Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp depicted a ragtag company of weary Japanese soldiers who keep their weary spirits alive amid harrowing circumstances by singing “There’s No Place Like Home” and other songs in complex harmonies. Whatever spark of hope or humanity was expressed and nourished by that simple act of aesthetic resistance has long since been ground out of the even more desperate and hopeless soldiers in Ichikawa’s later film, Fires on the Plain.
If The Burmese Harp treats spiritual survival, Fires on the Plain is a grueling examination of men reduced to bare physical survival — at any cost. It’s a haunting study in dehumanization, the dark flip side of The Burmese Harp’s positive affirmation of human values.
Like Clint Eastwood’s recent Letters from Iwo Jima, Ichikawa’s two Pacific war films offer a side of the Japanese experience strikingly at odds with the familiar Japanese nationalist “Yamato spirit” of indomitability, which prefers death to dishonor or capture.
The soldiers in Fires on the Plain know the Yamato ethic, of course, but they don’t necessarily buy into it. Still, they perceive differences in this regard between themselves and their opponents. When one soldier fears that the Yanks will shoot them rather than take them prisoner, another replies, “Nah, they think being a POW is honorable. They’ll say, ‘You guys fought hard,’ and fill us up with corned beef.”
Fires on the Plain faithfully draws events and dialogue from the award-winning 1951 novel written by Shohei Ooka, a Japanese POW captured in the Philippines, where the story is set. Like the book, the film opens with a literal slap in the face; given what’s coming, a kick in the gut might be even more appropriate.
Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi), tubercular, starving, exhausted, has nowhere to go: His desperate commanding officer abuses him for leaving the hospital and returning to the unit when he’s too sick to fight, but the equally overwhelmed hospital medics berate him for returning when he can stand on his own two feet and isn’t imminently dying.
Like all Japanese soldiers at the time, Tamura carries a grenade capable of taking his own life if there is no honorable alternative, but although his CO advises him to use it and he talks about doing it, he can never bring himself to do so. At the same time, despite reflexively murdering a terrified Filipino woman in an abandoned village, he can never bring himself to stoop as low to survive as many of his fellows. On the run, he falls in with soldiers who claim to be living on monkeys shot in the forest. Tamura eventually realizes that there are no monkeys, and “monkey meat” is a ghastly euphemism.
Fires on the Plain hints at spiritual questioning in a scene in which Tamura spies a cross atop the spire of a village church. At the same time, the overt religious and even specifically Christian elements in Ooka’s novel represented by this edifice have been omitted from the film.
In the novel, Tamura muses extensively on whether God exists and how God’s existence relates to his experiences. Unlike Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp, which preserved the overt Buddhist milieu of the original book, the film version of Fires on the Plain eliminates the religious, in this case Christian, dimension of its source material. (I’m intrigued to discover a journal article in Japanese Studies called “Christianity Excised: Ichikawa Kon’s Fires on the Plain”, by an Erik Lofgren — but not enough to cough up more than $30 to download the pdf.)
While both Ichikawa films may be called “anti-war” or “pacifist,” The Burmese Harp has a larger humanistic perspective on the riddle of suffering and the place of human values amid inhuman circumstances that goes far beyond a simple deploring of war. Fires on the Plain doesn’t transcend the “war is hell” genre in the same way, though the aesthetic rigor of its descent into hell is about as exacting and definitive as such a thing can be.
Both Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp, are newly available on Region 1 DVD courtesy of the Criterion Collection. Presented in a newly restored digital transfer with improved English subtitles, the film comes with a number of extras including a video introduction by film scholar Donald Richie, a featurette including interview footage of Ichikawa and actor Mickey Curtis. The one-disc release also includes a 21-page booklet with an essay on Ichikawa and the film by critic Chuck Stephens, which includes a passing reference to the film’s “much criticized decision” to eliminate the novel’s Christian themes.
Kon Ichikawa’s deeply humane, spiritually resonant masterpiece The Burmese Harp is routinely but reductionistically described as “pacifist” or “anti-war,” though in fact war is merely the occasion for the story’s theme, not the theme itself. That theme is nothing less than the intractable mystery of suffering and evil, an affirmation of spiritual values, and the challenge to live humanely in evil circumstances.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.