Hollywood survival movies are all about the perversely macho joys of suffering. Whether it's Tom Hanks growing a ZZ Top beard and spearing fish in Cast Away or the latent S&M fantasies of America's most devout blood-letter, Mel Gibson, surviving in the movies is a glorious show of strength, conviction, purity and independence. At the multiplex, what doesn't kill you really does make you stronger.
In Japanese director Kon Ichikawa's 1959 classic Fires on the Plain, however, survival is a curse, the ultimate purgatory. Charting the long, uncertain journey of a rogue World War II soldier from a decimated platoon as he wanders across a Philippine island, the movie is like a sustained howl; there's nothing thrilling about wasting away. Ichikawa traffics in delirious contrasts: utter tedium and frantic action, broad comedy and the most intense suffering, the absurdity of staying alive and the inevitability of dying. It might take some time to get into the austere, deliberate rhythms of the first hour of the film, but once you do, the horrors of the latter half become all the more indelible.
Fires opens with a slap in the face, and only when the movie's over do you realize that slap is intended as much for the audience as it is for the main character, the dumbfounded soldier Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi). Turned away from both his troop and a makeshift hospital because he has tuberculosis severe enough to be contagious but not enough to warrant precious medicine he wanders the countryside, foraging for food, encountering natives both mercenary and innocuous, and falling into and out of other Japanese platoons. What comedy there is comes from pitch-black irony: He survives the American attacks on the Japanese only because no one group wants him.
Unlike other anti-war films, nothing seems preordained or inevitable. Tamura's long crawl toward death is full of strange glimmers of hope that cut through the dread; Ichikawa gives the tedium and solitude a surreal, hallucinogenic undercurrent. When another dying soldier tells Tamura, "When I'm dead, you can eat this," and holds his arm up to the sun, the director holds on the image until it becomes a grim kind of poetry. Tamura falls into another sickly troop of soldiers who stagger around in zombie formation: When an American plane flies overhead, they can barely muster the strength to dive for cover. The planes pass, the machine-gun fire stops, and exactly half of the soldiers get up and keep walking. Life during wartime, it seems, is little more than a burden.
American combat movies wouldn't even approach this kind of emotional sophistication for another 20 years, when The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now shook up audiences still reeling from Vietnam. Certainly Fires is more graphic than anything coming out of Hollywood in the late-'50s, when the industry was still years away abandoning its repressive production code. But more shocking than the violence is the utter lack of heroics, the idea that all of Tamura's efforts are completely futile. For those of us who've been fed a steady diet of mythic, "triumph over adversity" tales, Fires will come as a slap in the face.
In Japanese with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 26. 313-833-3237.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.