Sunday, January 1, 2012

#378: Fires on the Plain

(Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

...On the other hand, Fires on the Plain - Ichikawa's follow-up to The Burmese Harp - is one of the darkest war movies I have ever seen. It's also so violently anti-war as to seem nearly nihilistic, torn apart by the very notion that humans are capable of killing other humans. The film's ending - in which the protagonist, the tuberculosis-ridden Tamura, struggles and seemingly fails to continue his journey over the harsh landscape towards an abstract home - mirrors that of Kobayashi's The Human Condition, made the same year. Both films make the point that the nationalism and subservience to society which drove the Japanese war machine ultimately led to the isolation and defeat of each individual, symbolized by the respective protagonists stumbling towards infinity, completely alone and ultimately too exhausted to carry on (though in Tamura's case it is unclear whether or not a bullet has taken him down).

However, despite this larger driving force between the two endings, Kobayashi's socialist message ultimately leads the viewer towards optimism for the future - his Kaji is a noble sacrifice for the greater good that will triumph over the fascist military establishment, and the conclusion is a call to action. Ichikawa's film concludes nothing of the kind; there is no hope that comes from sacrifice, only more death and destruction. We are introduced to his protagonist with a slap to the face from a superior officer, yet the film doesn't intend to depict him as a relatable or even sympathetic character. Tamura never succumbs to the ultimate horror of conscious cannibalism, but he does shoot a woman in cold blood. Kaji's motivations are made abundantly clear in the first act of The Human Condition, and - stripped of everything else by cynicism and pure human need - his desire to get home to his wife is all that's left in his dying moment. Conversely, we know little to nothing about Tamura - not in an intentionally metaphoric way, as in some films which avoid naming their protagonist to make a point about universalism or anonymity, but in a cold and calculated way. War and starvation and depravity care little for the identities of men who perpetuate and inevitably fall victim to them.

Watching The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain back to back is an odd experience. Despite some similar technique, the two films are totally different, and it's hard to imagine that they were made by the same person, just three years apart. I think Criterion does them a disservice by syncing up their packaging, despite the shared topic of the aftermath of World War II in Southeast Asia (it's also odd that they gave Fires on the Plain the lower spine number, but it's obviously a minor point). Though I was much less impressed with The Burmese Harp, the two films stand on their own as grand statements about the nature of war and the impact of Japan's most significant defeat not only on its soldiers but on humanity.

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