378-379 Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp

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Cold Bishop
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#51 Post by Cold Bishop » Wed Nov 21, 2007 3:56 pm

Murasaki53 wrote:Incidentally, J.G. Ballard rates 'Fires On The Plain', 'Burmese Harp' and Klimov's 'Come And See' as the three greatest war films ever made, which is interesting given that he was interned by the Japanese during WW2.
Where did you find this info?

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#52 Post by Murasaki53 » Wed Nov 21, 2007 6:43 pm

It's in the Research publication J.G. Ballard Quotes

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#53 Post by HerrSchreck » Wed Nov 21, 2007 7:02 pm

I came soooooooo close to including FIRES ON THE PLAIN in my "all-time" list. It is just so fucking sublime, I go onto a fog just thinking about it.

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#54 Post by Fidelio » Wed Nov 21, 2007 9:17 pm

HerrSchreck wrote:I came soooooooo close to including FIRES ON THE PLAIN in my "all-time" list. It is just so fucking sublime, I go onto a fog just thinking about it.
And so I gather that those films on your all-time list mentioned in that other thread must put you into some state of blissful ecstacy then?

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#55 Post by HerrSchreck » Thu Nov 22, 2007 1:39 am

I dunno whu you gather. How wu I know whu you gather? Only you wouh know whuh you gather, not me.

Right?

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Re: 378-379 Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp

#56 Post by dad1153 » Thu Jul 23, 2009 9:35 pm

Finally got around to taking the DVD of "Fires on the Plain" out of the library last week. Ichikawa's portrayal of Japanese soldiers left to fend for themselves in the chaos of the Philippine war front in the final days of World War II (shot in eye-catching B&W anamorphic lenses) is undone by a poor leading man performance from Eiji Funakoshi as terminal-from-T.B. soldier Tamura. I get that Tamura's supposed to be emaciated and dying with nothing to live for besides the dignity he clings to while his fellow soldiers (Osamu Takizawa's Yasuda and Mickey Curtis' Nagamatsu) give up their humanity for tobacco and the flesh of their dead comrades. Heck, I'll even give kudos to Ichikawa for having the balls to (a) never explain who/what is behind the mysterious fires the movie's named after and (b) showing Tamura executing an innocent Filipino woman in cold blood to eliminate the martyrdom aura the character earned during the movie's first act (when he was being pushed around by his superiors). But it's all moot because Funakoshi is so miscast in the title role I didn't feel anything (empathy, sadness, repulsion, compassion... nothing!) for Tamura throughout his character's multiple physical, emotional and psychological tribulations. Great WWII movie (one of the better anti-war one's I've seen since "Letters from Iwo Jima") but Eiji Funakoshi's bland performance totally blunts what should have been the movie's devastating and memorable impact.

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Re: 378-379 Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp

#57 Post by FerdinandGriffon » Thu Jul 23, 2009 9:45 pm

I think Fukanoshi's performance is an absolute marvel. Yes it's practically one-note, but that's part of its grotesque majesty. Tamura's almost complete dehumanization, his complete and shameless degradation and animal stupidity is so relentlessly deadpan that it becomes comic and terrifying all at once. It absolutely makes the film, is absolutely essential to it's acid bleakness and also its nihilistic humor.

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Re: 378-379 Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp

#58 Post by Michael Kerpan » Thu Jul 23, 2009 11:30 pm

FerdinandGriffon wrote:I think Fukanoshi's performance is an absolute marvel. Yes it's practically one-note, but that's part of its grotesque majesty. Tamura's almost complete dehumanization, his complete and shameless degradation and animal stupidity is so relentlessly deadpan that it becomes comic and terrifying all at once. It absolutely makes the film, is absolutely essential to it's acid bleakness and also its nihilistic humor.
I concur. The lead performance here strkes me as perfectly suited to the film Ichikawa wanted to (and did) make.

Much funnier than I expected (even granting this is vintage Ichikawa).

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Re: 378-379 Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp

#59 Post by myrnaloyisdope » Sat Nov 13, 2010 11:17 am

Just watched Fires on the Plain on Remembrance Day and was thoroughly engaged. It's one of the more jarring film experiences I've had in a while. Maybe it was the fact that I watched it on Remembrance Day, but it stirred up quite a bit in me. The sequence where Tamura comes upon the Filipino couple is one of the more genuinely surprising moments I've seen in a film. I agree with all who praise Fukanoshi's performance, it's really a sight to behold. I thought Mickey Curtis was really great too. I'm really intrigued to see more Ichikawa after this one.

