FIRES ON THE PLAIN (NOBI) (Kon Ichikawa, 1959)
333 East 47th St. at First Ave.
Friday, December 10, $12, 7:30
Series runs through December 12
Kon Ichikawa’s FIRES ON THE PLAIN is one of the most searing, devastating war movies ever made. Loosely based on Shohei Ooka’s 1952 novel and adapted by Ichikawa’s wife, screenwriter Natto Wada, the controversial film stars Eiji Funakoshi as the sad sack Tamura, a somewhat pathetic tubercular soldier on the island of Leyte in the Philippines at the tail end of World War II. After being released from a military hospital, he returns to his platoon, only to be ordered to go back to the hospital so as not to infect the other men. He is also given a grenade and ordered to blow himself up if the hospital refuses him, which it does. But instead of killing himself, Tamura wanders the vast, empty spaces and dense forests, becoming involved in a series of vignettes that range from darkly comic to utterly horrifying. He encounters a romantic Filipino couple hiding salt under their floorboards, a quartet of soldiers stuffed with yams trying to make it alive to a supposed evacuation zone, and a strange duo selling tobacco and eating “monkey” meat. As Tamura grows weaker and weaker, he considers surrendering to U.S. troops, but even that is not a guarantee of safety, as the farther he travels, the more dead bodies he sees. FIRES ON THE PLAIN is a blistering attack on the nature of war and what it does to men, but amid all the bleakness and violence, tiny bits of humanity try desperately to seep through against all the odds. And the odds are not very good.
FIRES ON THE PLAIN begins Japan Society’s weekend-long Shadows of the Rising Sun: Cinema and Empire series, comprising a quartet of Chinese and Japanese films that examine Japan’s futile attempts at creating an empire through war. The impressive lineup includes the New York premiere of Koji Wakamatsu’s CATERPILLAR, being screened on Saturday night at 7:00; Jiang Wen’s 2000 Cannes Grand Prize winner, DEVILS ON THE DOORSTEP, scheduled for Sunday at 4:00; and Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 WWII drama MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE, starring David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tom Conti, and Takeshi Kitano, on Sunday at 7:00. FIRES ON THE PLAIN is also part of Japan Society’s Zen & Its Opposite: Essential (& Turbulent) Japanese Art House festival of monthly classics, which continues January 11 with Nobuo Nakagawa’s HELL and February 18 with Kihachi Okamoto’s SWORD OF DOOM.