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An agonizing portrait of desperate Japanese soldiers stranded in a strange land during World War II, 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 Philippine landscape, encountering an increasingly debased cross section of Imperial Army soldiers, who eventually give in to the most terrifying craving of all. Grisly yet poetic, Fires on the Plain is one of the most powerful works from one of Japanese cinema’s most versatile filmmakers.
Kon Ichikawa stated in a Criterion Collection interview that he had witnessed the destruction of the atom bomb first hand, and had felt since then that he had to speak out against the horrors of war, despite the many comedies that made up most of his early career.
The film was shot entirely in Japan in Gotenba, Izu and Hakone. The actors were fed little and were not allowed to brush their teeth or cut their nails to make it look more realistic, but doctors were on set constantly. It was delayed for two months when Eiji Funakoshi fainted on the set.
Mickey Curtis said, also in a Criterion Collection interview, that he did not think he was a good actor, but Ichikawa said he just needed to act naturally.
Fires on the Plain was released November 3, 1959 in Japan. It was later released on June 6, 2000 by Homevision.
In its early release in the United States, many American critics dismissed Fires on the Plain as a gratuitously bleak anti-war film.
A 1961 Variety review also cautioned that the films bleakness made it a difficult film to promote to audiences, commenting that it “goes much farther than the accepted war masterpieces in detailing for humanity in crisis.” Variety’s review is more positive than the New York Times, calling it, “one of the most searing pacifistic comments on war yet made… it is a bone hard, forthright film. It is thus a difficult vehicle but one that should find its place.”
Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader said: “No other film on the horrors of war has gone anywhere near as far as Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 Japanese feature.”
In response to the recent Criterion Collection release, Jamie S. Rich of DVD Talk review, had the following to say about it: “I wouldn’t call Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain – Criterion Collection an anti-war film so much as I’d call it a realist’s war film. Rather than build his story around big explosions and the thrill of battle, Ichikawa instead brings the human drama front and center, directing his spotlight on a soldier who is left to his own devices when the guns stop blazing. He poses the question, ‘When stranded on the bombed-out landscape after the fighting has calmed, what will those left behind do to survive?’ It’s bleak and it’s chilling, and yet Fires on the Plain is also completely engrossing. It’s the post-action picture as morality play, the journey of the individual recast with Dante-esque overtones. Ichikawa doesn’t have to hit you over the head with a message because the story is so truthfully crafted, to state the message outright would be redundant. Once you’ve seen Fires on the Plain, the movie will get under your skin, and you’ll find it impossible to forget.”
In 1960, the film won the Blue Ribbon Awards for Best Director and Best Cinematography, the Kinema Junpo Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Actor (Eiji Funakoshi) and the Mainichi Film Concours for Best Actor (Eiji Funakoshi), all three in Tokyo.
In 1961 it also won the Golden Sail at the Locarno International Film Festival.
Donald Richie has written that Fires on the Plain is in contrast to Ichikawa’s earlier The Burmese Harp as it “could be considered conciliatory” whereas Fires on the Plain is “deliberately confrontational”.
Ichikawa has been called
Audie Bock points out that in the novel the narrator is in Japan with a Christian view of life, while the film ends with Tamura walking, hands up into gunfire.
Asked about the controversial change in ending, in which the narrator apparently dies rather than survive, Ichikawa replied, “I let him die… I thought he should rest peacefully in the world of death. The death was my salvation for him.”
Some critics have seen in Fires on the Plain themes of degradation and brutality. Ichikawa has said that things the characters do, such as cannibalism, are such low acts, that if the protagonist, Tamura did them, he would’ve crossed such a low that he’d be unredeemable and Ichikawa commented that Fires on the Plain is his attempt to show “”the limits in which moral existence is possible.”
Film critic Chuck Stephens, in his essay Both Ends Burning for the Criterion Collection release of Fires on the Plain, said the following about Ichikawa : “At once a consummate professional and commercially successful studio team player and an idiosyncratic artist whose bravest films-often displaying a thoroughly odd obsession (to borrow the title of one of his most brilliantly sardonic black comedies) with fusing the brightest and bleakest aspects of human nature-were passionately personal (if not political or polemical) prefigurations of the Japanese new wave, has always had a gift for crystallizing contradition.”
The black humor employed by Ichikawa has also often been the subject of comment by others. It has been claimed that Eiji Funakoshi was fundamentally a comic actor.
Original title 野火
IMDb Rating 8.0 3716 votes
TMDb Rating 7.8