Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Fires on the Plain (Nobi) (1959)

It is early 1945 and World War II is nearing its end. The once strong Imperial Japanese Army is now defeated. Its wounded and sick soldiers are being abandoned by their companies because they've become liabilities. They are in the process of attempting a difficult retreat in the face of death, even as the American army rapidly continues to advance on the province of Leyte in the Philippines. There just isn't enough to support those who cannot take care of themselves. There is disease and starvation all around. Supplies have been cut off. Tough-as-nails soldiers are now reduced to weak mortals struggling to keep up their spirits and will to survive.

This is the story of one such soldier, Pvt. Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi). He is suffering from Tuberculosis, is weak and his company won't keep him. His commanding officer slaps him on the face and sends him out. The poor excuse for a hospital is overloaded and understaffed. They won't have him unless he has enough food supplies with him. Equipped with a grenade to kill himself if he has nowhere left to go, and some yams he picked up, Tamura sets off, left to fend for himself. Although he is ready to kill himself if the need arrives, he knows he hasn't got much to live anyway.

Kon Ichikawa's "Fires on the Plain" (1959), based on the novel of the same name is a war-horror film! Indeed, it is a film set in the backdrop of war, but what you see on screen is scary and horrifying enough to give you sleepless nights and plunge you into depths of depression long after it has ended. Ichikawa's film showcases humanity stripped down to its barest. This is a war-ravaged world in which humans cease to be humans and turn into animals! All compassion is lost and the only thing left to do is save your own skin. Ichikawa exposes us to the darkest side of war; the actual horrors, the shattering consequence of what hunger and fear of death does to the toughest and most disciplined individual. After all, it is about soldiers, who've undergone rigorous military training, have been taught to abide by the code of the soldiers, and trained to be fearless.

But here it is disheartening to find these very soldiers at the mercy of their inevitable mortality; forsaken, despite being sick and in need, and feeding off leftovers and castoffs from other soldiers, either finding it off dead people or stealing from the weaker living! One can't help but think how tough a journey it must be for a seriously ill Tamura to wander about on an empty stomach with no place to rest or no soul rushing to his aid. We, as viewers, civilians blessed to be living in peaceful times, would definitely feel for Tamura, considering when we are sick we have our comfortable beds to fall on, we have our nurses, our medication. Tamura has nothing but a few measly yams, a canteen of water, and just dirt and dead bodies all around!

In a shattering moment, we see how honorable soldiers who fight for their country are reduced to tearing each other apart for something as basic as footwear and food. The very soldiers who should be getting rewards and hero worship for their valor are reduced to being overjoyed at the prospect of getting even a small taste of raw salt (!) that they find in a deserted village, and tears of satisfaction run down their cheeks as they sample some of it. How pitiable is it to see a gallant soldier so helpless and needy!

That is not all; and there was no exaggeration with the mention of this film being a war horror film. When all hope is lost, some soldiers even resort to cannibalism! And if that isn't enough to make you feel miserable you have a dying Buddhist soldier on the verge of mental deterioration, who has clearly given up on life, offers himself to Tamura as food! "Come back! You can eat me!", He calls out to Tamura as the latter retracts in revulsion and runs away.

All kudos to Ichikawa, of course, for refraining from any sugarcoating and keeping it brutally real, and yet "Fires on the Plain" plays out like a surreal nightmare thanks to a relentless onslaught of harrowing images and ghastly sights. Moreover, Ichikawa renders the film a dark feel with his bleak cinematography that captures a deserted village and the eerily haunting frames of a lonesome man wandering aimlessly across the vast emptiness into an uncertain future.

It is not just the depiction that is realistic but Ichikawa's methods as well. Apparently, in order to make the plight of the soldiers look as authentic as possible, the actors were fed very little and disallowed personal hygiene like brushing their teeth or cutting their nails! 

Lead actor Eiji Funakoshi is excellent as Tamura and the fatigue and weakness due to his ill health shows on his face. But apparently, although he was not specifically asked to starve, he willingly did so to get into the character, as a result of which he collapsed on the set and the shoot had to be stopped for two weeks! (Trivia Source: IMDB). Such method acting has its pros and cons though. While Funakoshi is utterly convincing, it was perhaps his painstaking efforts to stay in character that helped!

"Fires on the Plain" is not a pleasurable film to watch. It won't have you leaping with ecstatic delight. But it is one film that should be watched and appreciated simply for having the gall to expose us to the real horrors of war without masking any ugly sights and for witnessing a powerful and effective work of cinema that slowly burrows through the heart and leaves an indelible mark.

Score: 10/10

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