Fires On the Plain (1959)

Fires On the Plain (1959)

“I was told to die, and I intend to.”

A tuberculosis-ridden Japanese soldier (Eiji Funakoshi) rejected by both his platoon and the local hospital wanders the desolate plains of the Philippines near the end of World War II, attempting to survive.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cannibalism
  • Japanese Films
  • Kon Ichikawa Films
  • Soldiers
  • Survival
  • World War Two

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, this “shocking vision of war by Kon Ichikawa, adapted by his wife, Natto Wada, from Shohei Ooka’s novel,” is a “unique, unforgettable anti-war film,” focused on the “defeated, retreating Japanese” soldiers “scattered about” the island of Leyte (in the Philippines) who are “awaiting death from starvation, disease, the Americans, or Filipino guerillas who are lighting signal fires off in the wilderness.”

We follow the simple yet horrifying tale of a soldier (Funakoshi) who “wanders deliriously around the island, willing to kill for food, encountering depravity and madness everywhere he goes.”

As Peary writes, “The island becomes a graveyard, with the corpses of the invaders rotting in the mud” and “the survivors hav[ing] become ghouls, cannibalizing their fellow soldiers”: yet “our soldier is a lost soul — his rotting teeth prevent him from eating human meat, his tubercular condition prevents others from eating his flesh, so his misery will not end.”

Yes, this film is exactly as bleak as it sounds, with no reprieve other than glimpses of Funakoshi’s enduring humanity, and the beauty of cinematographer Setsuo Kobayahi’s landscapes.

Alongside Ichikawa’s earlier, more hopeful anti-war film Harp of Burma (1956), this film remains essential if brutal one-time viewing.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Eiji Funakoshi as Tamura
  • Setsuo Kobayashi’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a horrifying yet essential entry in Japanese cinema.


  • Foreign Gem


3 thoughts on “Fires On the Plain (1959)

  1. First viewing (2/15/22). A once-must, for its place in Japanese cinema.

    Normally, I don’t struggle much (if at all) when I’m thinking of whether or not something is ‘must-see’. I usually just follow my gut reaction. But I struggled a little with this Ichikawa film in that regard.

    Ultimately, I think it’s worthy of a once-must experience, even though it is *definitely* not an easy watch. Ichikawa said he made the film as a response to personally witnessing bombings in Japan and desiring to make an anti-war statement.

    The statement he makes is one of the very bleakest films of its type. And it seems to become harder to watch as it goes along – building to something very like a horror film in its final moments (esp.).

    When it comes to Japanese directors, Ichikawa is perhaps not as well-known as Kurosawa, or Ozu, etc. Certainly ffs should be aware of his work; my own recommendation would be ‘Kokoro’ (1955); a standout among his films (and one which Peary definitely overlooked).

  2. I am curious about your struggle with voting this “must-see”… It’s so incredibly powerful, and while I agree it’s not one I would want to revisit (I only did so after many years for the purposes of reviewing on this site) I do think it should be seen by film fanatics, as part of a duo with “Harp of Burma”.

  3. I think my response states the reason. Besides, even if I do concede a ‘must-see’, I think the percentage of film fanatics who will sit through it is not particularly high. (But, again, that’s not to say it’s a bad film.)

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