War is hell! But that cliché is often contained in a more mundane frame. In Terrence Malick’s 1998 The Thin Red Line the battle for Guadalcanal is soothed by philosophical voice-overs and magic hour photography. The same year Saving Private Ryan had Steven Spielberg seek to justify the bloody horror of war with a broader ‘good war’/ ‘greatest generation’ frame. Clint Eastwood’s twin films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima are remarkable for their shifting perspectives and ambivalence, but as with the HBO series Band of Brothers and The Pacific, there is a sense that each film is careful of its historical context. Authenticity is as much concerned with uniforms and hardware as with the lived experience of war.
Fires on the Plain offers something quite different. Shin’ya Tsukamoto presents a tubercular nightmare vision of war in all its bloody ferocity. This is an infernal internal vision. Private Tamura (Tsukamoto himself) racked with TB is a dead man walking, staggering from field hospital, where he is refused treatment, back to his unit, where he is beaten because he is too sick to forage for food. ‘If they turn you away again, kill yourself with the grenade,’ his commanding officer tells him. But some feint erotic memory keeps Tamura clinging to life and he flees into the jungle as the Americans launch another attack.
Everything we see from Tamura’s perspective is heightened with the same mad subjectivity that carved Tsukamoto’s punk body-horror Tetsuo a cult niche. The jungle is a painful emerald green, so gorgeously fecund and vital as to make it seem impossible that these men are all starving and rotting away. The enemy is an invisible power striking with God-like impunity from the skies, and even when the soldiers are drawn into battle on the ground they first unleash a God-like bright light onto proceedings, before the machine guns and bullets begin to churn up bodies once more.
Taken from Shohei Ooka’s novel Nobi – already filmed in 1959 by Kon Ichikawa – Fire on the Plains tears to shreds ideas of Japanese military honour. There is scant Bushido here. All cohesion and discipline has broken down, and madness grips the tattered remnants of the army. Isolated from his unit and ever closer to death, Tamura is pushed to the extreme, stripped of everything that makes him human, wandering the jungle looking for escape. Like John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1968), the film attains the power of fable as Tamura descend through a paradisiacal landscape into a realm of the dead, where the survivors are reduced to cannibalism, gnawing on each other like something from a Goya canvas.