Fires on the Plain

Fires on the Plain

Cautious as I am about superlatives, I think the term "masterpiece" must be applied to FIRES ON THE PLAIN. It has the disturbing power of great art: it doesn't leave you quite the same. A few hours after seeing it, or a few days or weeks, it rushes up and overwhelms you.

If Dostoyevsky had been a filmmaker telling his Grand Inquisitor story with a camera, it might have been much like this great visual demonstration that men are not brothers. FIRES ON THE PLAIN is an obsessive, relentless cry of passion and disgust. The subject is modem man as a cannibal, and after a few minutes of FIRES ON THE PLAIN, this subject does not seem at all strange or bizarre: it seems, rather, to be basic. When violence is carried to the extremes of modern war, cannibalism may appear to be the ultimate truth.

The setting is Leyte. Tamura, the hero, is one of the stragglers of the disintegrating retreating Japanese army terrified of the Americans, the Filipinos, and each other. Tamura walks across the plain unharmed because he is already a dead man; he is tubercular, no one wants his flesh. In the middle of this desolation, there are bonfires-ambiguous flames in the distance that kindle hope. (Perhaps they are signal fires? Perhaps Filipino farmers are burning corn husks? Perhaps there is still some normal life going on?) At the end Tamura approaches the flames and the last illusion is dispelled.

What can be said of a work so powerfully felt and so intensely expressed that it turns rage into beauty? FIRES ON THE PLAIN is an appalling picture; it is also a work of epic poetry. The director, Kon Ichikawa, and the writer, his wife Natto Wada, are among the foremost screen artists of Japan; their other collaborations include THE BURMESE HARP, ENJO, and KAGI. FIRES ON THE PLAIN is based on the book by Shohei Ooka, the greatest Japanese novel to come out of the war, which, as the translator Ivan Morris says, draws a shocking analogy ''between the cannibalism of the starving soldiers… and the Christian doctrine of the Mass."

FIRES ON THE PLAIN is a passion film-and a new vision of hell. The passion that informs the character of Tamura is so intense, so desperate and overwhelming, that he seems both painfully close to us and at the same time remote, detached from what is ordinarily thought of as emotion. The atmosphere of the film is also remote from our normal world: there is nothing banal, nothing extraneous to the single-minded view of man in extremis. And what is both shocking and, in some terrible sense, beautiful is the revelation of man's extraordinary passion for life even in an inferno. The soldiers will commit any crime, will kill each other, devour each other, to go on living a few more minutes, a few more hours. Even though there is no future, they are trying to sustain life as if there were; it becomes the new variant of LA GRANDE ILLUSION-that if they can just make it to this forest or that port, they will be saved. Historically, in terms of World War II, some were saved; but Ichikawa's film is not, at this level, realistic. It is not merely about World War II, or the experiences on Leyte; it is not an anti war film in the usual sense. We see no causes, no cures, no enemy; it goes beyond nationalism or patriotism. All men are enemies. It is a post-nuclear-war film-a vision of the end, the final inferno. And oddly, when survival is the only driving force, when men live only to live, survival comes to seem irrelevant.

There is a fiendish irony involved in the physical condition of the hero: he alone can be a hero-act human-because he can't save his own life anyway. He can be human because he is beyond self-interest; he becomes a Japanese Christ-figure. Tamura, so close to death, is passionately-instinctively and intellectually-committed to the amenities of humanity and civilization. He shares his potatoes with another man because this is how men behave; he refuses to eat human flesh because this practice is a destruction of human behavior. It is the only place left to draw the line: Tamura has been degraded in every other way; he has murdered a helpless, terrified girl, but cannibalism is the final degradation. It is the line he will not cross: it becomes the only remaining dividing line, not between man and beast but between beast and beast who clings to the memory, the idea of man. Tamura's rejection of cannibalism is the only morality left. Yet, in the circumstances, his behavior-obsessed with the image of man-is what is called "unrealistic"; that is to say, in total war, man preserves himself (if he is lucky) only by destroying his humanity. Nothing is left.

Just as Ivan Karamazov is obsessed with the evil in the world that stands in the way of believing in God because he wants to believe, Ichikawa's revulsion is the negative image of aspiration and hope. In this film, so harshly realistic, so apparently inevitable that it becomes surrealistic, man is defined as man who cannot forget he is man. As in Céline's novels, there is the poetry of disgust, of catharsis. There is even a black form of humor in a weird Mack Sennett-like sequence-the sudden astonishment of comedy as a succession of soldiers discard their shoes and put on the ones discarded by others.

The film follows the novel very closely except that in the novel Tamura does cross the line: he eats human flesh, or "monkey meat" as the soldiers call it (a term that's like a hideous self-inflicted use of the wartime American expression of contempt for the Japanese). And there is an epilogue to the novel which has not been filmed. At the end of the novel, several years have passed, and Tamura, who has been telling the story, is revealed to be a madman in a mental hospital near Tokyo. Guiltily, he believes that in rejecting the proffered flesh of a dying soldier who had raised his emaciated arm and said, "When I'm dead, you may eat this," he rejected God's flesh. His new formulation is that “all men are cannibals, all women are whores. Each of us must act according to his nature." In his madness, he concludes, "…if as a result of hunger human beings were constrained to eat each other, then this world of ours was no more than the result of God's wrath. And if I, at this moment, could vomit forth anger, then I, who was no longer human, must be an angel of God, an instrument of God's wrath." Ichikawa (wisely, I think) has infused the whole story with this obsessive angelic wrath, rather than attempting to film the epilogue.

As an ironic aside to the subject of mankind devouring its humanity, man becoming "monkey meat," here is John Coleman's description in the New Statesman of an English audience's reaction to the film:
FIRES ON THE PLAIN is showing to an audience of turnip-headed morons . . . screams of laughter welcoming such acts as the impaling of a mad dog on a bayonet (the spray of blood that hit the ground really rolled them in the aisles) , titters as the Japanese hero declines the invitation to cannibalism, bellows of fun as machine guns stuttered and gaunt men ran away.

I have seen just one review in a San Francisco paper: it seems to have been written by one of those turnip-headed morons. I don't know how American audiences-if there are any-will react. If it's anything like the English reaction, perhaps the mad Tamura is right and all men are cannibals.