Never have I seen a more grisly and physically repulsive film than "Fires on the Plain."… 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.
To note this is a tribute to its maker, for it is perfectly obvious to me that Kon Ichikawa, the director, intended it to be a brutally realistic contemplation of one aspect of war. Plainly he wanted the spectator not only to see but to feel the progressively worse degradation of a sick soldier cast off in an alien land, released from the discipline of a shattered unit, compelled to forage for himself, bereft of the power of decision, with only an animal instinct to survive.
And he has made these sensations so graphic, so shockingly vivid and real through the slow accumulation of details that are almost too hideous to describe, that when he finally drags his starving hero to a confrontation with the ultimate shame—that of eating the flesh of another human—one is actually almost numbed to that horror….
Mr. Ichikawa's camera is relentless in revealing such things as wounds that ooze blood, piled-up dead bodies, teeth dropping from the hero's head because of malnutrition and a soldier killing a comrade to make a meal….
But, with all the horror in it, there are snatches of poetry, too. Mr. Ichikawa is sensitive to the contrasting beauties of the natural scene. Shots of a church spire above treetops, of birds wheeling in the air, of two young lovers coming into a deserted village (to be shot in reckless terror by our man) stand in delicate juxtaposition to the details of abnormality. If you do go to see this picture, these touches will stun you, too.
Bosley Crowther, "Screen: A Look at the Horror of War," in The New York Times (© 1963 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 25, 1963, p. 39.