With The Burmese Harp still playing in my mind, I decided to watch Kon Ichikawa’s other great World War II movie, Fires on the Plain (Nobi). Based on Shohei Ooka’s 1951 novel of the same name, the film was released in 1959 and runs to around 105 minutes. Though enjoying no more than a fraction of the instant success of its predecessor (and not picked out by the Academy for an Oscar nomination), it is now well regarded and has a solid place in this legendary director’s canon.
Like The Burmese Harp, the film is shot in black and white and focuses on remnants of the Japanese Imperial Army struggling through occupied, and formerly occupied, territory in the closing stages of the war. Whereas the earlier film was set in Burma in July 1945, the later one is located in the Philippines in February 1945. Again one ordinary soldier, in this case Private Tamura, is the focus of attention. Again the journey of a single foot soldier through alien territory provides the central narrative thread. Again a corpse-strewn landscape plays a critical role, and the story laced through it is told in spare and direct terms. In key respects, then, the movies are paired.
In other ways, though, the films are almost polar opposites. Where The Burmese Harp is lyrical and elegiac, Fires on the Plain is visceral and brutal. It opens with a sharp slap to the face, and soon finds Tamura, stricken with tuberculosis, sent away from both his unit and a hospital to fend for himself. In contrast to Mizushima in The Burmese Harp, Tamura makes no attempt to bury the bodies of the Japanese war dead he encounters. Rather, he joins other wandering troops in scavenging, and ultimately becomes a witness to cannibalism. In the picture of humanity set before us in this film there are, then, few redeeming features.
Still, there remain some. Tamura recoils from the degraded state into which some of his comrades have fallen, and throughout is visibly on a quest to escape the hellish situation in which he finds himself. Looking in the final frame at some of the fires on the plain, he says this: “There are farmers around that fire. I know it’s dangerous to go there, but I want to see people leading normal lives.” In many respects repellant, this film thereby ultimately joins its predecessor in making a humanistic, anti-war statement.