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The Criterion Collection presents
"I, Private First Class Tamura, will return to the hospital. If they do not admit me, I will kill myself."
DVD ReviewKon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain is set during the tail end of World War II, which found Japanese soldiers on the Philippines in dire straits. Cut off from proper support and supplies, many were left to their own devices in order to survive. Survival is the entire plot of Ichikawa's film, as its protagonist Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) stumbles through a landscape of increasing danger and moral absence.
The film's opening finds Tamura in something of a catch-22 situation; diagnosed as having tuberculosis, he is sent to the army hospital, where he is found to not be suffering badly enough to merit attention. He is then sent back to his company, where his superior verbally flays him for having the temerity to actually come back, given the lack of food. Tamura is told to go back to the hospital again, and failing that, to kill himself. The will to survive overcomes Tamura's dedication to duty, and he eventually hooks up with other soldier heading toward a planned extraction point. When that fails, survival by any means necessary becomes the main goal, although there is at least one means of survival Tamura won't take up.
Ichikawa intended Fires to be an absolute condemnation of war, argued by way of its impact on the men who are forced to wage it. What is curious about the film is that it, for all intents and purposes, takes place in a vacuum, with the overall picture of the fighting never really discussed, aside from the Japanese having lost. Also not discussed are the Japanese atrocities committed in the Philippines. Ichikawa seems to be saying that it's what war forces these soldiers to do each other, rather than what they do to civilians or the enemy, that makes it so miserable. And indeed, Ichikawa uses the documented practice of cannibalism as the ultimate instance of violence against one another, as men who should be your trusted brothers in arms become possible, even probable predators.
For all the problematic elements of the script, the technical side of the film is top-notch, with beautiful black and white cinematography by Setsuo Kobayashi leading the way. Eiji Funakoshi is perfect as the walking corpse that is Tamura, and Mickey Curtis skillfully guides Nagamatsu from dupe to calculated killer. The main weak point for me is the score, which often seems ill-matched to the visuals or the mood of a given scene, coming across as sinister when no threat is at hand, or pointlessly strident when restraint would better serve the story. Still, that's a minor complaint against the larger tapestry of the film, which includes some great set pieces, like the attempted road crossing that ends in a massacre, and the final sequence between Nagatmatsu and Tamura at the end.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: The stark black-and-white photography gets showcased to fine effect on this disc, with occasional very minor defects visible on the print. The white, optional subtitles are clean and free of errors.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The original mono generally sounds fine, but the volume levels seem to occasionally go up and down without much rhyme or reason, which gets frustrating.
Audio Transfer Grade: C+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 21 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsFires on the Plain frames the final days of World War II from the Japanese point of view, though its approach is sometimes questionable. As an anti-war film, it's filled with potent if sometimes beautiful carnage, with enough brutality and unpleasantness on hand to give most people second thoughts. Criterion's DVD features an excellent looking transfer, though the sound occasionally presents minor issues. The extras are brief but substantial.
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