Cannibals of War: Fires on the Plain (1959-2014)

Since my recent viewing of Japanese documentary filmmaker Kazuo Hara’s harrowing documentary The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On which touched upon the concept of cannibalism committed by Japanese soldiers during WWII, I couldn’t help but think of distinguished director Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 adaptation of Ooka Shohei’s 1951 Yomiuri Prize winning novel Fires on the Plain.  One of the great literary works of historical fiction, this tale of horror set near the waning days of WWII concerns Private Tamura of the Imperial Japanese Army.  After being drafted into and tossed out of his own company over tuberculosis, Tamura forages for survival amid the boundless Philippine jungles and forests.  Gradually succumbing to madness, he experiences degradation including but not limited to cannibalism.

The subject of an abandoned Japanese army left for dead and forced to cannibalize one another to sustain what little life remained is one that continues to be swept under the rug as a taboo topic better left to die than to be discussed.  And yet the story of such a thing taking place in the military during the Second World War spawned Kazuo Hara’s documentary as well as two cinematic adaptations of Shohei’s novel Fires on the Plain, one by The Burmese Harp director Kon Ichikawa and the other by Tetsuo: The Iron Man cult director Shinya Tsukamoto.  In a rare scenario, Shohei’s ostensibly unfilmable novel has managed to produce two indelible feature film offerings by two of the Japanese film industry’s most distinguished auteurs, each finding their own cinematic language and dramatic footing while staying true to the essence of the text.

The question becomes less about which film is stronger or more artistically successful than the other (personally I prefer Ichikawa’s film but consider both valuable) and more about what each filmmaker’s take brings to or leaves off the table.  Both stories are bleak, uncompromising descents into delirium coupled with starvation surrounded by death while shedding light on one of the most unthinkable aspects of wartime survival.  And yet each director’s audiovisual approach couldn’t be more different in how they assess the situation at hand, how they stage the scenes of combat and how they deal with the topic honestly without drifting into overt exploitation.  With this, the Movie Sleuth takes a good look at two directorial stabs at Ooka Shohei’s bleak and horrifying Japanese WWII novel Fires on the Plain.

Directed by Kon Ichikawa (1959)

An ornate and elegantly ugly panorama of postwar pandemonium, the former animator and Walt Disney disciple and frequent comedy director Kon Ichikawa working with his screenwriter wife Natto Wada shifted gears to produce and unveil (at the time) the grisliest, bleakest, most foreboding antiwar film the cinema world had seen up to that point.  Drenched in filth and despair, Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain is a curious, sometimes uncategorizable picture whose grotesque horrors are offset by the film’s wicked sense of humor.  Though the subject is one few (if anyone) wishes to discuss, Ichikawa’s involvement in the picture invariably infuses it with his visual panache, his dealings in the comedy genre and above all, his penchant for provocation and a leaning towards what became known as Japanese Humanism. 

Starring Gamera actor Eiji Funakoshi in the central role of Tamura, through voiceover narration we’re drawn into the troubled character’s headspace of fear, anxiety, starvation and eventually madness.  Co-starring Japanese rock star Mickey Curtis in his first film appearance onscreen as a fellow soldier who eventually succumbs to cannibalism, the film follows Tamura throughout the Philippines and rugged open terrain as he grows more and more emaciated and unclean with time.  The ensemble cast of supporting character actors are run through the gamut, instructed to eat very little and refrain from bathing, a move which prompted the installation of nurses on set.  So extreme, however, was actor Funakoshi’s own willing starvation to prepare for the role that he collapsed on set and filming stopped for two months until he recovered.

Accentuating Tamura’s descent into madness is the mixture of surrealism among the proceedings, such as a brief moment when a dead Japanese soldier lifts his head up to speak to Tamura.  It’s a moment that predates the now-infamous shot of a severed head counting to ten in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God.  Though leading towards its eventual confrontation with the concept of cannibalism, the film is broken up into episodic form as a series of unexpected encounters with fellow soldiers and Filipino residents of the region, furthering the unpredictability of Tamura’s odyssey through Hell. 

While knee deep in death and destruction, Ichikawa and his cinematographer Setsuo Kobayashi shoot at a distance in elegantly composed black-and-white Daieiscope anamorphic widescreen.  Take for instance a wide-angled shot of a war torn hill littered with lifeless bodies taken out by an ambush.  It’s simultaneously horrific and breathtakingly beautiful, a contradictory juxtaposition Ichikawa strives for throughout the piece.  Despite being inherently Japanese, Ichikawa wears his Western influences upon his sleeve in some surprising sight gags such as soldiers changing out their shoes with that of a deceased soldier, echoing the comic antics of Charlie Chaplin. 

Equally as important to Ichikawa’s nightmarish adaptation of the waning days of WWII Japan is a downbeat orchestral score by frequent Ichikawa collaborator Yasushi Akutagawa.  Coming from a background as both a composer and conductor, Akutagawa studied alongside the great Akira Ifukube and likewise has turned over a score which fills listeners immediately with an overwhelming sense of doom.  As integral to the experience as the visuals, Akutagawa’s score works to immerse you the viewer in Tamura’s mood and frame of mind, one filled with anxiety and fear.  It’s an awful place to see and hear, one which only grows more despairing with time.

