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From the Vaults -- 'Fires on the Plain' (1959)

April 22, 2011 |  2:21 am

  Fires on the Plain  

So far in my ramble through old foreign films, I have done the Holocaust (“Yiddle With His Fiddle”) and incest (“La Mujer del Puerto,”) so imagine my surprise when this week’s entry, “Fires on the Plain,” turned to cannibalism.

Directed by Kon Ichikawa from a script by Natto Wada based on a novel by Shohei Ooka, “Fires” is set on the Philippine island of Leyte in 1945 as the Japanese are fleeing the advancing the American forces. Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi, above), a hapless soldier who is too ill to fight but too healthy to be hospitalized, shuttles between his unit and the hospital, and after being rejected by both, roams the island, encountering other equally desperate soldiers and a few natives.

  Fires on the Plain  

“Fires,” beautifully photographed by Setsuo Kobayashi and Setsuo Shibata and edited by Tatsuji  Nakashizu, is not like any war movie I have ever seen. It’s as if someone had combined elements of the novels “Good Soldier Schweik,” “King Rat” and “All Quiet on the Western Front.” 

In fact, I’m not sure you could call “Fires” a war movie in the traditional sense because there’s no combat worth mentioning. The Americans only exist as remote forces of death in tanks, trucks and planes. Indeed, the tattered Japanese soldiers spend all of their time fighting for survival. A yam. Some salt. “Monkey meat.” These are their most precious possessions.

At an hour and 45 minutes, “Fires” is a lengthy exploration of the human instinct for survival at a price that might be unimaginable anywhere else.