Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 104 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono Japanese
Review Date: March 3, 2007
Japanese soldiers at the end of World War II are portrayed as living in a virtual hell on earth in Kon Ichikawa’s masterful antiwar film Fires on the Plain. As in his masterpiece The Burmese Harp, the filmmaker focuses on one primary character in what turns out to be an aimless mission in which certain truths are revealed to him. The Burmese Harp used a hypnotically poetic style to represent the director’s antiwar theme. Fires on the Plain is much more visceral, much more in your face with the sheer ugliness and horror that Japan faced as the end of the war drew nearer.
During the 1945 Philippine campaign, Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi), suffering from tuberculosis, is denied access to both his regiment and the soldiers’ hospital since his illness doesn’t prevent him from being ambulatory. His squad leader gives him a grenade and tells him to wait three days at the hospital, and if he can’t talk them into taking him, he’s to blow himself up, a last chance at honor. Before he can carry out his mission, the hospital is bombed, and he’s swept along with other fleeing soldiers trying their best to get to safety at Palompon.
The road to Palompon is fraught with perils of all types, and Tamura sees atrocities that at first horrify him but which later, while likewise dealing with his own starvation and rotting clothes, become almost of no interest to him. His comrades kill one another for a few grains of salt, cannibalism becomes a necessary evil, and always there are Yanks ready to take their lives without warning. What appeared to be a rather simple story of survival turns instead into a roundelay of repulsion, one in which death seems almost as a blessed relief.
Again with his painter’s eye and some incredible deep focus photography, director Ichikawa etches images on the screen that are impossible to forget: bodies piled in a church doorway, a deserted village as silent as a graveyard, living soldiers flopping down to play dead amid a road full of deceased soldiers to fool the enemy, troops crawling like ants up an embankment, individual shots of empty boots, a severed hand, water spilling from a bent pipe. These are amazing images that are like gut punches when they occur, all aptly fulfilling the director’s belief that war is a sad, futile business that should never happen.
The Daieiscope 2.35:1 aspect ratio is presented in a handsome anamorphic video transfer which presents startling images in simply astonishing clarity. So clear and sharp are the images, in fact, that one can see that in a couple of shots, the hospital is a painfully obvious model complete with small dummies to represent the bodies when it gets shelled. Grayscale couldn’t be more gorgeous with superb blacks, no crushed whites at all, and wonderful contrast. The image isn’t quite perfect. There are some thin scratches during the credits, and some intensely bright scenes show some slight scratching and dirt on the element that digital processing didn’t totally eliminate. For most of the film, however, the visual quality is splendid. The English subtitles are easy to read during the film’s 20 chapters.
The Dolby Digital mono track is strong and clear, but as with The Burmese Harp DVD from Criterion, the volume has been amped to uncomfortably loud levels. No hiss, pops, or crackle mar the presentation, but be sure to have your receiver’s remote handy to adjust the loudness levels as the film begins.
American film scholar Donald Richie, an expert on Japanese cinema, provides a ten minute anamorphic widescreen video lecture on the film complete with clips from the film and a succession of stills.
There is also an anamorphic widescreen video featurette intercutting a 2005 interview with director Kon Ichikawa with a 2006 interview with actor Billy Curtis who plays a supporting role in the picture. Both provide fascinating glimpses into the making of the film from its inception as a novel to the place it has today in Japanese cinema history. Curtis, who was something of the Japanese Elvis of that era, might have deserved a featurette all his own since he was, at the time of the making of this film, also making two other films, cutting records, and starring in both his own television and radio programs.
The enclosed 21-page booklet features magnificent stills from the movie along with an essay on the film and its director by Nashville-based critic Chuck Stephens.
Fires on the Plain doesn’t make it easy on its audience. It’s a brutally graphic look into the levels to which man can sink when he has nothing left to lose. This stunning video presentation of this outstanding film is most heartily recommended.