Released to shocked audiences in 1959, Ichikawa’s adaptation of Fires on the Plain understandably split viewers who had, up to that time, never seen something so gruesome at the movies.  Considered a war film that went far beyond what anyone ever thought they’d see from the genre, the film was almost instantly controversial though it did go on to win the 1960 Japanese Blue Ribbon for Best Director and Best Cinematography and was later picked for the official Japanese entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards before being snubbed at the last minute.

Seen now, the film still has an unparalleled ability to repel viewers and remains a thoroughly downbeat evocation of the wartime experience, predating the grotesqueries of modern WWII pictures such as Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge by over fifty years.   In Japanese cinema history, Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain stands as an important moment in which filmgoers of East Asia and Western America were forced to confront the unfathomably horrific realities of war depicted on the silver screen.  Disturbing and powerfully nihilistic, what’s most striking about Ichikawa’s film is just how many decades ahead of its time the film really was.  No one was making war pictures like this which made you feel as you gaze upon the screen as if you were slowly dying on the inside.

--Andrew Kotwicki 

Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto (2014)    

Something of a speed-demon, one-man-show wunderkind and frequently extreme provocateur actor/director/cinematographer/producer Shinya Tsukamoto first burst onto the Japanese film scene with his industrial cyberpunk science-fiction/horror visceral shockfest Tetsuo: The Iron Man.  Something of a crossbred hybrid with the surrealism of David Lynch, the clinical approach to body horror of David Cronenberg and the sped up energies of Sam Raimi, Tsukamoto is something of a jack of all trades, frequently acting in film while formulating his own pictures from the ground up often doing everything by himself. 

Up to this time, the cult filmmaker mostly dabbled in horror or erotic film, sometimes fusing both disparate elements together though occasionally the director would work in adaptations of preexisting stories written by others.  The idea of Tsukamoto doing a war film, let alone a WWII film seemed remote for the filmmaker.  But in 2014, not only did Tsukamoto tackle the war film, he presented yet another cinematic adaptation of Ooka Shohei’s dark antiwar novel Fires on the Plain.  Separated by fifty-five years, the first take on the material came from distinguished and classy filmmaker Kon Ichikawa who shot the film in 2.35:1 panoramic widescreen.  Though controversial and disturbing, the film has since attained status as one of the greatest Japanese films of all time. 

Given the level of violence and gore Tsukamoto often served up in his ultraviolent and hypersexual Tetsuo series, one would expect the alignment of Tsukamoto and Fires on the Plain to be an out and out bloodbath.  Upon actually seeing the film, it’s unquestionably the director’s goriest picture yet, one which pushes the viewer even deeper into the blood, feces, urine and human flesh soaked landscape without relent and well past the point of acceptability.  Simply put, this is one of the most thoroughly grotesque war films ever attempted. 

Contrary to Ichikawa’s film which was distant and methodical in its visual manner, Tsukamoto and his cinematographer Satoshi Hayashi have produced an intimate, confrontational, often handheld burst of the same manic energy seen on his English language Tetsuo: The Bullet Man.  Often going for close-ups and frenetic camera movement, Tsukamoto’s take on Fires on the Plain is far more visceral and hyperkinetic visually than Ichikawa’s classier widescreen production.  The two auteurs couldn’t have been more different in their approach to the material, with Ichikawa gazing from afar while Tsukamoto pushes things right in your face.

Where the film tends to frustrate, however, is with the late composer Chu Ishikawa’s electronic score which feels curiously out of place with the proceedings.  While his electronica industrial sonics and metallic scrapings for his Tetsuo: The Iron Man stand as one of the greatest soundtracks of modern Japanese film, his score for Fires on the Plain tends to distract from the immediacy of Tsukamoto’s often obscene imagery.  That said, it’s a minor quibble in the scheme of things as Tsukamoto is naturally superb in the leading role of Tamura.  Just a couple years afterward, Tsukamoto would go for an emaciated role once again in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a testament to the filmmaker’s versatility and dedication to his art.

In keeping with the original, however, Tsukamoto includes the casting of Japanese musician Tatsuya Nakamura though the cannibalistic acts are left to Shin Godzilla actor Yusaku Mori.  Tsukamoto is always good in any role he’s in and generally has the capacity to lift a film higher than it would have been without him.  Though his Tamura is considerably older than Eiji Funakoshi, Tsukamoto nonetheless works very well in the role and conveys the indescribable horror of being confronted with the prospect of cannibalism.  Mostly however, the real stars of this adaptation are the effects department which serve up so many gory images of intestines bursting, brains being stepped on, faces being blown off.  Comparatively, this might actually be an even more gruesome WWII film than Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge.

Tsukamoto’s film naturally opened at the 71st Venice Film Festival to mixed reception.  Some were enamored with Tsukamoto’s out and out bloodbath while others felt the filmmaker lost sight of the message driving Shohei’s novel in the first place.  One thing that is true is unlike the Kon Ichikawa film, Tsukamoto’s film is far more experiential.  Whereas Ichikawa’s antiwar message was loud and clear, Tsukamoto is somewhat murkier in his aims, instead focusing on what it felt like to be in Tamura’s shoes.  

Also unlike Ichikawa who found room for black humor amid the proceedings, Tsukamoto leaves no room for laughter and takes us as far into the inferno as humanly possible.  Not easy viewing or easy to recommend but as a companion piece to Ichikawa’s film and as an outlier in Tsukamoto’s otherwise fantastical filmography, it will most certainly cement itself into your psyche whether you want it to or not.

--Andrew Kotwicki