John Gillett

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554

In the case of Kon Ichikawa our knowledge is confined to four films: The Burmese Harp, Conflagration, Odd Obsessions and Fires on the Plain, only one of which suggests his former preoccupation with bizarre comedy; yet together they reveal a highly contemporary artist tormented by a particularly fiery private hell. Perhaps it is symptomatic that two of the films are concerned with war: as with other Japanese directors of his generation …, memories of the war and the shattering implications of the defeat were inevitably carried over into the post-war period. Certainly, Fires on the Plain … recalls the conflict with ferocious immediacy: no film has recorded the physical and mental degradation of an army in retreat with such obsessive zeal. And yet, as we follow the tubercular Private Tamura, an outcast from his unit, in his terrible journey across the Filippino plains, Ichikawa maintains such a rigour and discipline that the physical horrors appear inevitable and quite without gratuitous sensationalism….

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[Harsh] realism is reflected in the characterisation. No cheerful, comic soldiery here; the Japanese army is shown as sly, greedy, treacherous and uneasy about the consequences of surrender and defeat. This laying bare of a national psychosis stems, of course, from the original novel…. The adaptation, by Natto Wada (Ichikawa's wife) is extraordinarily faithful to the original except in one important respect—the ending—and it is here that the film seems to falter most. Ichikawa shows Tamura stumbling off across the plain in search of a place "where people live normal lives." As one is never sure if he survives or not, the effect is of a sudden snuffing out, a bleak end to a brutal story. But [the novel's] epilogue describes Tamura's experiences in a mental hospital, his meditations on the meaning of his experiences, his awareness of a God whom he believed guided him, and his moral victory in never knowingly eating human flesh. The omission of these final thoughts gives a clue to the film's limitations: by concentrating on so much of the book's surface detail, Ichikawa has blurred the strange poetic and spiritual implications of his hero's odyssey.

Curiously enough, this kind of mood was present in The Burmese Harp. There is one montage sequence in Fires on the Plain, showing Tamura moving through a field of corpses, which immediately recalls the earlier film, yet the feeling is not recaptured. This deliberate emotional detachment is part of Ichikawa's method, and in some ways his strength. When the young boy sets fire to the temple in Conflagration we understand his motives, although his innermost personal feelings are kept at a respectable distance. This kind of reticence is common to both Japanese film and literature, but in Ichikawa's case Western influences can also be found in both his style and visual methods. Yet, in Fires on the Plain, it seems to me that Ichikawa's attitude towards his hero's experiences is finally too literal and constricted…. Ichikawa has given us an authentic vision of hell in what is, by any standards, a remarkable film; nevertheless, it is a pity that he was not able to show his hero's catharsis on the other side of the inferno. (p. 91)

John Gillett, "Film Reviews: 'Fires on the Plain' and 'Odd Obsessions'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1962 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 31, No. 2, Spring, 1962, pp. 91-2.

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