'Fires on the Plain': Venice Review

A visceral, uncompromising anti-war film not for the weak of stomach

Cult actor-director Shinya Tsukamoto remakes Ken Ichikawa’s classic, showing the Japanese retreat from the Philippines as a relentlessly cruel and gory horror film

That war is hell is the premise of innumerable films, but in Fires on the Plain (Nobi) multi-hyphenate Japanese actor and auteur Shinya Tsukamoto goes one step further to depict war as a nonstop, one-note horror film. From the first scene to nearly the last, there is no let-up in the bloody destruction of a Japanese platoon stranded in the Philippines during World War II. Based on a novel by Shohei Ooka, which was famously made into a masterful 1959 film by Ken Ichikawa, this is something of a departure for the hard-boiled director of Bullet Ballet and Tokyo Fist, which centered on contemporary urban violence, and the cultish Tetsuo: The Iron Man.

Producing through his own company Kaijyu Theater, Tsukamoto also pulls out the stops in the main role of Tamura, an army private trying to fight his way out of a hostile, deadly tropical paradise. He witnesses the kind of horrors Conrad wrote about in Heart of Darkness — death, dismemberment, rotting corpses, cannibalism. On the lowest level, the film can be read as plain gore, with nonstop action and comic book special effects including spurting blood, flying limbs and maggot-ridden head wounds. In Venice, where it is in competition, the film is a shocker that exposes unspeakable war crimes against the civilian population. Expressing its anti-war sentiment in a sustained, unmodulated shriek, it’s not an easy watch but a highly rewarding one that most festival audiences will be anxious to sit through, thanks to Tsukamoto’s reputation.

Like Ichikawa’s film, Fires on the Plain begins with Tamura being slapped in the face by his hysterical commanding officer. He has TB and is of no use to the platoon, so he is ordered to check into a field hospital.  But the doctor there is surrounded by a M.A.S.H.-worthy pile of dead and dying soldiers and orders the private to go back where he came from. Tamura shuttles back and forth, earning slaps and abuse, until the officer tells him to just blow himself up with his hand grenade.

Tamura’s evident, wide-eyed suffering begins here and doesn’t let up. In a spectacular action scene, the hospital is strafed and explodes into a fiery inferno. Tamura isn’t even wounded. It’s clear that he is somehow earmarked by destiny to be an eyewitness to the horrors to come. Only later does he reveal he was a writer, which puts him on a very different level from the soldiers around him.

Starving and on his own in the jungle, he stumbles on an abandoned village and goes inside a Catholic church to look for matches, so he can cook the wild, inedible yams he’s found. A laughing young village couple has the misfortune to wander into the church shortly afterwards, and the soldier, more terrified than they are, accidentally kills one of them in cold blood. This chilling scene, one of the film’s finest, is filmed by a wildly moving, handheld camera that ratchets up to the tension to an unbelievable point.

Tamura wanders down the coast until he meets three soldiers from another company, who allow him to join them. Nagamatsu, played with eerie intensity by newcomer Yusaku Mori, seems like he’s been pushed over the edge into psychosis. He has a strange, symbiotic relationship with a half-mad older soldier (Lily Franky, who appeared in Like Father, Like Son). The corporal (Tatsuya Nakamura) is superstitiously fearless, claiming bullets dodge him. Together they try to make a night crossing over a field of mutilated bodies, towards a promised rescue ship on the coast. But their retreat is blocked by a frightening, unseen enemy: local guerillas and the American army.

With their blackened faces and bedraggled uniforms, the exhausted soldiers all tend to look alike. Characters one thinks are dead suddenly reappear, like zombies, or so they would seem. The soundtrack is a barbarian mixture of screaming and music from the director’s regular composer Chu Ishikawa, as reported in the film’s excellent press book.

Production company: Kaijyu Theater
Shinya Tsukamoto, Yusaku Mori, Lily Franky, Tatsuya Nakamura, Yuko Nakamura
Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Screenwriter: Shinya Tsukamoto based on a novel by Shohei Ooka
Producer: Shinya Tsukamoto
Directors of photography: Shinya Tsukamoto, Satoshi Hayashi
Costume designer: Hitomi Okabe
Editor: Shinya Tsukamoto
Music: Chu Ishikawa
Sales: Coproduction Office
No rating, 89 minutes