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#60 Post by Orlac » Sun Mar 10, 2013 2:33 pm

colinr0380 wrote:DVD Talk review
The transfer does beg one question. In its original theatrical release in Japan, The Burmese Harp was first exhibited in two parts. The Burmese Harp - Part 1 (subtitled "Nostalgia Volume") opened on January 21, 1956 with a running time of 63 minutes. Part two debuted three weeks later, on February 12th, with a running time of 81 minutes. Apparently the 116-minute cut of the film, the same one that is on Criterion's DVD, opened simultaneously in other Japanese markets. Whether this two-part version still exists, or what additional footage it might contain, is unknown.


I wonder if Part Two opened with a long reprise of the events of Part 1. This was the case when A Touch Of Zen was split into two parts, and even more so when the video Ju-On 2 came out in 2000 - in the latter case, the first half was just the end of the first Ju-on!

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Re: 378-379 Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp

#61 Post by YnEoS » Mon Sep 23, 2013 11:12 pm

Watched Fires on the Plain recently. What an absolutely immense, well constructed film. I know Donald Ritchie in the interviews mentioned that it was fairly typical for war to be depicted more brutally. Still I was pretty struck how it kind of started as war is hell and just kept falling apart from there. I was also struck at how effective it was at depicted the terrors of war without building up too much sympathy for any of the characters (except perhaps the Filipino couple in the abandoned village).

And I realize before saying this that this will be the most inadequate personal relation to a film of all time. But it kind of reminded me of when I used to go to summer camp, and the last day of camp they would split the camp in 2 teams and have a giant campwide game of capture the flag. And usually I wouldn't ever try to play and win, I would just wander around the emptier parts of camp all day and occasionally run into other who may or may not have been on the same team. So yeah, this film kind of reminded me of that experience (except I didn't experience all the starvation and cannibalism and war stuff).

I feel like when I was watching it there were a million different things I felt could be discussed in detail. But right now I'm still kind of letting the whole experience soak in and feel I'd have to re-watch it to really dig into the film in detail.

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Re: 378-379 Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp

#62 Post by Michael Kerpan » Mon Sep 23, 2013 11:29 pm

My sense is that Fires on the Plain has a lot of quite dark (and even brutal) humor. The tone here is almost the polar opposite from that in Burmese Harp.

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Re: 378-379 Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp

#63 Post by zedz » Mon Sep 23, 2013 11:49 pm

YnEoS wrote:And I realize before saying this that this will be the most inadequate personal relation to a film of all time. But it kind of reminded me of when I used to go to summer camp, and the last day of camp they would split the camp in 2 teams and have a giant campwide game of capture the flag. And usually I wouldn't ever try to play and win, I would just wander around the emptier parts of camp all day and occasionally run into other who may or may not have been on the same team. So yeah, this film kind of reminded me of that experience (except I didn't experience all the starvation and cannibalism and war stuff).
It's okay, you can tell us about the cannibalism. You're among friends here.

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Re: 378-379 Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp

#64 Post by YnEoS » Tue Sep 24, 2013 12:23 am

Michael Kerpan wrote:My sense is that Fires on the Plain has a lot of quite dark (and even brutal) humor. The tone here is almost the polar opposite from that in Burmese Harp.
Agreed on the dark humor, and I think that's part of what kind of distances you from everything that's going on (and at the same time makes it all the worse in a different way). Haven't seen the Burmese Harp yet to compare (or any Ichikawa), and after this one I can't wait to see more, but also don't want to rush through his films too quickly. Gotta let each one sink in for a while.
zedz wrote: It's okay, you can tell us about the cannibalism. You're among friends here.
There wasn't any need to resort to cannibalism, we just learned to trap some monkeys and survived off their meat.

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Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

#65 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Nov 10, 2014 6:29 am

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Re: Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

#66 Post by Drucker » Wed Nov 26, 2014 4:30 pm

Fires On The Plain defies characterization in a lot of ways, even though it's easy to paint it as an anti-war film. It's perhaps even easier to label it as a post-WWII metaphor, but as Donald Richie's interview on the disc points out, the film strikes several tones very well.

So maybe it works best as a "non-war" war film. The film's power lies in the isolation and routine of the other 95% of war. The 95% not spent being heroic, actively engaging in battle. Compare Saving Private Ryan to this. The former paints the picture of ongoing, constant battle, whereas Fires shows the desolation of not just "in-between" battles, but those soldiers who fall through the cracks. If you are a soldier, and you are injured, but you can't be taken care of...nobody wants you. And life becomes about survival in a warzone.

