Many people talk about the realism of Ichikawa Kon’s anti-war film “Fire on the Plains” (A poetic translation of Japanese title “Nobi,” meaning the burning off of fields during harvest season). Personally, I don’t think “Fire on the Plains” is realistic at all. It is an expressionistic film, filled with metaphoric imagery and subtle allusion. It is a bleak film, but also a dark comedy filled with gallows humor. In some ways, with the dead-eyed soldiers feasting on human flesh, it could even be a zombie movie.
Based on the novel Fires on the Plain, PFC Tamura (Funakoshi Eiji) is caught in a no-man’s land of being a sick soldier. Stricken with tuberculosis, he is too weak to help out with the manual labor of digging air raid shelters, yet too healthy to be treated at the field hospital where a small staff are tending to battle-wounded soldiers. All through the movie Tamura wanders, sometimes joining up with small groups of lost soldiers. He has the charmed luck of the survivor, often being the only one to walk away after all his short-time companions are killed.
One of the most interesting things about “Fire on the Plains” is that it has no point. I think this is the first war film I have seen where the soldiers aren’t pursuing an objective. They have no hill to take. No rendezvous appointment to keep. No enemy to kill. They aren’t even really trying too hard to survive. Tamura and the rest are all just the flotsam and jetsam of war, moving from place to place on the tides of battle. Thoroughly defeated, there is some vague notion of evacuation, but as the promised port lies across the enemy-held territory, they know that attempting the journey is tantamount to suicide. Many of them try anyways.
With nothing driving them, “Fire on the Plains” is made up of moments. Tamura encounters soldiers in various stages of degradation and despair. But the dark moments are peppered with oddball humor. In a Charlie Chaplin homage, a line of soldiers discard their boots for slightly better pairs then passing their leftovers to the soldier behind them. Last in line, Tamura ends up barefoot. In another scene, which was straight Monty Python, some officers seeing a corpse lying face down in the mud and wonder if they will end up like that, to which the body promptly lifts up its head in a classic “I’m not dead yet!” moment.
The only real criticism of “Fire on the Plains” is its one-sided perspective. The Japanese soldiers suffer greatly, yes, but there is little sense that these same soldiers were once raping, enslaving, murdering, and eating the Filipino population before the US came and fought them back. There are only some feint allusions to this, such as Tamura’s senseless killing of a young Filipino girl–an act which shows us that Tamura is no more heroic or decent than the rest–or in the Filipino female soldier’s slaughter of a surrendering Japanese soldier. Without knowing some of the history behind this film, the Japanese soldiers come off as too sympathetic. Sure, they are just the useless grunts ordered to fight by their nation, but it was these same useless grunts ravaging the population just a few months earlier.
The Criterion DVD for “Fire on the Plains” is not bad. There is a booklet essay, an interview with Donald Richie, and a video piece with Ichikawa Kon and actor Mickey Curtis who played one of the soldiers. The picture and subtitles are all up to the usual Criterion standards. There is no commentary track, which is disappointing, but otherwise this is a solid DVD.