One of Japan’s most visionary avant garde directorial talents, Shinya Tsukamoto and his landmark 1989 work Tetsuo, The Iron Man have gone down in history as firm cult favourites - garnering a considerable fan following internationally as well as ensuring his name remains a perennial in any literature discussing either contemporary Japanese cinema or the cyberpunk movement. Tsukamoto is renowned for acting in nearly all his own films, and his latest effort Fires on the Plain is no exception, where he takes on the lead role of lowly Japanese soldier Tamura, leading us deeper and deeper into his own personal vision of hell. The stage is the final movements of WW2, deep in the sweltering jungles of the Philippines, as the Japanese army makes its final stand - losing ground to both local guerillas and the Americans. Those Japanese that remain face a desperate struggle to remain alive, and perhaps more importantly, remain ‘human’. Based on the 1951 novel Nobi by author Ooka Shohei, and previously adapted for cinema in 1959 by the legendary Kon Ichikawa, Fires on the Plain is evidently mining rich source material, and as a statement on the brutality of war, this updated take comes as a particularly timely reminder.
In many ways, it is the jungle itself that remains the most vividly depicted character of the piece; ever-present, humidly oppressive and hiding a panoply of dangers behind every tree. But for all that it proves to be a horrifically dangerous place, it is also jaw-droppingly beautiful. There is some absolutely stunning colour work at play here that'll feel like it's breathed new life into your HD telly, with the colours literally popping from the screen on numerous occasions. That said, those unused to low budget contemporary Japanese filmmaking may initially be shocked by the raw, handheld digi-cam feel to the footage that, to untrained eyes, can sometimes look and feel like something out of a daytime TV soap. Coupled with a number of scenes that take the shaky, visceral nature of the footage to extremes, the film plays out like a surreal fever dream - a riot of colour, violence and descent into depravity.
It is into this whirlwind of stimuli that we, as viewers, are thrown - expect little guidance, and even less hand-holding. This isn’t so much a film that is ‘viewed’, as it is ‘lived’. The camera remains almost claustrophobically close to its characters throughout, really putting us right in their shoes - and while this uncompromising, minimalist approach can make the film’s early scenes difficult to orient yourself with, the more you watch the more you are sucked in to Tamura’s increasing anguish. This is a film that gets under your skin, that makes you feel every spec of dirt and grime plastered across the faces of its luckless soldiers.
In this light, the film fits into a strong lineage of jungle-based military thrillers that see the scenery itself pitched against man's deepest psychological weaknesses - a painterly vision obsessed with the true horrors of war, as well as the decomposition and coming apart of both mind and body that inevitably comes with it. It goes without saying, but Fires on the Plain is gloriously violent - and those that like Tsukamoto’s movies simply for their body-horror feel will certainly not be disappointed either. Midway through the film we are ‘treated’ to a nightmarish scene of soldiers being gunned down en-masse. Blood flows. Limbs are severed. Flesh peels. Intestines flop. If you thought the opening to Saving Private Ryan was gory, just wait until you’ve watched this. Later on, the film seems to be daring itself to go even further, as it delves into stomach-churning scenes of cannibalism. When the ending does finally come, it is almost muted in comparison. Clocking in at around an hour and a half in total, Fires on the Plain is the very definition of a short, sharp shock.
And yet, for all its horrific brutality, there is an undercurrent of deliciously black humour running throughout the film. As Tamura and his fellow soldiers descend even further into darkness, the cracked-out, dreamlike quality of the film becomes almost so bizarre that instead of averting our eyes at the horror, we end up laughing in its face instead. In its best moments, it’s almost as if the film has morphed into some kind of bleak, Japanese take on Blackadder Goes Forth. A memorable scene late-on sees Tamura hit by a grenade, burning and peeling the flesh from his back. Dazed by the blast, and wracked by hunger (as is he for much of the film) Tamura reaches behind him, pulls off one of the singed lumps of meat from his own body and pops it into his mouth.
Scenes like this are emblematic of the film’s approach - stuff that sticks in your mind long after the end credits have rolled. Vignettes of eye-popping cruelty swirling around and mixing in a concoction that remains as unpredictable as it is richly flavoured. The narrative glue holding it all together might not be quite as clear as it could have been, but the sheer impact - when it hits - does a lot mask this. Taken as a whole though, the film's relative inaccessibility makes it difficult to wholeheartedly recommend to anyone but hardcore aficionados of indie filmmaking or alternative Japanese cinema. But for those that can handle it though, this is a haunting experience that revels in its anti-mainstream nature to the very end.