Thoughts on life after the PhD
I’m pretty tired of films that try to depict war as a clear-cut battle between good and evil, or really as anything resembling a world of order and reason. I’m more partial to movies like Kōji Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar, with its unflinching portrayal of a vicious soldier who returns home without arms or legs. Or Shōhei Imamura’s classic Black Rain, which, like the novel it was based on, managed to convey the vast horrors of the Hiroshima bombings through the story of a single family.
Shinya Tsukamoto’s Nobi (Fires on the Plain) dives headfirst into the brutality, idiocy, and moral ambiguity of war and never comes up for air. It manages to convey the sense of chaos that a much more expensive film, Nihon no ichiban nagai hi (The Emperor in August), tried for but failed to achieve. Where August has an A-list cast and lavish sets & costumes, Tsukamoto’s film stars the director himself and a cast and crew who either volunteered or were paid very little. They only had one prop gun, so they replicated it by hand to make the rest. One vehicle was apparently made of cardboard.
And yet the film doesn’t look cheap. The vivid greens and reds of the Philippine jungle pop off the screen, a gorgeous setting for a truly horrifying story: that of private Tamura, a sickly, starving soldier who, like most of his comrades, has been abandoned by the Japanese army on the island of Leyte. Tsukamoto’s landscape is hell on earth, a sea of moaning bodies and stray limbs, corpses piled in heaps, and random attacks by Allied forces.
Fires on the Plain was brought to the screen in 1959 by the brilliant Kon Ichikawa, who captured the surreal vision of Ōoka Shōhei’s novel in stark black and white. Comparisons are inevitable, but Tsukamoto’s film is a dramatically different experience–brief, gruesome, fast-paced, and loud where Kon’s was solemn, surreal, and contemplative. Tsukamoto also doesn’t shy away from extreme gore, dealing more openly with the novel’s depictions of dismemberment and cannibalism than Ichikawa’s film. There is no glory or redemption here–Tamura may be a decent man surrounded by madness, but the film shows us that hunger and desperation make monsters of us all. Unlike the (misguidedly) passionate young soldiers in The Emperor in August, comfortably ensconced in a Tokyo HQ, the enlisted soldiers in Fires on the Plain have lost any sense of a higher purpose or duty. For them, war is not only hell, it’s pointless.
Tsukamoto spent two decades trying to realize his vision for the film, repeatedly stymied by lack of money and lack of interest. Speaking to Film Comment recently, he stated that with Japan’s current political situation, the film is needed more urgently than ever: “Because our country is steadily moving toward a more warlike state of mind, I thought that if I didn’t make the film now, there would be no chance in the future. Even more urgently, I felt that it was a film that had to be made now. As always, we had no money, and my own production company had even fallen into hard times during the recent economic crisis. I wrote the screenplay and drew my storyboards, then relied upon the power and help of many sympathetic people, and successfully completed it in the end.”
It’s a shame that people too young to remember World War II are more likely to see films like The Eternal Zero and The Emperor in August, which do little to truly convey the brutality, suffering, and sheer stupidity at the heart of so many armed conflicts. Watching those films, you might think that there were heroes and villains, or that there was a kind of beauty in dying for the nation. Tsukamoto’s film has no such illusions.
Fires on the Plain is showing at Eurospace in Shibuya until August 28, with English subtitles for the final screening of each day.
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