. The camera shoots them from behind. An enemy plane flies overhead and they all collapse to the ground in unison. The plane, unseen, strafes the area, and then some, but not all, of them get up and walk on. It best captures the Beckett-in-a-shooting-gallery feel of the entire film.
The hero, while he refuses to give up the final shred of humanity and eat other people, is hardly a paragon. Though never made clear, there’s as much fatalism in his decision as ethics: he knows he’s going to die of tuberculosis. Though ostensibly a passive observer, he is largely complicit. (Unlike Dante, he does not attempt to intervene, knowing it to be hopeless.) And the film subverts at least one paradigmatic antiwar trope: after our hero guns down a Filipino woman and pushes aside her body to steal the rice under her house (this detail I’d forgotten, incidentally), he tosses his gun in the ocean in a symbolic renunciation of violence…which lasts for all of about fifteen minutes before he gets another one. Moreover, he’s been holding on to a grenade the entire time, a detail which hasn’t been mentioned for quite a while. For all the horrors in the film itself, the sickly feeling of nihilism only grows after things are over and amoral continuities start to become apparent.
Other films of the period, notably Kobayashi’s ten-hour The Human Condition and Ichikawa’s own The Burmese Harp, offered more idealistic, moralistic sentiments couched in more traditional oppositions: pacifism vs. war, struggle vs. resignation, barbarity vs. civilization. They haven’t dated as well as Fires on the Plain, and they are more tied to specifically Japanese attitudes towards the end of the war. The star, Eiji Funakoshi, seems to have been cast specifically for his resemblance to Tatsuya Nakadai, star of The Human Condition: like Nakadai, Funakoshi has wide, sad eyes capable of inspiring massive empathy. But Nakadai’s torments in The Human Condition were meant to serve as a kind of societal self-flagellation, a noble sacrifice so that the humanity of the Japanese could be recovered. Here, you feel rotten for every second you empathize with Funakoshi, and yet you can’t stop, because it would mean withdrawing from the film entirely and giving up on the world.
Fires on the Plain which undercuts any message it proposes and presents an impossible situation, is simpler and more universal than those other films. While the subject matter is tantamount to that of a horror movie, Ichikawa paces it to have the cumulative shock set in afterward. The audience was very quiet when the lighs went back on. It is, along with Jancso’s The Red and the White, one of the most powerful war movies I have ever seen.