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It is the Philipines, 1945. The Japanese Imperial Army has been reduced to a ragtag mob hiding in the jungles. Among them is Pvt. Tamura. The situation goes from bad to worse and in the face of the brutal conditions facing the men, some go insane and resort to murder and cannibalism. In the midst of this, Pvt. Tamura tries to survive without giving up his principles.Written by
Eugene Ly <firstname.lastname@example.org>
When people think post-war Japanese cinema, they automatically think of Akira Kurosawa. His exported samurai epics have done a good job creating a sense of history, nobility and grace among the art cinema crowd. Yet arguably more important to Japan's unique cinematic history during that era, are the humanistic war stories brought to life by the likes of Masaki Kobayashi, Nagisa Oshima and Kon Ichikawa. Comprising a portion of the Japanese New Wave, these war dramas challenged their viewers head-on, illustrating the ugliness of war in all it's absurdity and horror. These movies were noble in their own way by angrily confronting the attitudes tolerated by Japan during it's peak nationalist period. Fires on the Plain is just as incendiary as it's title would suggest and serves as a prime example of such a film. It may also just be the most engaging and accessible war tale Japan has ever produced.
Set during the closing days of Japan's dominance in the Philippines, our sick, fatigued and jaded hero, Private Tamura attempts to survive the on-coming slaughter. Tamura is forced out of his unit due to tuberculosis; if he's not well enough to dig trenches than he's useless according to his superiors. He treks to the hospital just past the hills only to be rebuffed by the hospital who tells him if he can walk, he's not sick. Before he can return and presumably commit suicide via grenade, Tamura's unit is wiped out in a fierce battle with allied forces. He then wonders aimlessly through the countryside staving starvation, fatigue, death and worse still, fellow brothers in arms.
If Kurosawa is considered the Spielberg of Japan than director Kon Ichikawa is it's Martin Scorsese. Known less for an all-permeating thesis that seeps into his oeuvre, Ichikawa gives his work an idiosyncratic style and a visceral veneer. Throughout his career Ichikawa was known for taking on all popular genres, all of which balanced his knack for realism and expressionism. His worlds always have a beautiful wholeness and lets the pathos from each situation dig into the audiences cranium through all sides. Sometimes he accomplishes this with shock, other times with a mischievous sense of humor. One such iconic moment happens in Fires on the Plain when a platoon of soldiers march upon a pair of jungle boots. One soldier swiftly puts them on and discards his own, the next soldier takes the previous soldier's boots, and so on and so forth until Tamura looks down on the tattered remains of the last guy's boots, takes his off and keeps walking barefooted.
There are many more scenes of contradicting sentiments occupying the same earnest frame. We as the audience must decide whether we should laugh or cry or both yet we never feel the need to look away. There's a dark sense of realism that makes Fires on the Plain stand out from other contemporary works such as The Human Condition Trilogy (1959-1961). The realism, tinged with an expressionistic flare keeps us engrossed; pensively hoping Tamura and his fellow soldiers don't do the unthinkable.
As things become more desperate and deprived on the island of Leyte, the true intentions of the film start to soar with devastating economy. The film was adapted from Shohei Ooka's novel of the same name. Much ado was made at the time about Ichikawa's radical ending change which is surprisingly antithetical to the traditional Hollywood ending we're all so drearily used to. With Ichikawa's ending however there is no absolution, no completion, no sigh of relief. Much like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) the film's resolution comes with a simple message about the inhumanity of war.
Fires on the Plain is a frightfully good film that tells it's story through imagery both stark, maddening and sublime. Powerful in every sober sense, Ichikawa should be on everyone's short list of most important Japanese filmmakers. He's got a style full of contradiction yet permeating with an excess of feeling. I promise that once you've seen this provocative, bleak, heart-wrenching picture, you won't soon forget it.
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