TIFF 2014: Fires on the Plain
Shinya Tsukamoto tackles Shohei Ooka’s 1951 novel in Fires on the Plain, a graphic, borderline-exploitative take on the classic anti-war book. Tsukamoto, the extreme Japanese director responsible for Tetsuo: The Iron Man, casts himself as a soldier suffering from tuberculosis in the Philippine jungle. His company kicks him out, finding him useless due to his illness. The nearby hospital also won’t have him, so he wanders through the jungle, enduring its brutal conditions and hoping to make it out alive.
Tsukamoto knows how to make a truly visceral viewing experience (see the vastly underrated Kotoko, for example), so working on a film meant to highlight the horrors of war sounds like a perfect match. And while Fires on the Plain piles on the gore, decomposing bodies, and even cannibalism, the grotesqueness feel more like B-movie nastiness than something gritty and real. Tsukamoto also plays his role as a blank slate more or less, a significant problem when the film is telling a personal and highly subjective story. The final result is something awkward and dull, an anti-war film that never hits its intended mark, but at least Tsukamoto tries his damndest to succeed. It’s best to stick to Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 take on the source material rather than put any hope in this clumsy misfire.