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#28: fires on the plain (kon ichikawa, 1959)

(This is the 23rd of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

I think Fires on the Plain is a great film, but I’ve never been eager to recommend it. Perhaps a few words from Bosley Crowther’s negative review in the New York Times will help explain why:

Never have I seen a more grisly and physically repulsive film … So purposely putrid is it, so full of degradation and death as it recounts the harrowing experiences of a Japanese army straggler in Leyte toward the end of World War II, that I doubt if anyone can sit through it without becoming a little bit ill and losing appetite for the next meal. That's how horrible it is.

He goes on like this for quite awhile.

I have re-watched every film on my list so far, and done so with pleasure. Fires on the Plain was the first time where I wondered if I really needed to subject myself to it again.

I’m glad I did.

I’d say Ichikawa is relentless, but that’s not entirely true. There are moments of black humor, and in the leading role, Tamura, Eiji Funakoshi (later to appear in the Gamera films) has at times a befuddled blankness that could also be considered a bit funny. But the way Ichikawa shows the gradual breakdown of “civilized” behavior is relentless indeed. The abuses Tamura suffers at the beginning of the movie are among the near-comic scenes; later, as Tamura falls deeper into starvation, sees his fellow soldiers in the same predicament, commits a few atrocities of his own, and then confronts one of humanity’s greatest taboos, Ichikawa tightens the noose until we realize it is too late to escape the film’s implications. When is the will to survive “too much”?

I have no idea why this film isn’t more highly regarded critically. It didn’t make the Top 1000 list at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They, a site that collates critical opinion. Me, I’d put it on a list of 50 favorites, 50 best, 50 most underrated, 50 films you should see before you die … you get the point. In most cases, you don’t need me to tell you to watch the films on my list. Either you’ve already seen them, or you’ve heard enough about them to make a preliminary judgment. My guess, though, is that many of you have never even heard of Fires on the Plain. I think I should start eagerly recommending it.

 

The comments for this one validated my claim that most people have never heard of it. One person admitted to this, while Phil and I spent the rest of the commentary discussing what would show up on Pauline Kael’s 2012 Sight and Sound ballot.

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