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FIRES ON THE PLAIN (NOBI) (director: Kon Ichikawa; screenwriters: from the novel Nobi by Shohei Ooka/Natto Wada; cinematographers: Setsuo Kobayashi/Setsuo Shibata; editor: Tatsuji Nakashizu; music: Yasushi Akutagawa; cast: Eiji Funakoshi (Tamura), Osamu Takizawa (Yasuda), Mickey Curtis (Nagamatsu), Mantaro Ushio (Sergeant), Kyu Sazanaka (Army surgeon); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Masaichi Nagata; The Criterion Collection; 1959-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitle)
“A searing anti-war film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Kon Ichikawa’s (“The Makioka Sisters”/”47 Ronin”/”Tokyo Olympiad”) high concept grim adaptation of Shohei Ooka’s 1951 novel Nobi, takes place in the Philippines at the end of World War II. It’s a searing anti-war film that’s based on the war experiences of Ooka and is written by Natto Wada. The author observes that when it was certain the Japanese war effort is in vain, there’s a breakdown in discipline, human dignity falters and honor gets tossed aside.

Tubercular soldier Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) is told by his squad leader that there’s no place for him in the retreating unit. It’s a unit that’s starving and can’t afford to carry on its back someone who can’t help them. The private is ordered to return to the overcrowded hospital and is further told if they don’t accept him he should blow himself up with his hand-grenade.

The sick soldier is rejected by the hospital and wanders the jungle searching for food and also becomes demoralized with despair while trying to avoid the advancing Americans. While hiding in the jungle the private encounters other stragglers, much starvation, disease, death and Japanese soldiers turned into cannibals. When he tries to surrender to the Americans at one of the fires on the plain (the result of villagers burning corn husks after the harvest, as is their custom), he gets caught in the gunfire between the Americans and the peasant farmers and is killed.

This sparse dialogue, superbly shot in black-and-white, bleak war tale makes for a solid companion piece to Ichikawa’s other great anti-war film, the 1956 “The Burmese Harp.” It reminds one of John Huston’s “Red Badge of Courage”(1951).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”