What was that I was saying last week about trying to be good for its own sake? Well, never mind that. This is all about Japanese soldiers suffering from illness, indignities, and injuries before dying ingloriously. Oh yeah.
The movie begins abruptly with a Private First Class Tamura getting smacked by his squad leader, who immediately goes into an exposition dump that is barely masked at a tirade. In short, their company of around 150 were sent into an island in the Philippines, but has lost two thirds of their men. They have been low on equipment and have had to forage around the jungle for yams and bananas. Tamura had contracted tuberculosis a few days earlier and was sent to a hospital along with food. He returned earlier than expected, without the food, and still in not very good shape. The squad leader has deemed him useless, and a drain on resources. He orders Tamura to return to the hospital. If they continue to reject him there, then Tamura should kill himself.
The squad leader leaves and Tamura goes over to the quartermaster, who explains that the squad leader is having a difficult time, as they have no tools to dig air-raid shelters and nowhere to send requests for supplies. The enemy barely bothers with them anymore. Perhaps, the soldier says, Tamura would be better off at the hospital. Certainly, the commander here would be no help to him, having probably heard the squad leader’s rant. He gives Tamura some yams and tells him to kill himself only if necessary. Tamura thanks him and leaves camp with the yams, his gun, and a grenade.
He meets some guards at the edge of camp. Apparently, there are rumors about an upcoming attack. Perhaps Tamura is better off gone. They seem kind of sympathetic towards him…maybe.
Tamura makes a rather long walk to the hospital. He ends up encountering a Filipino man who acts kind of friendly, but runs off. Suspecting that the man is going to contact other Filipinos or American soldiers, Tamura kicks over the food that the man was cooking and runs off.
Eventually, Tamura makes it back to the hospital…and the man in charge yells at him for returning. They are woefully understaffed and have no supplies. Since he could walk at all, let alone walk to his company and back here in a single day, Tamura is not considered a patient. But, hey, he brought some food.
He is allowed to sit outside with the other not-quite-patients who got rejected from their companies. So, he reunites with his new friends under the trees: the slightly injured, the sick, the unable to walk, and one guy who pretends to have trouble walking whilst sneakily getting as much food as he can. Tamura gives some of his food to one of the guys who had been being somewhat helpful and friendly, while overtly withholding it from another who had been less so.
At some point, they all hear explosions. It appears that the Americans are shelling the remainder of Tamura’s company. Someone wonders if the Americans will bomb the hospital…and they find out soon enough. Bombs start falling and everyone who can run off runs off. The hospital staff flee with the food and supplies, leaving the patients to crawl around on the ground. After it is all over, Tamura looks at all of the bodies on the ground outside of what is left of the hospital. He figures that a few of them may still be alive, but has no intention of helping them. He reasons that he will die soon enough and then they will be even. So, he leaves.
For days he walks and walks. He could have killed himself at any time, and he intends to. But he doesn’t.
One day, Tamura notices a church steeple and realizes that it is a village. He knows that the locals or the Americans might be there and kill him, but he does not care. Either that or his body has overridden his mind. Either way, he heads straight to the village. It is deserted, save for a dog which attacks him. And now it is deserted.
Tamura heads for the church, only to see that there is a pile of corpses of Japanese soldiers. It is there that he hears a pair of Filipinos arriving on the beach. They have come to get some salt that was hidden in one of the houses. Tamura tries to sneak around to see what they are doing, but he messes up and they notice him. He tries to act peaceful, but the woman starts screaming and does not stop, so he shoots her. The man escapes before Tamura can kill him, so Tamura takes what he can and leaves.
Eventually, Tamura crosses a bridge over a river and tosses his gun into the water.
Soon, Tamura finds himself on a hill full of yams and three Japanese soldiers from another company that was also hit hard. They tell him that all Japanese soldiers have been told to report to another part of the island to begin a formal retreat. They don’t seem to be interested in having him tag along, noting that he is sick, and “joking” that they had once had to resort to cannibalism on another tour of duty. Then they notice that he has brought quite a bit of salt with him, and allow him to come with them on a long and difficult march towards retreat.
