9 May 2007 | Bunuel1976
FIRES ON THE PLAIN (Kon Ichikawa, 1959) ***1/2
This is undoubtedly the most harrowing black-and-white war film that I've watched; as a matter of fact, the only Western director during this time to remotely approach its level of intensity and sheer visceral power in his work was Samuel Fuller. By the way, I had attended a Kon Ichikawa retrospective at London's National Film Theatre in September 2002, but only managed to catch some of his work made between 1960 and 1973.
The film is certainly as depressing as it's reputed to be; however, it also displays welcome touches of black humor throughout - the 'dead' man who wakes up to answer a querying soldier and promptly 'dies' again, the deliciously ironic shoe exchange sequence, a moribund eccentric telling the famished hero which part of the body he should eat, etc. Incidentally, the script was written by a woman - Natto Wada, the director's own wife!
Ichikawa is a versatile and prolific film-maker whose reputation may not be as high as it was during his peak years (1956-65), but his direction here is often striking - the startling pre-credits sequence (the hero is violently rebuked by his superior officer for being discharged from hospital earlier than expected!), the death of a surrendering Japanese at the hands of a gun-toting Philippine woman, the bombing of a hospital (with the medical staff running away to save themselves, leaving the wounded soldiers behind to crawl out of the shack at their own limited pace), the automated march in the rain of the disillusioned soldiers (which also involves the afore-mentioned business with the shoes that, actually, recalls a similar scene in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT ), a hill littered with the bodies of soldiers attempting to climb it, the finale, etc. Surely one of the film's major assets is the stunning cinematography of the unforgiving and desolate muddy landscape.
The film is notorious for treating the taboo subject of cannibalism (almost 10 years before it became a staple of horror movies) but Ichikawa's approach is not only subtle but highly effective: the flesh is actually referred to as "monkey meat", while the hero is seen partaking only once (and promptly spits out the piece along with most of his decaying teeth!); conversely, when the weak underling soldier (played by Mickey Curtis who, despite his name, was a Japanese pop idol of the time!) rabidly indulges, the ground nearby is splashed with blood.
In the supplements, Ichikawa remembers that Method-practicing lead actor Eiji Funakoshi (whose portrayal is unforgettable, by the way) arrived on the set at starvation point - with the result that production was forced to shut down for two weeks until he recuperated! Donald Richie's perceptive interview favors the nihilism of the film over the underlying patriotism behind such gut-wrenching recent Hollywood fare as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998).
FIRES ON THE PLAIN is universally considered to be one of its director's top efforts and, out of the several films of Ichikawa I've watched, the closest to it in spirit are THE BURMESE HARP (1956; another character-driven war film but with a spiritual tone, and which is also available on DVD from Criterion) and ENJO aka CONFLAGRATION (1958; which was actually given a limited theatrical showing locally, as part of a foreign-film week, a couple of years ago). Personally, I also have a particular soft spot for the director's stunningly stylized color extravaganza, AN ACTOR'S REVENGE (1963), which I've actually caught twice at the NFT in 1999 and the afore-mentioned 2002 retrospective.