Monday, June 29, 2009


Japan's World War II movies are equivalent to America's Vietnam movies. Military defeat provokes a lot of soul-searching and self-recrimination, and probably some defensive rationalization or justification as well. Not surprisingly, the rest of the world sees the movies in which Japanese writers and directors say that the war sucked. Kon Ichikawa's film, based on a controversial novel by Shohei Ooka and adapted by Ichikawa's wife, says that the war really sucked toward the end, and does an effective job illustrating that point.

Early in 1945, the Japanese still occupied parts of the Philippines, but their situation was deteriorating fast. Rations and other resources were dwindling away. This is bad news for PFC Tamura. Though diagnosed with tuberculosis, he's been booted from a military hospital because he can still walk and able-bodied grunts shouldn't be using up the hospital's scanty provisions. This doesn't seem to bug Tamura much until he reaches his unit. They don't want him either, mainly because he's an extra mouth to feed. Back to the hospital he goes, but they still don't want him. He's stuck hanging around outside with other rejects, including the team of Yasuda and his apparent flunky Nagamatsu. These guys are down to their last yams, but Tamura has some extra goodies he took from a Filipino farmer on his way over. When the Americans start shelling the area, the officers get away, Tamura and some of the rejects manage to get away (though he loses track of Yasuda and Nagamatsu) and most of the sickest people get blown to hell.

Eiji Funakoshi as PFC Tamura in Fires on the Plain.

Tamura is on his own for an odyssey that takes him through abandoned villages for various adventures. In a great shock moment, he's attacked from behind by a feral dog as the camera follows him through a village. He has to kill the beast with a bayonet, and while Ichikawa isn't going to give you a real money shot of impaled dog, scenes of monochromatic blood spattering the ground and Tamura's face put the point across quite well.

As he trudges on toward a rendezvous point, Tamura starts to lose his bearings. In a coastal village he encounters a young couple who've returned to recover some hoarded salt. When the girl screams in panic, he lowers his weapon to assure them of his peaceful intentions. In the next moment, on an inexplicable impulse he shoots her in the chest. The man runs away, leaving Tamura to grab the salt, which will serve him well later when he runs into three stray soldiers commanded by a would-be badass who tries to tell him that this is all nothing compared to New Guinea, where they had to resort to cannibalism. He has to be kidding, right?

On the road, Tamura catches up with Yasuda and Nagamatsu. Yasuda's still suffering from an injured, swollen leg, so he has Nagamatsu hawk tobacco leaves to passing officers. Yasuda keeps these leaves wrapped around his chest for security and, perhaps, added pungency. When Nagamatsu presents his wares to an officer, the superior slaps him in the face and tells him to stop malingering. Yasuda chides his sidekick: get the money before you show them the leaf next time!

To reach their rendezvous point, the Japanese have to cross a road and stream under heavy enemy fire. Many don't make it, and Tamura finds himself pretty much on his own again, wandering through a hellscape of corpses and wreckage. Along the way there's a brilliant sequence involving boots on a muddy road. There sits a reasonably intact pair of boots that someone's abandoned. A soldier finds them and shucks off his ragged pair to walk off with them. Another soldier decides that that pair can replace his practically sole-less boots, which he leaves behind in the same spot. Finally Tamura comes along, sees little to choose from between those and his, and decides to go on barefoot through the mud.

Eventually Tamura finds Nagamatsu again. It's vice versa, actually, as Nagamatsu finds him collapsed in the wide open. He tries to revive Tamura with a piece of meat he fishes from his bag, but Tamura's gums have rotted to the point where he can't chew properly. He has to spit it up, and Nagamatsu puts it back in the bag. What was that stuff, anyway? Monkey meat, Nagamatsu explains.

"Monkey meat." Uh-oh. Kinji Fukasaku's Under the Flag of the Rising Sun taught me what "monkey meat" means, and it ain't monkey. Worse, Nagamatsu hunts "monkeys" to keep himself and Yasuda in an approximation of health. But he and his pal aren't getting along the way they used to. In fact, Nagamatsu is convinced that Yasuda, crippled leg and all, is out to kill him and eat him. Taking Tamura in his confidence, he makes plans to win that battle when it comes. When it does, Nagamatsu marks his triumph in a hair-raising scene that again shows what Ichikawa can do with suggestion. You don't need to see the man tuck into Yasuda Italian-style, but a splash of blood on the ground and the blood-spattered, blood-drooling visage of the crazed soldier tells us and Tamura all we need to know, and probably a little more. The only questions left are whether Tamura can avoid becoming monkey meat himself and whether he has any chance of reaching civilization of any kind again....

Mickey Curtis as Nagamatsu deserves mention alongside the many notable cinema psychos and terrors who strode across movie screens in the 1959-60 period.

Making Nobi in black and white allows Ichikawa and his cinematographers to make a film that's beautiful in its barbarism. Like many Japanese directors, Ichikawa took to widescreen like a duck to water, and the film is spectacular to look at if you can stand the horrors-of-war imagery. Eiji Funakoshi (whom some may recognize from the first Gamera movie) effectively conveys Tamura's blasted consciousness beneath a facade of mannered stoicism, but is often a straight man for the more extreme ravings of Mickey Curtis (don't let the name fool you, though he speaks fluent English in an interview for the Criterion Collection) as Nagamatsu and Osamu Takizawa as Yasuda. Curtis is especially freakish as a character who evolves from a sort of flunky of Yasuda's to a full-throttle psychopath. This may be a black-and-white war movie, but it has many of the qualities of horror or more extreme cinema, and all rendered with a clear artistic touch. I don't know if I can say that American Vietnam cinema ever touched the depths the way this film does, but the Japanese in WW2 had it worse than our boys did in 'Nam. In any event, anyone who digs 'Nam movies in particular (and war movies in general) will find a lot to admire here.

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