Based on a book by the same name, Fires on the Plain shows the harshness, futility, ridiculousness, and inhumanity of war. It takes the notions of glory, honor, and sacrifice and tosses them out. Practically every moment that Tamura stays alive is an opportunity to lose something or be humiliated. Everyone is talking in circles, looking out for themselves, and trying to take what someone else has while barely pretending that that is not the case. I have read that the book has some Christian elements or something. Yeah, that was taken out as well. All that is left is that church of corpses. No salvation here.
It may help that director Kon Ichikawa was never particularly fond of the war. He was called up near the end, when it was pretty obvious that Japan was going to lose. He claimed that he had appendicitis and was able to avoid combat. Then the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima, where his family lived. Luckily, they survived, but it was still bad.
The idea is of honorable suicide is bandied about early on and then simply dropped in favor of outliving the next guy and considering whether to surrender. The only exceptions are those who are too weak to move and just lie around waiting to die. Soldiers continue to follow orders simply because they have no energy to rebel. They are not brainwashed so much as their brains have been too mushified to believe in anything. Anger and fear have given way to annoyance and nervousness. Everyone is too cynical to be passionate about anything anymore, let alone something as intangible as brotherhood or nation or loyalty to the Emperor. There are brief moments where certain characters show some form of kindness towards others, but they are brief, and sometimes have ulterior motives or are undermined. Tamura may be slightly more naïve than everyone else, but he is still as opportunistic and almost as selfish.
While this may all seem like a slog, it really is quite funny. Nothing is actually played for laughs, but things just keep going so badly for everyone that is hard to not chuckle at least once. Many of the characters outright laugh at their predicament, having moved far beyond the idea of sympathy. It is almost like a precursor to Catch-22, only playing out more like a bleak comedy rather than an outright satire. It is a shaggy dog story where the through-line is that characters continue losing hope after having already lost all hope. This was supposedly a sticking point for Western audiences at the time. Not for me, though.
I guess that I found more than a bit of perverse pleasure at watching the soldiers of Imperial Japan suffer and suffer and suffer, getting broken down into their most base elements of themselves. Yeah, that’s the stuff. The Human Condition? Screw that. With its dignified noble sacrifice and happy sex worker propaganda. I fucking despise that film series. This here is the inhuman condition. And it is what they deserve. Fuck them; piss on their war shrines. Oh, was I supposed to have a modicum of sympathy for the soldiers who trampled over my ancestral homeland and held multiple slaughter-fests? Oops.
When watching this movie, one might notice that there is a lot of focus on the suffering and degradation of Japanese soldiers, and little regarding the Filipinos. Indeed, this movie may be accused of upholding the enduring propaganda line that the Japanese people had suffered along with everyone else during the war. And that can apply to many Japanese movies about World War II like Twenty-four Eyes and Grave of Fireflies. There is little context given as to why the Japanese and Americans were in the Philippines in the first place and why the Filipinos hated the Japanese so much. Perhaps this was lack of context was a means of giving the story a more universal feel, though I gather that Western audiences disliked this movie at first. The fact that most of the war crime victims in this movie (either perpetuated by Japanese or by Filipinos) seem to be Japanese soldiers may be a bit much for some more modern viewers. That said, perhaps it is because the Japanese soldiers in this movie were in no condition to commit major atrocities except against each other at this point. And if American movies about the Vietnam War could get away with this for decades, why not allow one movie from 1959 to do it? Besides, there are far more jingoistic Japanese war movies out there. And, again, fuck them.
Kon Ichikawa had apparently said back in 2001 that there was no way that he would be allowed to make this film in contemporary times. Maybe not in 2001, but there was another adaptation of the book made in 2014. I have not been able to find a place to watch it, but it is apparently available in the United Kingdom, France, and wherever this Vimeo link works. Apparently, it is very good, and very gory, much gorier than the 1959 version.
While hardly as gory as the remake, this movie is quite an unsettling and disturbing story of depravity and hopelessness. It is, however, an excellent film. And, if you are in a particularly petty frame of mind, it can be very very very enjoyable.
WTF ASIA 160: Explosion (China: 2017, approx. 106 minutes)
WTF ASIA 161: The Classified File (South Korea: 2015, approx. 107 minutes)