Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Art House in the Middle of the Street #7: Fires on the Plain

There's no grand philosophical project behind Charge Shot!!!'s new feature. Jordasch's mom got him Janus Films' absolutely untouchable Essential Art House box set, and he's going to watch the whole thing. It's a behemoth set, collecting 50 films released since 1956 by one of the first distributors to bring honest-to-goodness world cinema to U.S. shores. The films contained in the collection serve as a crash course in world cinema, encompassing everything from major works of the French New Wave and the Italian Neorealist period to films from lesser-known corners of the filmmaking world, including Brazil and Poland. The collection is 50 discs, weighs 16 pounds, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses. Hit it.

It's a testament to the mundanity of a movie's bleakness that you practically hunger for (no pun intended) the moment when the characters resort to cannibalism. I've seen bleak war movies (Apocalypse Now, The Hurt Locker), and I've seen dull ones (The Thin Red Line), but I don't think I've ever seen one that's both.

Of course, I'm (sorta) kidding about the cannibalism thing, but Kon Ichikawa's World War II film Fires on the Plain was certainly something of a grind. The film opens with a bang, or at least a smack. The smacker, in this case, is a haggard Japanese captain who's taking a tubercular soldier named Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) to task for failing to stay in a military hospital where he was sent to be treated. The company, his captain explains, barely has enough food for the healthy soldiers, and one who can't share in the work can't expect to share the supplies. The Japanese Imperial Army forces in the Philippines have been routed by the Americans, cut off from their supply trains and forced to live off the land. So the captain gives Tamura an order: try to get yourself back into the military hospital. And if that doesn't work? Use that grenade I gave you, and blow yourself up.

What a fun movie night I've got ahead of me.

Things don't get much brighter as the movie progresses. Tamura promptly leaves the unit and embarks on his journey to the military hospital. Predictably enough, Tamura is denied entrance (external wounds only), but the soldier in charge of the hospital tells him he can squat with the rest of the rejects in a stand of trees outside the hospital. The men he meets are largely representative of those he'll encounter throughout the film: craven, callow, starving. They live on the scrawny yams that are increasingly hard to find in the Japanese countryside. Salt is a heavenly treat, never mind tobacco, which makes a possibly crippled soldier war-rich even though he keeps the leaves wrapped around his sweaty body.

Yasuda (Osamu Takizawa) probably isn't crippled, though. It's most likely just a strategy he uses to get fellow soldier Nagamatsu (Mickey Curtis) to wait on him. Yasuda and Nagamatsu are pretty much Tamura's only friends, and even that's a generous way to refer to them. But they're the only familiar faces (they too are exiles from Tamura's company) Tamura meets on his journey to nowhere in particular.

The idea that war lacks any real purpose is one that's not new in the film world. The anti-war film, though, didn't really come into fashion in the States until after the Vietnam War. Most war movies in the '50s and '60s, especially those focusing on World War II, portrayed war as a climactic struggle between outright good and outright evil. We barely see the enemy proper in Fires on the Plain, though they're no better than you'd think.

Ah, the one not-depressing frame in the whole movie.
The abstract "struggle to survive" is also a well-worn concept. Sure the insurgents are the ones planting the IEDs in The Hurt Locker, but Sergeant James isn't thinking about that when he's trying to defuse them. It's more "let's make this thing not kill me" and less "we're striking a blow for freedom" in that case.

But only on the most abstract level is Fires on the Plain concerned with the enemy. These men are waging a war against starvation and sickness. Their struggles, in other words, are rather ordinary. They argue about how many yams they can steal from the mess rather than about the philosophical or even political project at stake.

The grandest battle is, at the risk of sounding cliche, with themselves. At the simplest level, they have to decide whether they're going to eat each other in order to survive. Tamura gets a whiff of this idea when he passes by a dying, delirious soldier on the battlefield. "You can eat me when I'm dead," the soldier tells him. Understandably, Tamura runs away.

Mostly, Tamura stays away from the baser survival strategies. Mostly. He does shoot a young Filipino girl who's trying to steal salt from an abandoned village. His crime is more out of fear than cold calculation, though. He dumps his gun in a nearby river in disgust.

Throughout the film, we find it hard to empathize much with Tamura. He's more desperate puppy than man, though we can't help but pity him when he looks up at us with those big, wet, coward's eyes. However irrational the impulse, we do sympathize with him when he approaches one of those eponymous fires near the end of the film. The characters argue throughout the movie about what they might be. Tamura chooses to believe that the fires are made by Filipino farmers burning corn husks. "I just want to see someone leading a normal life." By the end of the movie, so did I.

Next Week - Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion

- Photos via AsianCineFest and Cineblog