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At the less-than-half-full UK Premiere of Shinya Tsukamoto's 'Fires on the Plain' at London's 2015 Raindance Film Festival, the question seemingly everyone wanted to ask was: 'In light of recent changes to the Japanese constitution, what message did you want this film to say about war?' A question he pretty much answered - via an interpreter - as 'war is Hell.'
For me, you don't so much watch a Tsukamoto film as experience it. His 2014 adaptation / remake of Ooka Shohei's / Ichikawa Kon's book / film of the same name certainly fits that statement. He stated he wanted this film to remind people that war is not a positive thing; something he feels has been lost among the new generations of Japanese. With this film, he certainly sets some reminders.
A nameless solider, suffering from TB, is sent to see the medic during Japan's fighting in the Philippines. deemed not unwell enough to be there, he is subsequently sent back and forth between his base and the medical base, seemingly unwanted by either. The medical base destroyed by fire from above, he is left to wander aimlessly around the jungles and field of the Philippines, surviving as best he can.
Tsukamoto claims that he is faithful to the original novel, depicting the natural beauty of the Philippines against the violent, graphic and intense scenes of war; perhaps hinting at some sort of stupidity of war. Well, I've not read the book, or even seen the original film, so I can speak with great authority about this. However, there is a definite contrast between serenity and the frantic Hell of war, which Tsukamoto balances nicely.
As with all his films, there is quick, frantic camera work and intense acting to create a similar emotion in the viewer. However, as with his other films, there is always that feeling that it's on the edge of being comical/annoying in its frequency. War films always get a bit repetitive for me and are never the easiest viewing, and 'Fires on the Plain' is probably that. His previous films just about get the balance right by being entertaining in their urban settings. However, here perhaps the intensity gets a bit too much after a while, relieved only by shots of Filipino landscapes.
'Fires on the Plain' is not Tsukamoto's best work, though probably isn't his worst either. It is stapled all over with his standards of good cinematography, hand-held camera work and making use of a limited budget in an imaginative way. Maybe a larger budget would have allowed him to do more and make a better film, maybe not. But one thing is definite: Tsukamoto is a clear master of creating some intense cinema, that'll leave you sitting un-comfortably (Garth Marenghi).
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