Across an eighty-plus-film career as marred by indifferently rendered studio assignments as it is marked with peerless visual innovations and boldly imagined literary adaptations, director Kon Ichikawa—the unlikeliest of auteurs—has nevertheless long since been acknowledged, alongside Akira Kurosawa, Kinosuke Kinoshita, and Masaki Kobayashi, as one of the preeminent figures in the golden age of postwar, “humanist” Japanese cinema. Not that the playfully perverse and persistently paradoxical Ichikawa would ever have courted such a distinction. Indeed, as he once notably remarked to an admirer, though he remained ever hopeful of locating some evidence of “humanism” in contemporary Japanese society, he had yet to actually find it there.
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, Ichikawa has always had a gift for crystallizing contradictions. This is a man who once insisted that Walt Disney and Pier Paolo Pasolini were his two favorite filmmakers. His awkward if ultimately undeniable status as an auteur depends on an equally paradoxical dynamic: Ichikawa’s most distinctively personal movies aren’t the ones he attempted to shape from his own experiences but those he—and his scenarist-spouse Natto Wada—so boldly adapted from source materials quite famously not his own. Whether he’s starting from a piece of fiction by Yukio Mishima or Junichiro Tanizaki or a monumentally media-managed event like the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Ichikawa’s ability to concretize the emotional quintessence of his material and visualize it on-screen has proved both his most defining and, for his critics, most damning of traits. But while Ichikawa’s detractors have often accused him of covering his lack of intellectual consistency with a surplus of illustrative technique, critic Tadao Sato was quick to elucidate the ways in which the opposite is actually true: “Ichikawa consistently attempts to render visual something metaphysical that is invisible, like the heart or the soul.” The incendiary and extraordinarily brutal Fires on the Plain (1959), one of the central films upon which Ichikawa’s reputation is based, underscores the accuracy of Sato’s assessment: few war films have ever had the courage to wallow so directly in the offal of man’s inhumanity to man, or to render so bleakly and so bluntly the emotional carnage that festers long after the battle’s end.
Based on Shohei Ooka’s award-winning 1952 novel, drawn from the writer’s own experiences as a soldier and prisoner of war, Fires on the Plain seeks to detail the increasingly desperate conditions endured during the final days of World War II by what remained of the 65,000 members of the Japanese forces who had so brutally conducted a three-years-plus occupation of the Philippines. Set on the Philippine island of Leyte, in 1945, the film is told largely from the perspective of a battle-harrowed and sunken-eyed foot soldier named Tamura, who, suffering from tuberculosis, has been ordered to blow himself up with his last remaining grenade should the Japanese field hospital refuse him admittance. Fires on the Plain’s ever more oneiric visions of everyday wartime atrocities (landscapes strewn with stinking corpses, feral dogs so ravenous that they seem to have slipped the surly bonds of gravity, rigor-stiffened hands clawing up at the heavens black with swarms of feces-maddened flies) serve to emphasize a single abiding point: the innately human will for survival can sometimes seem a fate far worse than the certainty of death. And yet Tamura—played with a sense of dissociated bemusement by Daiei Studio’s genre stalwart Eiji Funakoshi (a familiar face to fans of both Yasuzo Masumura’s pressure-cooker social satires and the Godzilla-come-lately rampages of Gamera the giant turtle)—keeps on living, if only to set himself apart from the soldiers all around him who, in their desperation, have begun to regard the mortal remains of their fallen comrades with hungry eyes.
Ichikawa began his career in the 1930s, as an animator, and finally began directing live-actions, at the newly formed Shin-Toho Studios, in the days immediately following the end of World War II. He developed an early (if rather inexact) reputation as a kind of Japanese Frank Capra for the string of studio-assignment comedies he churned out during the late 1940s, but in the decade that followed, he took an increasingly eclectic turn when, with Wada, he started to focus on darker and more serious-minded adaptations of a wide range of literary source materials. Chief among these are the emotionally overwhelming Conflagration, from 1958 (Ichikawa and Wada’s impassioned interpretation of Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion); the highly controversial and trendsetting Punishment Room, from 1956 (the first of a string of 1950s youth flicks based on Shintaro Ishihara’s inflammatory taiyozoku tales, which would reach their pinnacle in the proto-new-wave excesses of Ko Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit); and The Burmese Harp (the 1956 version of Michio Takeyama’s antiwar novel about a Japanese soldier determined to remain in Burma after the war in order to continue burying the bodies of the dead), which won top honors at the Venice Film Festival and inaugurated Ichikawa’s international acclaim.
