Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi), the hero of Kon Ichikawa’s overwhelming Fires on the Plain, may be the loneliest man in the history of the movies—lonelier than the spiritual pilgrims of Bergman, Bresson, and Dreyer. He is a soldier in an army that, in defeat, has turned its back on him.
It’s 1954, on Leyte island in the Phillippines: Japan’s forces are so decisively beaten that they have abandoned all pretense of solidarity, of camaraderie—of the basic responsibility of men at war to protect each other. In the movie’s first scene, the tubercular Tamura—who has been discharged, still sick, from a field hospital, because there isn’t enough room for the patients and the staff—is told by his angry squad leader that he must return to the hospital; His own unit won’t accept the burden of sustaining him in a debilitated state. The officer sends him on his way with six miserable-looking potatoes and one bleak piece of advice: If the hospital won’t take him back, he should kill himself.
After this grim scene, Tamura sets off on a journey through an unimaginably hostile landscape. The U.S. Army controls the roads. The Filipinos hate the Japanese for having turned their farmlands into battlegrounds. And Tamura’s fellow soldiers are so desperate and hungry that some, in full retreat from their humanity, fall back too far, to the terrible refuge beyond the line that finally seperates civilization from savagery: They will kill other men for food.
In the 1952 novel by Shohei O-oka on which this film is based, Tamura reflects: “For people like us, living day and night on the brink of danger, the normal instinct of survival seems to strike inward, like a disease, distorting the personality and removing all motives other than those of sheer self interest.” Tamura—consumptive, starved and often delirious--wanders in a kind of moral daze. He’s in hell, but he’s not quite ready to enlist in the army of the damned; while he fights off the swarming enemies without, he continues to battle the ravenous enemy within.
Fires on the Plain is, of course, an antiwar film—maybe the most persuasive and powerful ever. But it’s more than that: not merely a relentless series of vivid, shocking tableaux, but also a lucid and eerily pure inquiry into the mysterious workings of the human will. At every stage of Tamura’s episodic trek across Leyte, the nature of his choices changes. As, one by one, elements of what we take to be normal life abruptly disappear, the hero has to figure out how to act within this constantly narrowing set of possibilities, and, in the end, whether it’s worth acting at all. The story, written for the screen by Natto Wada (the director’s wife), unfolds with the cruel logic of a nightmare, pushing Tamura further and further from his men until finally, without solace or sustenance, he turns away from the camera and walks off, receding into the immense distance towards an uncertain fate. It’s tempting to call the movie an existential fable—but that label would diminish it, too. Fires on the Plain is unique and irreducible: It takes us through unspeakable horrors to arrive at an unnamable beauty.
The only movie that remotely resembles Fires on the Plain is John Huston’s 1951 Stephen Crane adaptation, The Red Badge of Courage, which like Ichikawa’s film, evokes the inferno of war with such sensual immediacy that the scarred landscapes and the ragged, exhausted soldiers have a feverish kind of vitality. In a way, Ichikawa is the Japanese Huston. He is a brilliant interpreter of literary texts, and he has been so prolific and versatile in his nearly 50-year film career that film scholars and auteur-ish critics tend to give him short shrift. Of his dozens of movies, only a handful have been released in the U.S., and even those few are remarkable diverse. The claustrophobic, perverse erotic comedy Odd Obsession (1959), adapted from a Tanazaki adaptation, The Makioka Sisters (1983), which is lyrical and expansive. Enjo (1958), from Mashima, is a formally austere study of spiritual torment. An Actor’s Revenge (1963) is a reckless, invigorating melange of styles, as flamboyant and bloody as a Jacobean tragedy. And Tokyo Olympiad (1965) is a virtuosic documentary essay on the pleasures and rigors of athletic competition. Most tellingly, his other antiwar film, The Burmese Harp (1956), is entirely different from Fires on the Plain: The earlier movie is dreamier, more contemplative, and infinitely more optimistic—the defeated Japanese soldiers remain bound by their love for each other.
In Fires on the Plain, there’s no such comfort. Here all men are islands, and Ichikawa’s stark widescreen compositions make the distances between them look impossibly vast. The Everyman hero winds up alone with himself; his only consolation is that he has, at least, managed to salvage from war’s devastation a self that he still recognizes as human. When he walks away from us, towards the last of the movie’s many unreachable-seeming horizons, he appears to be heading not for some ultimate frontier of defeat but into a harsh radiance whose source only he can see. And when the screen goes dark, the blackness looks absolute, and terrifying; it strikes inward, with a suddenness of grace. Fires on the Plain is a great movie: an intimate and blindingly clear vision of apocalypse.