The effect of the film is the viewer and soldier is totally alienated from war. One of the people we meet remarks as a car drives by "that is the first time I've seen the enemy." The soldiers encounter gunfire, smoke signals, tanks, and overhead air raids, but they spend more time running from away from these things that confronting (I assume the film also takes place towards the end of a war). It's even impossible for our protagonist to surrender, as when he sees someone else do it, it ends in his murder. In this film, war is endless and there is no escape. The best they can hope for is to be taken to a POW camp. Again, war is not heroic here. This is not so much as a specific indictment of specific military functionality, as Paths of Glory and even Apocalypse Now do in points. It doesn't take much of a political position at all. It's more of a journey into the psyche of being stuck in a warzone with no escape.

Morally, the film raises interesting points as well. What does it mean to do things in isolation versus to do them in battle? To kill for "one's country" contrasts with the need to kill to survive, yet it's the latter that we paint as immoral in the film. Not only do the soldiers seek to run from their enemy to survive, they barely know who their enemy is. When they don't know who to fight and what to fight for, it's only natural the only instinct they are left with is to survive. The film's great success is that it doesn't judge anybody, be they cannibal or deserter, for that instinct.

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Re: Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

#67 Post by swo17 » Sat Nov 29, 2014 8:59 pm

I'm impressed you were able to make it through almost that whole write-up without mentioning cannibalism! Speaking of which...which is worse in the film--the act of war or the descent into cannibalism? Or are the two metaphorically equivalent? And if so, is this a fair metaphor or a cheap one? And does the exploration of cannibalism do anything to illuminate the horrors of war beyond the initial "woah, this is messed up" reaction that it elicits?

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Re: Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

#68 Post by Mr Sausage » Tue Dec 02, 2014 9:20 pm

Drucker wrote:Fires On The Plain defies characterization in a lot of ways, even though it's easy to paint it as an anti-war film. It's perhaps even easier to label it as a post-WWII metaphor, but as Donald Richie's interview on the disc points out, the film strikes several tones very well.
On a structural level, it's picaresque. There is no unified narrative; it's a loosely connected series of adventures involving various characters and situations. The protagonist simply walks between situations that illustrate variations on the same themes. This is possible because the movie removes the protagonist from the factions or identities operating in his world and places him on the outside, at the limits of it: he is refused by both his company and the hospital and therefore denied any coherent space as a soldier. He belongs nowhere. He is commended to death by his commander, but as a suicide rather than a casualty.

His sickness, tho' identified as tuberculosis, is a non-issue for the character as a character since it doesn't affect him in any specific way physically or spiritually. The specific diagnosis hardly matters; it may as well be anything. Its purpose is to maneuver him into the margins where he can experience and bear witness without being held to any allegiance or purpose that could limit his wanderings. He can join, leave, and rejoin groups of men as he chooses, an ability none of the others seem to possess (every group of men he runs into stays joined to each other throughout the narrative; they always refuse or deny the ability to part from one another). He is continually gifted with food by the narrative to keep him going and allow him to bargain his way into groups (he's gifted yams in the beginning, food from a villager, salt in the abandoned village, yams from a yam field) until the movie robs him of the ability to eat in order to spare him from cannibalism. To remain a free-floating witness, he cannot fully join any group, including cannibals.

In many ways, he is already out of the world. He tells us he chooses death, yet he continues on. This is an act of delay on the narrative's part. He is dead; he just stays around in order to witness the final degradation of everything. When he desires to see, finally, some glimpse of warmth and humanity (or at least some social structure), he is released from the narrative and back to death, his purpose over. We never see him outright shot in that final barrage. He just collapses. It hardly matters exactly what happened: he has borne witness long enough and is returned to the death that was his from the beginning.

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Re: Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

#69 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Dec 03, 2014 4:48 pm

I was surprised at the high level of (very) black humor in this film. In this respect, it is a more typical film for Ichikawa during this period of his career than Burmese Harp. Didn't think of this being "picaresque" -- but that sounds like a good way to look at this.

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Re: Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

#70 Post by Mr Sausage » Wed Dec 03, 2014 10:09 pm

Michael Kerpan wrote:I was surprised at the high level of (very) black humor in this film. In this respect, it is a more typical film for Ichikawa during this period of his career than Burmese Harp.
Agreed. The sequence with the abandoned pair of boots comes to mind. It would almost a bit out of silent comedy if its implications weren't so grim. Some moments teeter on the edge of farce, like the Japanese soldier bounding down the road in surrender only to get gunned down by this cheery-faced Phillipino woman who starts screaming and shooting everywhere (to the almost chagrin of an American soldier).