Lyrical, sentimental, and melodramatically unrestrained, The Burmese Harp might seem in many ways aesthetically antithetical to the expressionist excesses of Fires on the Plain. Where the former utilizes its comparatively discreet heaps of human remains as the fleeting, shock-cut glimpses of mortal impermanence that lead to its main character’s reaffirmations of Buddhist faith, the latter imbues its cascades of carnage with no such reverence or transformative value. But the two films are linked, beyond their shared war themes, in an ideologically specific and historically inescapable way. As Ichikawa himself often reminded interviewers, filmmaking, regardless of the historical period a particular film might seek to portray, is ultimately “an art which involves the direct projection of the time in which we live”—a statement that couldn’t be more apt of these two 1950s war films, both of which endeavor to delineate a universalist depiction of victimization during wartime, even as they, through the suppression certain inconvenient historical realities, focus almost exclusively on the victimization of the Japanese.
In the Philippines, desperation and deprivation had in fact forced many Japanese soldiers—driven from their strongholds in the cities and deep into a network of fortified pillboxes and remote jungle extremes by the decisive return of Douglas MacArthur’s Allied troops—to acts of cannibalism during the war’s final days, a matter of historical record that any country, whether defeated or victorious in the aftermath of wartime, would be at considerable pains to bear. But also a matter of historical record, and scarcely unknown to the public at large in Japan at the time of Fires on the Plain’s release, is that other kinds of cannibalism were practiced during the war—officially sanctioned, endorsed, and perpetrated by Japanese officers against the militaries and civilian populations of a variety of other nations, particularly in New Guinea, and for which several Japanese military officials were tried and executed during the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, between 1946 and 1948. And in the Philippines, in particular, the crimes committed by Japanese troops against the native population and captured Allied personnel (while stopping short, at least as far as official records are concerned, of cannibalism) were among the most severe of the entire wartime campaign: forced-labor camps, sexual slavery, the notorious Bataan Death March (during which some ten thousand POWs perished), and the slaughter of some one hundred thousand civilians by fleeing Japanese forces from the city of Manila alone.
None of these matters are addressed directly, and only scarcely by implication (even if it is only with such knowledge in mind that Tamura’s considerable anxiety during his encounters with Filipinos throughout the film can be fully understood), in the otherwise fervently frank Fires on the Plain. In many ways this is as remarkable an act of suppression as Ichikawa and Wada’s highly criticized decision to ignore the Christian morality that infuses Ooka’s original novel, and through which Tamura manages, at the novel’s end, to survive. Perhaps these two levels of suppression are indicative of a single, historically specific strain of mind, one that, in overlooking the sufferings of the subjugated Filipinos and focusing only on the desperations of the at-long-last defeated Japanese, felt at pains to deny the possibility, or indeed the plausibility, of Tamura’s ultimately being allowed to survive. If Fires on the Plain was in fact, as Ichikawa claimed, an attempt to show “the limits within which a moral existence is possible,” then perhaps the director’s decision to let Tamura perish at the movie’s conclusion was the only way that Ichikawa could begin to even cryptically admit to the realities of Japanese atrocities during the Philippine Campaign—and the only way that the film could function as, in the director’s terms, a “total denial [and a] total negation of war.”
