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Fires on the Plain (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on February 9, 2013

On the Philippine island of Leyte, Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) is a man without a camp.  His unit doesn’t want him because he has tuberculosis.  The hospital doesn’t want him because he’s not sick enough.  Weak and starving, he squats in the woods near the hospital with the other rejects.  Among them are Yasuda (Osamu Takizawa), hoarding tobacco leaves to trade for precious food, and the opportunistic Nagamatsu (Mickey Curtis).  When the hospital gets bombed, however, they all scatter.  Tamura stumbles across the war-torn island, clinging to life, finding himself unable to comply with his superior’s orders to kill himself.

The movie opens with a slap in the face, an appropriate gesture.  If The Burmese Harp is all sorrow and melancholy, Fires is all bitterness and anger.  The soldiers are in pure animalistic survival mode, trying to live long enough to somehow escape this hell.  The corpses of their comrades litter the landscape, left wherever they’ve fallen, and sometimes scavenged for a rifle or a pair of shoes.  Those who’ve managed to stay alive care little for each other, lying and scamming and stealing.  Long cut off from any supply lines, everyone is battling for whatever scraps they can manage to swallow.  Having survived on little but yams, those now seem a luxury as they scrounge for leeches, grass… and human flesh.  A sackful of salt is a veritable goldmine.  There isn’t a healthy-looking man among the lot of them, limping and crawling, weary and wounded, clothes falling off their bodies and teeth falling out of their heads.  And then there’s the small matter of all the Americans and Filipinos trying to kill them.

Tamura tries to hang on to a shred of decency… he feels drawn to the cross of a church, and the fires that could promise a glimpse of unspoiled humanity.  But he’s no saint.  He murders an unarmed innocent for no reason except perhaps panic, or perhaps because that is the instinct that’s been drilled into him.  Although he at first displays a sense of generosity, he eventually learns to protect his minimal assets with deception.  War takes its toll, universally and unfailingly.

Ichikawa mixes the unceasing bleakness with spots of humor, but the comedy is pitch black.  In a world so awful, sometimes you just have to laugh at the cruel absurdity of it all.  The cinematography is beautiful in how it captures the ugliness so perfectly… the photography is stylish but not pretty.  Contrasted with the intimate square frame of Burmese Harp, the widescreen scope displays the carnage and desolation in all its breadth.  Funakoshi’s descent is palpable, his expression going from troubled to desperate to haunted to dead.  It all adds up to a powerful and haunting statement.  Rating: Great (90)


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