The film follows a tubercular Japanese soldier named Tamura as he wanders through the dying days of WW2 on the Philippine island of Leyte. Not wanted at the front because he's sick, and not wanted at the hospital because he's not sick enough, he wanders in limbo. Sent away from the hospital, he is told that if his unit won't take him back , then he must commit suicide. "Use your hand grenade!" Ichikawa then proceeds to obliterate this Catch-22-like world, as the hospital is suddenly destroyed by an air strike. Tamura sits on a hill overlooking the carnage, and says in a voice-over "Some of you might still be alive, but I won't come to help you, Why should I, when I'll soon be dead myself?"
The fires of the film's title are far-off smoke columns that Tamura sees repeatedly as he walks. We never really see who is making the fires, but there are theories: It's American soldiers, or it's farmers burning corn-husks. It doesn't really matter , because for Tamura, the fires represent the hope for salvation and deliverance.
"Fires on the Plain" is a film of immense power, and the question it asks is a big one: What really separates us from the animals?" Pity poor Tamura, who gets to see the answer up close. The film's final image is of him walking towards yet another column of smoke, with the voice-over again: "I just want to be with people who are leading normal lives". Too bad they don't exist for him any more.