Fires on the Plain (2014)

Fires on the Plain (2014)
Directed by: Shinya Tsukamoto
Written by: Ooka Shuhei, Shinya Tsukamoto
Starring: Lily Frankie, Shinya Tsukamoto, Tatsuya Nakamura

Available upon request and from third window movies

Welcome to hell. We welcome back Tsukamoto fans. Some would say there is no such thing as a true anti-war movie. After all, something is always lost when real life events are changed from a magazine to a movie for trivial entertainment. But the director and actor is definitely giving it his best shot here, no pun intended. His films are hardly entertaining in the traditional sense to begin with, so adapting him to a historical narrative is certainly an interesting prospect. It was originally meant to be an expensive issue, rather than the standalone feature that was produced. So it is also interesting to see what has been done on a smaller budget. Which, of course, is nothing new for film director and his company, Kaiju Theatre. Let’s take a look at the fog and see what horrors lie ahead.

This is a stark movie, with less in terms of wartime scenery and even less context. It never stopped to explain the conflict, and the island of Leyte was not even named until thirty minutes later. It just throws the audience into chaos, which begins very slowly but is soon injected with flashes of violence and fireworks. Tamura (Shinya Tsukamoto) is separated from his unit due to what is said to be tuberculosis. But in the field hospital he was turned away because he did not suffer any serious injuries. This round trip occurs more than once, which leads to the futile nature of the situation. It is a desperate time when soldiers squabble over rations and turn into thieves; or worse. After all, under these desperate circumstances, desperate measures would soon follow. It’s not a question of whether Tamura will crack under pressure, but when.

He may be starving, but he’s also a coward. Whatever battles his unit has gone through are captured in very limited memories, and it’s up to his frustrated face to tell the rest of the story. There are no scenes of national pride or heroism in the face of adversity. A lot of the story is just this one person walking around in the woods. Sometimes there are cases of depicting the beauty of nature. In one scene, there is a brief moment of peace in a Christian church. But these fleeting moments are usually cut short with bullets and bloodshed. Tamura was soon transformed into a bandit searching for supplies, or even a primitive creature searching for fire. It turns out that the yam root, which everyone quarrels over, cannot be eaten raw. Without orders, or even general guidance, the troops are more like children or animals than adult men.

Of course there are other residents on the island. Allied patrols appear occasionally, causing havoc and reducing the number of infantry remaining by large numbers at a time. But they are a faceless enemy, sometimes in invisible fighter planes or behind patrol lights. This basic limitation adds to the horror atmosphere of the film, making the combat seem impersonal and nightmarish. Uneasy tensions rise between the horrific attack scenes – exacerbated by the lack of real battle plans. There are no discussions about the number of enemies, and there are no military locations on the map. The war ended in more ways than one, but Tamura could not escape. In one subtle moment of black humor, he throws his gun away – only to be given another by the first friendly unit he meets.

Other locals are Filipino farmers who light the address fires. If the themes of the film are the way war causes desperate hunger and unbridled anger, they are the latter. The lines are blurred between the frenzied guard dogs and the angry villagers, both ready to kill Tamura. Just like combat, the horrors of war never come to light. But again it is clear that they are reading about the expressions of the surviving women. They also took away a part of their humanity and saw a great injustice. As a result, Tamura and his comrades are left in a hell of their own making. The repetition of images and sounds creates a cycle of violence and hunger. It’s a film that often feels like a matter of low budget thanks to its limited score and the use of rugged digital photography. But all the pieces are put together in such a way that they are more than the sum of these parts.

The end results are often jagged and frustrating, but that’s by design. The characters talk about their homes on very few occasions. There is no romantic element in the film, despite occasional references to the lives of civilians and family members. They turned into bits of meat that led to the grinder – an idea that appears in more ways than one. It probably has a lot in common with Tokyo fist from something like Messages from Iwo Jima. Which means it’s not a full-brain experience, and there’s still plenty of Tsukamoto’s usual violent special effects and twisted fever dreams. It is faint and at times self-reflecting, but it is punctuated by deep and strange moments that have a great deal of shocking power. It might be weird here and there to have a really bleak relationship, but in the end this is definitely an anti-war story at its core.

evaluation: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Other articles in this series:
Haz (2005)

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