Directed by Kon Ichikawa (variously pronounced). Starring… yeah, right, like you’d know.
This is an old flick (1959 or so) but just now out on video and a worthy watch (to borrow the current usage by which a book is a good “read”). It’s made by the same guy who did The Burmese Harp (which see, by the bye), about a Japanese infantryman shuffling through, well… Burma (which is now Kampuchea or Burkina Faso or Botswana, depending on what you can’t pronounce, at any rate the [Two] Third[s] World cesspool currently butchering its mountain tribes… Oh. Oh. They all are? Well…) disguised as a bonze (which is, like, a priest except not) and registering for us the face of war and desolation. Message (in case you miss it, you dummy): “War is bad” …so bad, in fact, that it doesn’t matter who starts one or why or how it’s executed or toward what end or against whom on account of there’s no Right or Wrong and the Japanese soldier with the baby skewered on his bayonet in the ruins of Nanking and the Marine sharing his K’s with the little girl on Saipan rate the same in the Grand Scheme of Things. Hug me. Write that down, will you? ‘Cause I’m getting the flock tired of having it poked up my nose in war flicks and maybe we can turn some movies where the guys who do not bayonet babies wind up better than the guys who do. A thought. Harp has long been a staple of movie festivals and, like, sensitive war-is-bad art film groupies; Fires is less well known. Like Letters from Iwo Jima, it’s apparently based on first-hand accounts and, like Letters, owes its scenario to a fee-male scriptwriter: a woman’s view of what a man sees, for what that’s worth.
What that’s worth is this: the bleak itinerary of a Japanese soldier, Tamura, cut off from his buds and starving, weaponless for most of the action and lost (spiritually as well as actually, in case you missed it, you dummy… Whap! Sorry I had to do that, but you had the look again… soon’s I said “art film”) who stumbles across the derelict-and-cadaver-strewn battlefield of one of the Philippine islands in search of… what? …salvation? …redemption? …absolution? …vindication? …finition? …a monkey to chew on? Not sure any of those concepts as us dumb gringos comprehend them mean anything in the theology of the protagonist(s) here (well, maybe the monkey…). Curiously, to the extent that we can’t identify them, we’re spared the kind of pontification and pseudo-catechisto-have-a-nice-o-religitude Hollywood would surely have dollopped out under such circumstances. Tamura simply records (often wordlessly) yet mercifully does not interpret humiliation, abasement, brutification, episode after absurd, smoke-swaddled episode until those sunken eyes (and ours) glaze over. As in Clint’s flick about the Japanese soldier, we see the Yankee as a faceless cipher (if at all) and the Nippon most often leached of life force, again and again slumped against a tree (what else you gonna slump against, anyhow?) waiting to die: one expiring soldier offers himself to the hallucinating Tamura as food (soon’s he dies), proffering his arm as perhaps the prime cut.
Tamura (to the extent he reveals any emotion at all) has not the courage to kill himself with the single grenade he carries with him in his musette (along with some sorry-looking turnips, which even a starving Japanese soldier won’t eat, God bless him, a moral blow for all of us who can’t abide turnips…nor parsnips… nor beets) nor to eat the flesh of his fellow soldiers. He bumbles into a series of encounters with deserters, survivors, holdouts, hardliners, the eviscerated remnants of the Imperial Army, now at loss as to how best face defeat: by lashing out pointlessly at the enemy, by stoical and ritual self-destruction, by aimlessly ricocheting from node to node in this sunless, joyless world of death and shame, by receding into the jungle to wait out the victors and return to the (doomed) fight. Remember that some of these squirrels were still in the woods with an Arisaka and 5 rounds wrapped up in a bandana 30 years after the war ended. Happily (for us), we get the aimless ricocheting, the which allows us to scan the whole perimeter of moral collapse, of military debacle. These isolated Japanese soldiers shoot monkeys, shoot Filipinos, shoot in the end each other, as their bodies along with their values decay in the jungle rot and heat… among the “fires on the plain,” so to speak. War is bad. Fires is good.