It's a bleak, horrific film about Japanese soldiers in the Philippines at the end of World War Two.
It's by Kon Ichikawa, whose other famous war film is The Burmese Harp (which he made twice), but it's a bit different to ordinary anti-war films. It's not emotional. It's not tugging on your heart strings. It's not interested in the political arguments of any side, or why people go to war in the first place. It's not giving any kind of perspective of Japan's occupation of the Philippines. Instead it's focused entirely on two things: (a) staying alive, and (b) testing the limits of man's moral degradation.
That it most certainly does. It appalled many critics at the time, both Western and Japanese. Here's a quote. "Never have I seen a more grisly and physically repulsive film than 'Fires on the Plain.' So purposefully putrid is it, so full of degradation and death... that I doubt if anyone can sit through it without becoming a little bit ill... That's how horrible it is." Its main character (Eiji Funakoshi) drifts from one ghastly event to the next, many of which are so unspeakable that the film approaches black farce, like Catch 22. You won't be in any kind of mood to laugh, but there's clearly a morbid sense of humour in scenes like the shoe-stealing and the apparent corpse who looks up from his puddle. Things that happen in this film include:
(a) Funakoshi being chewed out for having the temerity to be discharged from hospital and being ordered back there immediately. His unit can't look after him. They've got no food and they're reduced to digging air raid shelters with no shovels and indeed no air raids. If the hospital won't take him, he's to commit suicide. (They don't take him.)
(b) Zombie movie scenes, except that they're not zombies. They're Japanese soldiers who are starving to death, or worse.
(c) Our hero being evil to Filipinos, e.g. one offers him some food, but Funakoshi overturns the cooking pot and runs away. He also kills an unarmed woman who wasn't moving or doing anything at all, except scream.
(d) Eating grass and leeches until your gums rot and your teeth fall out.
(e) A man eating his own guts. That's what it looked like, anyway.
It starts bad and never stops getting worse. Every soldier is a monster, including our hero. The moral degeneration is matched by a physical one, as Funakoshi's tuberculosis-ridden body wastes away and, in places, rots. You'd say his soul was doing the same, except that oddly enough it isn't. On the contrary, he eventually finds his limits and discovers something so appalling that even he recoils and takes something that could be interpreted as a moral stand.
Interestingly, though, Ichikawa and his wife/scriptwriter Natto Wada have stripped out something significant from the original novel they were adapting. The book's protagonist is a Japanese Christian. Ichikawa's having none of that. There's no reference to Christian morality here and the ending's different. That's another way in which this film's stripping itself to the bone, simply casting its characters adrift in horror with no reference points. A superior officer is simply someone who can steal your tobacco and give you nothing in return. Idealism and patriotism aren't even being mocked, but instead simply don't exist. Is Japan winning the war? No one even thinks to ask. What they should be doing next is at best a rumour, drifting like Chinese whispers. There's talk of surrender and no one seems to have a moral problem with it, although there's discussion of whether or not the Americans kill POWs.
This is powerful enough that the film survives a highly selective view of the Philippines under the Japanese. Let's give some facts here. It's guessed that the Japanese killed at least 5% of the Filipino population. Prisoners of war were made to march 105 kilometers on the infamous "Bataan Death March". General Yamashita got executed as a war criminal for the rape, torture and killing of men, women and children by the soldiers under his command. 100,000 deaths were counted in Manila alone. Organised sex slavery on a massive scale was routine, although in fairness the Philippines wasn't one of the countries where the Japanese army went in for organised cannibalism. (That was in New Guinea.)
Ichikawa's film refers to none of this, although one does notice the scene where a Japanese soldier is trying to surrender to an American. He gets gunned down by a Filipino who's also present. This is, to put it mildly, a significant omission... but as I said, the film survives this. It's so nihilistic and appalling that only a lunatic could accuse Ichikawa of glorifying war or Japan's involvement. On the contrary, it's a lacerating all-out attack. It's just that it's about Japanese soldiers in the dying days, when everything's fallen apart and no one's got any time for anything except the hopeless struggle to stay alive. To bring Japan's war crimes into the picture, you'd need to make a completely different movie.
I had one last "bloody hell" at the end, but I don't know whether or not it's deliberate. Look at that date. Think back over what you've seen. Either laugh or cry, because no other response is conceivable. It makes sense of certain earlier details... but unfortunately I wasn't paying enough attention to the Japanese text to know if that subtitle was a mistake on the part of my English-language subtitles or not. I'm not sure how well it would hold up historically. However if it's correct and deliberate, it's brilliant. (For all I know, I had a bad copy and everyone else's film has a better translation, though.)
It's a distancing film. Its characters are losing their humanity, each in their own different ways, and Ichikawa has no interest in trying to make us care about them. No one has any morals, ethics or higher feelings, except in what they discover for themselves in extremis. You might as well ask a beetle what it thinks of nuclear physics. However it's compelling, award-winning and Japan's official Oscar submission that year for Best Foreign Language Film. I swear it also has zombies.
"Kill yourself only if you have to."