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.