Film - Fires on the Plain


Chris Smith continues his vigil at the Raindance Film Festival and watches Fires on the Plain...

It's 1945 and on the island of Leyte, the Pacific War is drawing to a bitter, bloody close. Private Tamura is sick with tuberculosis and seen as a burden by his unit. When the field hospital he is stationed at is destroyed, Tamura is left alone. With no discernible command structure, he falls in with a disheveled squad who, along with the remaining half-starved Japanese forces on the island, have been ordered to retreat to Palompon for evacuation. They move further into the jungle to escape but find only madness, chaos, and cannibalism.

Based on Shōhei Ōoka's 1951 novel, director Shinya Tsukamoto expertly captures the repugnant insanity that is human conflict. Just as the original novel was a rejection of war based on the author's own experiences, Tsukamoto has purposefully made this film as a rejection of the growing calls for Japan to re-arm itself and one again conduct military operations.

Structurally, Fires on the Plain is a war film stripped back to it's foundations. No one cares about the war here. There are no rousing patriotic speeches about dying for the Emperor - just survival. While Tamura and his comrades are not cowards, the fight has left them. They are men far from home, dropped into a Hellscape masquerading as a jungle, and left to die.

Tsukamoto has distilled the best of war films in his direction. Handheld cameras show the frantic mess that is combat and scenes regularly collapse in a kaleidoscope of colour with crazed laughter for a soundtrack. Lost in the jungle, Tamura's grip on reality is never certain although one suspects letting go would be something of a relief.

Fires on the Plain is gory but not needlessly so. The film's set piece is arguably an American night-time ambush. Bullets rend flesh and bone while torn limbs and organs litter the ground. Particular close-ups of the appealing injuries seem more for shock value rather than an attempt to educate on the realities of gunshot wounds. The effectiveness of this, however, cannot be overstated.

Some may find the ending a little jarring, where the jungle is left behind. While the impact of what Tamura went through is obviously as is what he has to live with, it's too brief to be a natural continuation of the plot and seems more of a nod to the original book.

These are minor issues and in all other ways Fires on the Plain is an amazing accomplishment. One can only hope that it message is heeded.

Image - Raindance