Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Fires on the Plain

Kon Ichikawa's black-as-tar masterpiece "Fires on The Plain" lays the ground rules down early. The film's opening image is that of a face being slapped, and it's an early indicator that this is going to be a war movie like no other. The traditional touchstones of valour, camaraderie, and patriotism are all missing here. The overriding motivation of everyone that we meet in this film is "How can I live another day?"

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?"

Tamura leaves the scene as the voice-over intones "I was told to die, and intend to", but his intentions aren't as cut and dried as he would have us believe. He wanders into a small village in the hope of finding food, and is suddenly attacked by wild dog. Presented with an opportunity to die, his instinctive will to survive kicks in instead, and he skewers the dog on his bayonet. Tamura flashes a wicked smile as the dog dies, then appears to catch himself enjoying the kill. He has had an insight into the barbarism that he carries inside him, and it is hammered home a few moments later, when he cold-bloodedly shoots a girl who has also wandered into the village and screams at the sight of him. He again seems distraught , but when he spies a supply of salt under the floorboards of the hut, he hungrily throws the girl's body out of the way to get at it.

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.

Tamura's quest takes a final, dark turn when he comes into contact with the wounded sergeant Yashuda and his companion Nagumatsu, who talk of hunting for "monkey meat". There have been hints about cannabalism earlier in the film, including one fellow soldier who holds up a bony arm and offers it "After I'm dead", but the realization of what monkey meat really is brings Tamura to a moral cul-de-sac. If he breaks down and eats human flesh to survive, he will have discarded the last thread of humanity that he posesses. This is the line in the sand that he will not cross. His two companions, however, have long since crossed it, and circle each other in a game where the loser pays the biggest price possible.

"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.

No comments: