It seems these days, when some world leaders seem to enjoy the thought of war, we need to be reminded just what it is. War is hell, there is no positive side, even for the winners. This is something that Shinya Tsukamoto shows in Fires on the Plain.
In the final states of World War 2, the occupying Japanese army are losing ground in the Philippines. Fighting against local resistance and the American Army a few of the soldiers try to make their escape, but all they find is a hostile territory where friendship means nothing and hope is none existent.
At the start of the film we are introduced to an unnamed soldier (Shinya Tsukamoto) who is suffering from TB. Given no hope, he finds himself wandering through a desolate but beautiful landscape. When he does meet up with his fellow Japanese soldiers, little hope is given for survival. Though when a glimmer does arrive, it often leads to death.
When you watch a Shinya Tsukamoto film it feels like more of an experience than just a movie. Through the use of handheld cameras, disorienting cinematography, and intense presentation, you know you aren’t in for a nice experience. This is exactly what you get with Fires on the Plain.
We are placed in the shoes of a soldier who has reached his end, he wants to just die. He clings onto the memories of home though and tries to fight on. In doing so he gets to see some of the darker aspects of war. From soldiers, around him being ripped up by machine gun fire, soldiers turning against each other, starvation, and even cannibalism, nothing is held back.
What gives the movie the most impact is that it never feels like it becomes gratuitous in its violence or gore (and there is plenty of it). The low-budget is used well, and instead of trying to recreate war on a grand scale it is always has a feeling of being on the ground, in the dirt, and personal. We care about this soldier, even though he has done some questionable things.
The important message that the film holds is that even for the survivors and victors, war creates wounds that will never go away. Even if the soldier is lucky enough to not have physical ones, the scars are left mentally, and they are the ones that won’t heal. Whether it be the killing of an innocent villager, the experience of being in battle, or resorting to cannibalism to survive, it all has an effect on the people who experienced it.
In some ways, Fires on the Plain is a timely movie. World War 2 had an effect on the world that brought about the decision that a war on that scale would never happen again. With the constant threat that the world could not be dragged into major conflict, we should be reminded what cost this has.
Fires on the Plain is well worth watching, even if you aren’t a war film fan. It is more about the human experience, and the horrors that the soldiers experienced. Don’t look for an uplifting experience in this one though, this is a voyage into the darkness of the human soul, and the evils of war.
Fires on the Plain is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK now.