by Dan Schneider

For the Japanese film fan used to the complex films of Akira Kurosawa, the family depths of Yasujiro Ozu, or the mystical wonders of Kenji Mizoguchi, Kon Ichikawa’s 104 minute long, 1959 black-and-white war film Fires On The Plain (Nobi) is as jarring as its indelible opening scene, in which a tubercular Japanese soldier gets slapped in the face, then mercilessly berated, by his commanding officer for stupidity. The film is thoroughly modern, from its opening scene, followed by credits, to its harrowing denouement.

Ichikawa directed over 80 films in a six-decade long career, but this film, and the earlier The Burmese Harp, are still his most well known internationally, a half a century after their releases. This film is not so much a typical drama as it is a picaresque of death and suffering, during the Japanese retreat from the island of Leyte in the Philippines in 1945, that only increases in intensity with each reel. Based upon a novel by Shohei Ooka, and adapted for the screen by the director and Natto Wada (Ichikawa’s wife), the picture is not so dependent upon the way dialogue is spoken, or how scenes are scripted, as much as it is on the little moments of black humor and revelation that cranny their ways in between the larger stuff.

There is only one character we follow throughout the film: PFC Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi), whose situation is one of nonstop pain and humiliation, from the slap and berating that opens the film to his inevitable undoing. He is ordered to return to a military hospital or kill himself with honor. His C.O. gives him a grenade with which to do himself in, and one of the interesting aspects of the film is that the grenade’s role goes from one of self-death to utter impotence to possible life (if used to blow up a pond full of fish), to a weapon of barter. The hospital, naturally, ends up destroyed, after its head doctor tells Tamura, "I don’t care if you’re coughing blood; if you can walk, you’re not a patient." Tamura is thus left on his own. Although he encounters dozens of other tired and dying people (Japanese and not), only two other characters recur enough for the viewer to have any attachment to them: a wily old soldier named Yasuda (Osamu Takizawa) who hustles tobacco leaves taped to his body in exchange for food, and his dedicated helper Nagamatsu (Mickey Curtis).

The film’s plot is virtually nonexistent, but also the thing that makes the individual horrors and seemingly nonsensical episodes cohere. There is absurdity and humor as well. Also, even though Tamura is pathetic, he has a cruel streak, such as when he kills a native Filipina who has come with her boyfriend to retrieve salt buried under a hut. All the woman does is scream upon seeing a Japanese soldier. The boyfriend gets away in a canoe. Other horrors abound.

The film succeeds also as a work of political art; a rarity. It does so, though, because it is wholly antithetical to politics in every form. The retreating army could be any defeated army in history, from the Peloponnesian War right up to the American debacle in Vietnam and beyond. The film is utterly uninvolved, which paradoxically makes the "action," such as it is, all the more involving and fascinating, as if a medical examiner were dissecting a corpse. The camera is impartial, just the proverbial uninvolved watcher. Thus the movie also does a nice job of undercutting the myth of the Japanese soldiers as utterly devoted followers of the Emperor, with no minds of their own. These soldiers are crass, cynical, and each out for themselves--just like their American counterparts.

The only things that do not work in the film are the special effects and Yasushi Akutagawa’s melodramatic, strident, and often emotionally inapt musical score. As for the effects? One hears American air raids, yet no planes are seen in the sky, and the damage they inflict is very low scale, reflective of the limited budget the Daiei Studio provided Ichikawa. Yet the story and acting are so bleakly realistic that most people will barely notice the paltry effects. And, after all, Saving Private Ryan proved that great special effects means only that a film has great special effects, nothing more.

The film subtly takes digs at the American enemy, who would later occupy the Japanese homeland. It portrays the Americans as unable to stop Filipino guerilla retribution on the Japanese soldiers who try to surrender, for often they are gunned down by the native soldiers who are in league with the Americans. For this and other matters, some critics have labeled the film as either propagandistic, in its not portraying the barbarisms the Japanese inflicted upon the Philippines, or slyly subversive in its approach to the American conduct of the war. After all, we also see the results of American barbarity: the bombing of an army hospital. Also, the Japanese title of the film, Nobi, means a caste system of servitude or slavery in ancient Korea, and it spins the film in another direction--that not only are the Japanese soldiers defeated and worn out by the war against the Americans, but they are mere pawns or puppets of the ruling class of their own country.

The DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, lacks a film commentary, which is most disappointing, since many of the new releases by the company, since it switched over to the new semi-circle C logo, also lack a commentary. Is the vaunted Criterion starting to skimp on its DVD releases? That would be a shame, for they are often an excellent supplement to enhance an understanding of the film as art, but also as history, in cases such as this. The film itself looks quite good, in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and does include a video introduction by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie. Unfortunately, like many of Richie’s comments and analyses of films on other DVDs, this one is rather generic. A bit more interesting is an interview segment with the director, as well as Mickey Curtis, who talks of the rigors of the film, as well as his fame as a 1950s Japanese teenybopper singer. The film has Criterion’s often difficult to read white subtitles--always a downer on a black and white film, and the lack of an English language dubbed track is annoying, for it would have really helped. The DVD insert has an ok essay by film critic Chuck Stephens.

All in all, Fires On the Plain is an excellent film that, while lacking the technical panache of a Kurosawa film, and the narrative laser of an Ozu film, is one of the best war (or anti-war) films ever made, for it takes a conceit as simple as that found in Lord Of The Flies, and overlays it upon the tapestry of the greatest conflict in human history, for the losers of that war are also stuck on an island and in charge of their own small "civilization." It also, interestingly, provides a glimpse into what might have been on the minds of those fabled Japanese soldiers found stuck on Pacific atolls decades after the war’s end. These and many other reasons enumerated and not, make the film, if not a must-see, then certainly a film one is better for having seen.

©2009 Dan Schneider