Regardless of the ways its historical elisions might continue to haunt Fires on the Plain’s long-held reputation for provocation and moral urgency, the film’s aesthetic accomplishments remain as compelling for contemporary viewers as they were for audiences and critics of its day, who recognized it in 1960 with Blue Ribbon Awards in Japan for Ichikawa (best director) and Setsuo Kobayashi (best cinematographer) and Kinema Junpo Awards (given by Japan’s leading journal of film criticism) for Eiji Funakoshi (best actor) and Natto Wada (best screenplay). Fires on the Plain also went on to secure an additional director’s prize for Ichikawa at the Locarno Film Festival, in 1961, further buoying his international reputation, even as he continued to be regarded by many in the Japanese critical community and filmmaking industry with an increasingly skeptical eye. This queasy regard, owing less to his status as a steely-eyed satirist and agent provocateur than to anxieties about just where this unpredictable director’s particularly excoriating brand of scrutiny might next cast its regard, eventually culminated in the controversy over his visually unparalleled 1965 documentary Tokyo Olympiad, notoriously deplored by members of the Olympic organizing committee that had commissioned it as antiheroic, insufficiently nationalistic, and aesthetically solipsistic.
The visual and visceral accomplishments of Fires on the Plain were soon eclipsed by the still more acid satires of Yasuzo Masumura (who had been Ichikawa’s assistant on Punishment Room, Nihonbashi , and A Full-up Train ) and the tidal sea changes and savage extenuations of the Japanese new wave. But even as critical firebrand and future new-wave agit-auteur Nagisa Oshima began to build his reputation by so vocally deploring the “humanist” cinema of the 1950s, of which Fires on the Plain had figured as a kind of fire-belching last gasp—going so far as to famously single out Ichikawa for his derision, scathingly labeling him as “just an illustrator”—other new-wave mainstays were not so quick to forget the debts they owed to the masters of the immediate past. Masahiro Shinoda, for one, made certain to remember that “in the technical realm [Ichikawa] has been the most influential [member of the older generation] in pointing out directions for the avant-garde of my generation.”
Once labeled a “cinematic entomologist” by Japanese critics who skeptically regarded his propensity for carefully distanced observation, Ichikawa—and Fires on the Plain in particular—also prefigured the outlook and attitudes of many aspects of that most extraordinary of new-wave masters, Shohei Imamura. One has but to observe Tamura’s chaotic, zigzag scramblings across rutted and crumbling terrains, or to recall the scene in which, as if marveling at his own insectlike will to survive, Tamura studies the persistence of an ant he finds crawling on his arm—only to fling the wretched creature away in disgust a moment later, when suddenly it sinks its pincers into his hand—to be reminded of Imamura’s most enduring creature, Sachiko, the undauntable survivor for whom The Insect Woman is named. And though he might well have balked at Fires on the Plain’s blatant ode to Charlie Chaplin (one of the filmmaker’s earliest heroes) during Tamura’s bathetic attempt to replace his thoroughly tattered army boot with the only marginally less tattered and still completely soleless one he finds lying in the road, Imamura almost certainly would have marveled at the film’s earthy humor, especially in the scene in which an apparently deceased recruit, his face completely submerged in a muddy puddle, suddenly lifts his head to respond to an officer’s passing observation about the fate of men in war with the gaily gallows-humored rejoinder “What’s that?”—before immediately plopping facedown into the mud once more.
For all of Fires on the Plain’s emphatic drive toward annihilation, it is ultimately in moments like these that the film comes most undeniably alive. Ichikawa’s walking war wounded might in large part remain the chillingly undead cousins of the mutilated militia men in Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War–era Gothic fictions—or the cultural mirror images of the ghoulish G.I. Joes that filled the pages of gruesome 1950s E.C. Comics like Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales—but they are also joyously live-action reanimations of those soft-shoe skull-and-bones men best known from Disney’s Silly Symphonies classics, like 1929’s “The Skeleton Dance,” reminders of Ichikawa’s animated origins, which would continue to haunt the trajectory of much of his future career. Intent on locating both the most gloriously ghastly and ghoulishly gallows-humored aspects of men made monstrous by the horrors of war, Fires on the Plain might be the film on which Ichikawa’s peculiarly paired filmmaking heroes—Disney and Pasolini—can finally agree.
Chuck Stephens, a contributing editor to Film Comment, writes frequently for Cinema Scope, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and a variety of publications around the world. He lives in Nashville.