It is the Philipines, 1945. The Japanese Imperial Army has been reduced to a ragtag mob hiding in the jungles. Among them is Pvt. Tamura. The situation goes from bad to worse and in the face of the brutal conditions facing the men, some go insane and resort to murder and cannibalism. In the midst of this, Pvt. Tamura tries to survive without giving up his principles.Written by
Eugene Ly <email@example.com>
A harrowing masterpiece on the sheer madness and despair of war
A harrowing masterpiece on the sheer madness and despair of war, Fires on the Plain (Nobi) is not going to be to everybody's taste: this is a war movie in the truest possible sense of the term, one that resorts neither to flag-waving patriotism nor saccharine sentimentality. Nobi cuts deep, it's ugly, tenebrous and bleak as few things ever committed on celluloid will ever be. This is war behind the cannons, with no triumphs or heroes, no moral victories or defeats to be had, just a handful of gaunt and terrible-looking men strewn across a land ravaged by war like penitents fleeing a great disaster. The characters defy moral judgment because they are creatures beset by a great woe, a woe that does not permit questions of a moral nature. War and survival. Pitting one's will against the other's in a battlefield arena. The loser is simply removed from existence.
Tamura, soldier in the Japanese Imperial army, is discharged from his platoon and ordered to report in a nearby hospital on account of him coughing blood and being disliked by the rest of the platoon. He's told to never come back and instead commit suicide by hand grenade in case the hospital rejects him. Which it does. The hospital is nothing but a shack made of wooden planks and the hospital surgeon simply tells him that if he's capable of walking he's just fine. It is in that shabby excuse of a hospital that one of the most harrowing scenes of the film takes place. As the area is carpet bombed by American planes the doctors and those who can walk and sustain themselves flee from the hospital and into the woods. Moments before the hospital is blown to pieces, the gaunt and crippled figures of the sick and injured crawl out of it in every manner of posture, dressed in their sickly white robes, as if the building is some kind of beast spewing viscera and filth out upon the earth.
That is Nobi's greatest success; the stark and brooding depiction of the suffering of war in simple but evocative images, without melodrama or pseudo-heroism. Soldiers cross a marsh, wading knee-deep in mud, move across the opposite bank and into a field only to discover enemy tanks hiding in the woods, their lights shining like malignant eyes as they scan the dark. A procession of injured soldiers, dirty and half-mad, crossing a road, dropping to the ground on the sound of enemy planes. Buzzards feasting on a pile of dead bodies. An abandoned village. A mad soldier that believes himself to be Buddha sitting under a tree, covered with flies and his own excrement, offering his arm to be eaten by Tamura when he's dead. These are the images Kon Ichikawa conjures for our eyes, merciless and unflinching in their poignancy but honest and raw.
Nobi doesn't rush to get somewhere. It is content to follow Tamura's travels through the war-torn land as he tries to reach the regrouping center of Palompa, and observe the madness and obscenities of war. The movie wades through the sludge of the horror of war, slow and brooding, just like the characters it follows. The final thirty minutes with Tamura taking refuge with two deserters who feed on 'monkey meat' are the closest Nobi comes to adhering to conventional narratives and they're no less powerful for that matter. Strikingly photographed in black and white, with great performances from the cast, and Ichikawa's assured direction, Nobi is not only among the best war movies to be made but also among the finest of Japanese cinema.
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