Fires on the Plain is an anti-war drama that follows Japanese soldier Tamura (Shinya Tsukamoto) who has been thrown out of his platoon due to illness and witnesses the destruction of the field hospital. Deciding to desert, Tamura wanders around the Philippines toward the end of World War II looking for food. The army was already isolated from their command by the American military and supplies are running extremely scarce. While struggling for survival in the jungle, Tamura is forced to confront his own humanity. Along the way he meets the Corporal (Tatsuya Nakamura) and others who just want to survive and make it back to Japan alive. Tamura also has a few run-ins with the locals, who have been bringing their own brand of justice to the Japanese soldiers.
Written, directed, and produced by legendary filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto, Fires on the Plain is a remake of the 1959 film of the same title directed by Kon Ichikawa. Both films are based on the 1951 novel of the same name by Shohei Ooka, which was translated into English in 1957. Tsukamoto’s interpretation is a brutal film to watch and while the director uses his signature minimalistic style, he tells the story so effectively it will leave you stunned by its end. The soldiers are filthy and starving when they learn that a push is being made to get off the island. It seems, though that the Americans are way ahead of them and there is nowhere to go. At one point, Tamura attempts to surrender not long after an ambush that slaughters hundreds, only to watch a fellow Japanese soldier ripped apart by automatic weapons fire.
Tsukamoto unflinchingly brings the horrors of war to this film, and it honestly is one of the best war pictures I’ve ever seen. The death and suffering in Fires on the Plain can easily be compared to the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan (1998), which recreated Allied soldiers landing on Omaha Beach. Tsukamoto pulls no punches, and the gore is so prevalent and visceral, you can only believe it is real… at least as real as can be without having actually been in a warzone yourself. We witness starving men resorting to murder and cannibalism, and how all that they see and experience leads will without a doubt lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when those that do survive make it back home to Japan. I was just about in tears by the film’s end. I’ve always been an admirer of Shinya Tsukamoto and Fires on the Plain is not only one of his best, but also a true horror film.