Fires on the Plain: The Criterion Collection
PFC Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) is sick enough to go to the hospital he's got tuberculosis but with so many sick and wounded, he's not bad off enough to get attention from a doctor. Thus, he's sent back to his troop, where he's told that if he can't get cared for he should blow himself up with a grenade. But his second attempt is also rebuffed, and so he decides to wander. Such is the way of war, especially for a Japanese soldier in the Philippines in 1945, with hope lost along with the battles. And so Tamura staggers around the Philippine countryside hoping to find food, salt, water, other soldiers anything that will prolong his life. He finds yams when he's lucky. Eventually he runs into a couple of other soldiers whom he partners up with, but they only seem to like him for his salt supply. They get separated, but when they reunite, it appears that desperation for food has set in so heavily that others have resorted to cannibalism. Kon Ichikawa's 1959 film Nobi (or as it's known in English, "Fires on the Plain") was his attempt to make the ultimate anti-war film, and he comes as close as anyone has. World War II had been a horror for Japan, and Ichikawa says in the supplements that he wanted to make a film that would leave people never wanting to go to war again. And so he adapted Shohei Ooka's novel (removing some of the more Christian sentiments) with his wife Natto Wada. With a tubercular main character, and star Funakoshi looking dangerously malnourished, the movie is a literal fever dream about man's desire, his innate sense to stay alive out of habit or existential compulsion. Tamura wanders and looks for food because he can't bring himself to blow himself up, even though his life is pain. It gets so bad that when he is offered "monkey meat," he takes it, but can't chew it because his teeth are falling out. Such allows the main character a chance to sidestep eating human flesh, but it also shows that for this film to work there has to be a pitch-black sense of humor. And there are a couple of moments that would be hilarious (such as when Tamura tries to find another pair of shoes), if they weren't so bleak. Ichikawa also makes marvelous use of the widescreen frame. The film was shot in black-and-white, and there's just something about anamorphic b&w photography perhaps because there weren't that many films made that way that creates a certain alchemy. Whatever the case, Fires on the Plain can easily be called one of the masterpieces of anti-war cinema. The Criterion Collection presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) in its original monaural audio (DD 1.0). Extras include interviews with Donald Richie (12 min.) and Kon Ichikawa and Mickey Curtis (21 min.). Keep-case.