Fires On The Plain (Nobi)

Japan (2014) Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto

The horrors of war have been explored in cinema, from practically every angle including the perspective of the soldiers fighting it, but none have been as visceral or as dizzyingly manic as this grisly remake of a 1959 Kon Ichikawa film from one of Japan’s least accommodating directors, Shinya Tsukamoto.

In the dying weeks of World War II, the Japanese army is in retreat in the Philippines with only a few groups of soldiers left scattered about the jungle plains. Private Tamura (Tsukamoto himself) has contracted TB and expelled from his platoon by his sergeant, but wherever he goes, he continues to be rejected. Eventually Tamura joins a trio heading for the port town of Palompon where they hope to escape with any other surviving Japanese servicemen.

For Tsukamoto Fires On The Plain was a passion project 20 years in the making. Having read the original novel Nobi by Shohei Ooka as a teen, the themes of humans sinking to their lowest ebb in a place of beauty appealed to Tsukamoto, while the darker side of people has been explored in many of his works as a filmmaker.

Apparently, it was after he was becoming known at international festivals that Tsukamoto was approached by French producers to work together and he proposed Fires On The Plain to them but the scale was greater than their ambition at that point. Looking at the gorgeous cinematography and standard of the visual effects, it would appear the wait to make this film was the best thing in the long run, production wise.

With regard to content, this film that won’t have much in the way of widespread appeal due to its almost formless narrative and uncompromising depiction of the madness suffered by Tamura and his fellow soldiers. War is hell and those on the frontline live through a nightmare most of us cannot begin to imagine, which Tsukamoto delights in thrusting us into from what is a borderline POV perspective.

The camerawork flits between nervously jittery and manically unstable in capturing the febrile paranoia and uncertainty of Tamura’s existence, already on the brink of being shortened by his TB, malnutrition and unhygienic state. His skin blackened, his frame sinewy and his eyes bloodshot Tamura is the walking dead that none of his comrades want to be near, not even the medicine corps who could treat him, it is only by sheer luck his heart is still beating.

If he is not wandering in a hopeless daze among the claustrophobic foliage and muddy undergrowth destination unknown, Tamura might be lucky – or unlucky – enough to encounter another, perhaps better equipped soldier with a more ruthless bent and less tolerance towards a potential burden like Tamura, because if the enemy doesn’t get him, his own comrades will, especially when some have turned to cannibalism for sustenance. 

Tsukamoto certainly achieves his vision of positing ugly, desperate, grubby people compromising themselves and their integrity committing atrocities in the name of survival before a verdant backdrop of shimmering fauna and forestry. Shot in glorious HD these vistas look stunning on the Blu-ray release while similarly vivid is the grotesque gauntness of the soldiers’ faces.

Anyone familiar with Tsukamoto’s approach to filmmaking will be very aware the him and the rule book have never been close bedfellows, a fractured relationship continued here in the film’s most visually disturbing and graphic centrepiece. Just as Tamura and his many converging comrades are close to their destination of Palompon when a US tank appears out of the darkness and opens fire blasting the majority of the Japanese soldiers literally to pieces.

Definitely one for gore fans or anyone who can stomach it, unlike the poor chap whose entrails were spilling out of his abdomen, or the luckier victims whose legs and arms were blown clean off or have arteries severely ruptured and juicing a gusher. Tsukamoto’s commitment to relaying the physical damage of war cannot be questioned with the inclusion of this unpleasant scene, but psychologically it feels like an exercise in cheap gore spectacle than cogent to the narrative.

Elsewhere the effects of the dissonance of the conflict has on the soldiers, especially since they are the losing side, is delineated through the psychedelic descent into madness and tenuous grip on reality, aided by simple double exposure and soft focus images making up deceitful dream sequences. Even when they meet up trust is a rare commodity easily broken despite being on the same side, making the term “enemy” somewhat nebulous.

Having not seen Ishikawa’s film or read the source novel, I can’t make any comparisons although a plot recap of the former shows Tsukamoto hasn’t deviated much from that, except maybe the ending which looks to be an exclusive creation. What I can assume is that the two previous works take a more philosophical and, dare I suggest, political approach to the central themes, while this version is lacking context and rationale.

Unending bleakness, lack of empathy and no real points of discussion are offered to give us food for thought beyond our own reactions and sense of rectitude in the position of observer; whilst war is senseless its feels desperately so in this interpretation, with nary a spark of hope suggested for the characters to cling on to, no matter tenuous or futile it may be.

Of course, this may be the very point. For all the desire to tap into that ready audience looking to be educated and moved by another entry in the rich vein of emotionally provocative and poignant tales from the battlefield, the intent is simply to shock us with a harsh and explicit reality check to make us feel more than the default emotions stirred by such works.

Beneath the gnarly grime, esoteric violence and unapologetic, harrowing hopelessness driving Fires On The Plain is a very well made film. Its perverse magnetism and sensory bludgeoning makes for an unforgettable experience, one unlikely anyone would repeat in a hurry.