Shin’ya Tsukamoto, who directed narratives like the cyberpunk horror narrative Tetsuo: the iron man (1989), Bullet Ballet (1998) and the surreal erotic-thriller A Snake of June (2002), is nothing else than a cult director. Well-known for this explicit depictions of violence – depictions aiming to reveal the violence and erotic feelings inherent to the subject, Tsukamoto decided to use the depictions of violence in Fires on The Plain for a different purpose: to reveal the horror of the war.
To celebrate the Third Windows Film release of the DVD and the Blu-ray – both purchasable here, we delve into this re-imagining of Shohei Ooka’s anti-war novel Nobi, of which Kon Ichikawa already made a celebrated adaptation in 1959.
At the end of the second world war, Private Tamura (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) from the 14th independent infantry regiment finds himself in the jungle on a Philippine island. Already suffering from tuberculosis, his squad leader sends him to the hospital. As food is scarce, the economy between Japanese soldiers is already reduced to the exchange of food for services or just fighting over food. While wandering in a war-torn island, meeting various soldiers along the way, Tamura is confronted with the dilemma of what to do when there is no food anymore.
If there is one question the narrative clearly poses it is the question of what remains of humanity in times of war when one is faced with the privation of food and a haunting certainty of death – making the necessity of food often but a mere prolongment of life. In this respect, Fires on the plain vividly shows the fracturing of the symbolic field (i.e. the written and unwritten social rules, the importance of the signifier, … ) and the upgrading of the imaginary relation – you or me and the gamut of reactions this mirror relation causes – in light of the omnipresence of the real, e.g. death, as made present by the ongoing war (psycho-note 1, psycho-note 2).
One way the narrative illustrates this specific constellation of the real, the symbolic and the imaginary is by framing the trauma of the war explicitly. This explicit framing constitutes the narrative’s greatest success as this framing is not gratuitous or grotesque at all, but enables the spectator to encounter, in an unsettling but bearable way, the traumatic impact of war, that impact that will always remain beyond language. Furthermore the frailty of human (imaginary) relations, as previously noted, as well as the frailty of the human mind in light of the ongoing exposure to the real of the war and eminent danger of death – danger coming from comrades as well as from the enemy – is framed in a painfully confronting way for the spectator.
Even though fixed shots are used sporadically, the cinematography is generally made up by a mixture of slightly floating shots and moving shots – often following the movement of characters, creating a more documentary-like atmosphere (cine-note 1). Snappy concatenations of shots are used to frame certain acts in the narrative and more shaky camera movement is employed to translate the hostility of the narrative space, the distress the space of war inherently causes or to underline the stressing urgency the wish to survive effectuates – while vividly underlining the scarceness of food. The shakiness of certain compositions also enforce the impact of aggression that runs galore on the war-torn island.
The narrative transitions, i.e. moments of wandering between one gruesome scene and another through the Philippine jungle, are guided by slightly disconcerting (often classical) music. The few subjective shots that Tsukamoto – who also beautifully portrays Tamura – infuses into his cinematography, are successful in implying that Tamura’s subjective experience is our own, further enforcing the claustrophobic tension caused by the omnipresent danger of death. A second effect of this subtle injection of subjectivity, in conjunction with the vocalization of Tamura’s thoughts, is that the mental instability of Tamura is transformed into a more direct experience for the spectator (Cine-note 2, cine-note 3).
By composing a subtle subjective cinematography, Tsukamoto successfully implies the subject-spectator in the narrative, transforming Fires on the Plain into a powerful, but intimate confrontation with the real of the war and the effects this real has on soldiers. As blood splatters around and limbs flying by, the narrative etches an unsettling and claustrophobic encounter with the demise of humanity – a powerful and impressive crafted encounter that will make every spectator doubt the necessity of war. In short: a must-see!
Cine-note 1: Tsukamoto also infuses his cinematography with some cross-fades. Jump-cuts are also used frequently.
Cine-note 2: At certain moments, without breaking the consistency of the cinematography, there are overlaying shots to be noted. These could be read as translating the mental mood of Tamura and/or as the underlining of the time that goes by while he wanders in the jungle.
Cine-note 3: The vocalization of Tamura’s thoughts of course further helps the spectator to attain the subjective viewpoint of Tamura.
Psycho-note 1: When Tamura is with the corporal and his soldiers, the kind of symbolic constellation that can still remain in wartime is sensible. The soldiers have a kind of obligation to stay with the corporal of their squad, while Tamura doesn’t. The fact that Tamura can stay with the commander has everything to do with the fact that as a Japanese soldier he has valuable food.
Another relation, implying a minimal symbolic constellation, is only possible because of the exchange of cigarettes for food.
Psycho-note 2: Besides the fact that Palompon is a real place, this place has, for all the soldiers trying to get their, an imaginary worth. It is but an unrealized fantasy of surviving this war. This fantasy space is sensible for instance when one of the soldiers says to Tamura that someone else will comfort his girl at home if he wouldn’t survive.