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Re: Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

#71 Post by Drucker » Wed Dec 03, 2014 10:44 pm

The shifting moods in the film are certainly a strength, and you're right about its episodic nature. However, I didn't think about the notion of death with the character so much as nothingness. I hope that's not too arbitrary of a distinction, but Sausage, you say "He's out of this world," but I saw it as being so deep into the world as to be lost. That there is so much going on in the world...that the actual events of the world alienate its citizens. Once deemed useless by a society, this man becomes lost and abandoned in it.

There must be a parallel between the way a cannibal uses up a human life and then tosses it when it's got nothing left to offer...and the way society uses up this soldier. I meant to raise that point before, but I guess I didn't. I don't think he chooses death, so much as he is lured, much the way the victims of the cannibals are lured, through deception. Swo, I guess this gets to your question a bit. Regarding the "horrors" of war...this film only takes place in the middle of war (possibly ending, since there seems to be surrendering?) But we never get the onset or the conclusion. There's so little direction as if to be disorienting. That when we end up back with the cigarette merchant, we are confused to be back where we started. There is no escape and how did we get here in the first place?

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Re: Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

#72 Post by Mr Sausage » Thu Dec 04, 2014 8:11 pm

Drucker wrote:but Sausage, you say "He's out of this world," but I saw it as being so deep into the world as to be lost.
I guess it's up for debate, but I saw his in-between status as a way of pulling him out of the narrative enough to be an observer/narrator. There is a certain distance required for that role in a narrative, and indeed he isn't as deep into the degradation as some (eg. the cannibals). I probably over-stated it, tho', since he does engage in some more troubling acts (shooting the village girl). But I did take his being cast out of all social roles in the opening and left as an aimless wanderer as crucial.

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Re: Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

#73 Post by Michael Kerpan » Thu Dec 04, 2014 9:38 pm

> But I did take his being cast out of all social roles in the opening and left as an aimless wanderer as crucial.

Sort of like a dark inverted version of the protagonist of The Burmese Harp....

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Re: Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

#74 Post by jindianajonz » Sat Dec 06, 2014 3:11 pm

Drucker wrote:So maybe it works best as a "non-war" war film. The film's power lies in the isolation and routine of the other 95% of war. The 95% not spent being heroic, actively engaging in battle. Compare Saving Private Ryan to this. The former paints the picture of ongoing, constant battle, whereas Fires shows the desolation of not just "in-between" battles, but those soldiers who fall through the cracks.
While I agree that this film spent less time in battle than most conventional war films, I think the time between fighting is present in those films as well. The difference is that while in a "Band of Brothers" type of film the time in between is spent building camaraderie and developing into a cohesive unit, in Fires on the Plain the soldiers only drift further apart. Both times we encounter what appears to be a functional unit of soldiers, we later learn that they are at the brink of dissolution- the squad who accompanies Tamura in exchange for salt turn out to secretly resent their greedy squad leader, and the tobacco-dealing relationship between Yasuda and Nagamatsu is shown to only be able to exist because Yasuda doesn't have the means to kill Nagamatsu.

I agree that this film shows an "other side" of war, but not the other side of war you state. Instead, this film shows the experience of losing a war. Typically when films show defeat, it is framed in either nationalistically in a rallying, "remember the Alamo" type of way, or it takes the dovish stance that the costs of war are usually to high to justify the fight. Ichikawa avoids both of these views, and instead produces a film that depicts how much it sucks to lose a war without really making a judgement on the war itself. The film takes place on Leyte in February, 1945. The allies cut off the Japanese ability to resupply Leyte in December 1944, but fighting continued for another 4 months beyond this point, so what we are seeing is the fallout of a starving Army collapsing on itself, letting its soldiers drift to the wind without any kind of support system. Because the circumstances for this film are so particular, I have a hard time seeing it as a message about war in general. Instead, this film is an examination of what happens when your world collapses around you. In this sense, it is more of a post-apocalyptic film than a war film, and I think the meandering nature of the narrative suits this theme well- any goal or endpoint that Tamura had in this war crumbled away with the army itself, and Tamura is left to aimless meandering on this hellhole. People have touched on the black humor of this film without mentioning the biggest joke of all- although the officers order for Tamura to commit suicide seemed almost inhumanly coldhearted at the beginning of the film, the rest of the film proved that it was probably the most humane thing that could have happened for Tamura.

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