Shohei Ooka’s acclaimed anti-war novel Fires on the Plain has already been turned into a masterpiece by director Kon Ichikawa in 1959. Shinya Tsukamoto, best known for transgressive “body horror” classics like his Tetsuo: The Iron Man series and Kotoko, revisits the work in 2014 and his film had its North American premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
In the closing months of the war, private Tamura, already half-dead from tuberculosis and starvation, wanders the Philippines alongside the few remaining soldiers of his forgotten regiment searching for the safety of the port town of Palompon. Surrounded by the physical, psychological and moral collapse of his peers, Tamura struggles to preserve his sanity, and his humanity, amid a hallucinatory barrage of degradation and slaughter. Food is nearly non-existent and the men have taken to eating monkeys and are contemplating the inevitability of cannibalism.
The film is a fever dream of hopelessness and butchery; Tsukamoto’s depictions of violence are singularly grotesque and would not be out the place in a horror film. The film’s aesthetic strategy echoes that of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, alternating between the verdant beauty of the jungles and the terrible decay and mutilation of the men trapped within.
No enemy troops are ever seen. In one unforgettable scene, scores of soldiers are torn to pieces in a night battle with an enemy represented only by blinding floodlights, tracer bullets and the grinding sound of heavy armour. It is as if creation itself is raining down this savage retribution. Tsukamoto himself plays Tamura in a haunting performance, particularly powerful during the final scenes in Japan. Troubling in its message and shocking in its imagery, Fires on the Plain is neither an easy film to watch or forget. It is a worthy companion to the Ichikawa classic.
We talked to Mr. Tsukamoto about the film at TIFF 2014.
Nikkei Voice: Is this film a reaction to the current political climate in Japan and the government’s taste for changing the constitution?
Shinya Tsukamoto: I did not actually make this as a reaction to that; this is a film I have been hoping to make for over 20 years. Even though I didn’t have the money, looking at the current situation I felt if I didn’t make it now I never would. In certain ways it is a very extreme anti-war film.
NV: Would you call it an “antidote” to popular films like The Eternal Zero that are seen as romanticizing the Pacific war?
ST: Many people have seen that film and I don’t think I have made a film that will be accessible to such a large number. But, with the current shift toward militarism, I feel it is important to provide an antidote to the public mood.
NV: Why did you choose to tell your anti-war story using this material and how have you differentiated your film from Ichikawa’s film?
ST: I read the novel as a student and it had a powerful impact on me; I felt like I was really experiencing the war. I wanted to create a film from that literary source. I have great respect for Mr. Ichikawa’s film but its focus was on the dark human inner workings of the characters and was actually filmed in Japan. For me, one of the most striking things about the novel was the contrast between the vast natural beauty of the Philippine setting and the terrible human drama happening within it.
NV: What does the title mean?
ST: In the Philippines the fires on the plain are there to support life; for cooking and the like. In the title they take on a second meaning as the fires of war. Even after his return to Japan, Tamura is haunted by visions of that fire. Those visions are not just of the past but also anticipate our future.
NV: Physical transformation, sometimes through “body-horror”, is a recurring theme in your films. How does this theme play out here?
ST: In my other films these transformations are initially ugly but the character then enters a different world where they are viewed as positive.
The transformations in this film are different. They are wholly negative as humans are grotesquely destroyed by meaningless war.
NV: What are you saying about the fundamental character of mankind in this film?
ST: I think man should be able to live in harmony but it is human instinct to forget about what we have learned through pain and experience and revert back to our warlike ways. It is the people who have experienced the impact of war who can stop this, but as they pass away we forget what has been learned and inevitably slip back. That should be part of basic human intelligence but sadly it is not.
NV: Why did you choose to play the central role of Tamura?
ST: Usually when I act in my own films it is because I think I am the best person to communicate the role. Sometimes other directors see this and cast me in their films. I only choose films that I think are good and worth being part of. I am not a pro but it is satisfying when things go well and the director is happy. For this film, I actually wanted to get a more popular actor so that the film would attract more public attention but we didn’t have the budget for that so I had to do it myself.
Featured image: Tsukamoto, seen here, directed his latest film and took on its main role. Photo courtesy: TORJA/Ai Sakai