Thursday, December 27, 2012

Fires on the Plain (1959) - Directed by Kon Ichikawa

Of all the war films I’ve seen, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain. If it’s possible to have no real battle sequences and yet still make the most gruesome war film even made, I think Ichikawa came really close to encompassing the all-out devastation of war. It is a picture of war that examines the micro level, yet is able to paint with broad strokes. It also lays before us, the ugliness of humanity reduced to nothing but instincts and in so doing, reflects the darkest side in all of us. It is as bleak and unrelenting as any war film I’ve ever seen.

Ichikawa’s film concerns the plight of a private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) on a Philippine Island in February of 1945, who is stricken with tuberculosis. He is forced to leave his squad to seek medical treatment at a field hospital, and is instructed if he does not get treatment there, that he is to commit suicide. He is denied such treatment at the hospital, and decides to wait things out there. Meanwhile, the allies bomb the hospital and the medics flee, leaving Tamura to traverse the countryside by himself. His journey is a memorable one. One that takes him through abandoned villages, over war ravaged mountainsides, leading to encounters with various rag-tag ensembles of half-starved and mostly crazed soldiers. The plot delves into the darkest sides of the human condition, where the option for heroism doesn’t even exist.

Here I want to discuss the astounding camera work in this film. Setsuo Kobayashi was principal cinematographer behind the camera for this starkly filmed masterpiece. His use of the mega wide-screen compositions is as jaw-dropping as any I’ve seen in this type of genre work. He’ll place the action at the far side of the left or right and slowly allow the figure to work his way toward the middle. There are bravura camera movements and tracking shots on the sides of mountains, the close-ups of the malnourished faces, the editing of the bloody action sequences. It is one of the best photographed war films I’ve ever seen, filled with memorable images. Even the images of the actors themselves is something to behold. Apparently Ichikawa kept his actors from eating much during the filming. Their gaunt and lifeless performances are exactly right here….removing all emotion from the proceedings and making it feel like pure hell on earth.

This is a portrait of war that is bleak and nearly post-apocalyptic. At times it almost resembles sci-fi in its absurd surrealism, but it is grounded in bloody violence and harsh language that reminds us that this is all too real. This film exists somewhere between Sam Fuller’s gritty realism in The Steel Helmet, Andrei Tarkovsky’s poetic imagery from Ivan’s Childhood and Coppola’s sense for epic absurdity in Apocalypse Now. Somehow Ichikawa’s film is able to weave these sorts of elements together, without forcing anything, as he presents this story of survival to us. Ichikawa was apparently emboldened to make this film from the time he witnessed the dropping of the Atom Bomb. This inspiration can clearly be felt as the devastation of human body and human soul is examined here in all its gory details. 


R. D. Finch said...

Jon, glad to see you writing on this, one of the great films about war--well, as you say, more precisely its aftermath. IMDb credits Ichikawa with 89 films, and I've seen 3 of them, which are about the only ones available on DVD in the US. This one and "The Burmese Harp" (also set during WWII)are both masterpieces. I avoided this film for a long time despite the good things I'd heard about it because I feared it would be a dreary slog. I wish I hadn't waited before watching it, because it's fully engaging, not offputting, and finds its own grim visual poetry in the physical and psychological devastation of war. I found your discussion of the camerawork (and the images that illustrated it) fascinating.

Jon said...

R.D., Thanks for reading and for commenting. I need to find more films by Ichikawa. I haven't even seen The Burmese Harp yet but am going to find it and anything else I can snatch up. Yeah this was an amazing find. It's outstanding stuff.

Sam Juliano said...

Again, very late to this party as well Jon. This is a very great war film indeed, and for me within a hair of Ichikawa's masterpiece, THE BURMESE HARP. Again you have brought exceedingly scholarship to the discussion, and I can't ahgree with you more on the visceral impact of the ultra wide screen compositions. Yes this portrait of war is certainly apocalyptic in it's themes and intensity. And what a brilliant stroke to place this as a kind of hybrid of the Fuller, Coppola and Tarkovsky!

Top-drawer essay!

Jon said...

Sam I have The Burmese Harp at the house waiting for me to see it and I'm itching to get that done. I have high expectations but have heard from two of you now on that film.