Film Review: Fires on the Plain

A hellish trip through the jungles of war
Film Review : “A hellish trip through the jungles of war”

Fires on the Plain

War is hell. Many films and directors have explored this idea and tried to show it in their films throughout the history of cinema. However, many dance around the idea or only show glimpses of it. War films often glorify battle or make it seem somewhat alluring, honourable and necessary. This is not what Shinya Tsukamoto strives to achieve in his retelling of Shohei Ooka’s anti-war novel. Tsukamoto, known for his intensely abrasive and surreal style brings us to hell and back with barely enough time to catch our breath.

“Fires on the Plain” is unlike most war movies, even the acclaimed masterpieces. There are no heroes to root for, no scenes of redemption, no one being saved, we never even see opposition forces once. The living hell depicted is similar to a Japanese version of “Apocalypse Now”, but never leaving the jungle. Tsukamoto even noted Coppola’s influence in a brief talk after the screening.

The director mentioned that he had read the Shohei Ooka novel in high school and knew then that he wanted to make a film version. He had scenes in his mind for the almost 20 years that it took to get this film made. It is a bit of a wonder that it finally got made and it’s of no surprise that Tsukamoto had to go the independent route. This is not a film that a studio would want to put money into; similarly it’s one that Tsukamoto knew that he couldn’t comprise on. If he changed his vision in order to get funding the film would surely be cut and lose impact. Anyone who’s familiar with Tsukamoto’s films knows that he isn’t in the industry to make a buck. It’s important that this film got made, especially at a time that is significant to Japan. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the pacific war, but also a time when Japan’s current Prime Minister may be making changes that allow for potential future conflict.

Tsukamoto’s film uses his familiar visceral style, but isn’t as surreal or disorienting as some of his other work. Despite the graphic content Fires on the Plain is quite accessible to the average viewer. It recalls the end of World War 2 as Japan is pulling out of the Philippines. It’s shot almost entirely on location which enhances the feeling of being there. We’re placed alongside the Japanese soldiers in the muck and dense jungle as they struggle to stay alive. They’re left with little to no supplies remaining and even less hope. Everything about the movie is intense. When the bullets ring out the volume is cranked up, when limbs are decapitated, over-saturated flashes of brilliant red spray like a fountain. The heat of the jungle is felt, along with the flies, the maggots, the rotting flesh and the true hopelessness of the situation.

Sometimes things are over the top, but unlike some of Tsukamoto’s other films this one is always in the realm of reality. Dead bodies look real, hacked off flesh looks believable and not cartoony or taken to an extreme where it approaches levels of Japanese anime. The film is not an easy watch, but its an important one. As an anti-war message this film succeeds in almost every way.

As Tsukamoto mentioned in the post-screening talk, he never compromised and is proud his vision could finally reach an audience. The film is gaining steam in festivals around the world and recently obtained a wider Japanese release. He mentioned he wanted this film as essential viewing around times of war memorials or remembrances to make sure people don’t cloud the true horrors of war. Although this isn’t strictly non-fiction, Tsukamoto believes everything he depicted to be true, cannibalism and all. It’s a film that’s not afraid to embrace a true vision of the beasts war turns men into.

The film comes highly recommended with a warning to the faint of heart. It’s not an easy viewing but a war movie shouldn’t be all victory, glory and thrilling battle scenes. Tsukamoto shows us there are no winners in wars only horror and hell.

This one scores 4.3 smashes out of 5

*Image copyright SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATRE

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Text:
James Mallion
james@smashingmag.net

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