Thursday, December 09, 2010

Zen and Its Opposite: Fires on the Plain

It is considered a masterpiece among war (and anti-war) films, but it might as well be called a zombie movie. The tubercular Private Tamura is truly one of the walking dead. Vividly and grimly illustrating the horrors of war, Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain (trailer here), screens tomorrow as part of the Japan Society’s Zen and Its Opposite film series.

Japan has essentially lost the war and most of the soldiers stationed on Leyte fully realize it. Unfortunately, they do not have much option but to futilely carry-on. However, Tamura is caught in an absurd Catch-22, too sick to serve with his company, but not damaged enough for the field hospital to admit him. Instead, he lingers outside with his fellow ghosts, waiting to die. When an Americans bombardment forces a general retreat, the absurdity gives way to horror.

Tamura finds himself on a death march marked by degradation and a black humor worthy of George Romero. Yes, there is even cannibalism. He also encounters a strange shaman-like survivor, whose cryptic Buddhist references and Zen-like acceptance of death clearly qualifies Plain for the Japan Society’s Opposite series, which explores the darker, more ominous aspects of the Japanese Buddhist tradition.

Plain begins as a brutally naturalistic anti-war film, but it steadily evolves into a surreal critique of human nature. Surprisingly though, Kon indulges in no appreciable anti-Americanism. In fact, the only Yank we see, at least tries to observe the laws of war (the Filipino partisans are a different story). The Japanese officers however, are depicted as cold martinets and the enlisted men turn on each other like desperate rats in a cage.

Shuffling and shambling, the hollowed-out Tamura looks undead. In his award-winning performance, Eiji Funakoshi vividly conveys the death-rattle of a man’s soul as well as the forlorn private’s shocking physical deterioration.

Ichikawa is a great filmmaker who ought to be more acclaimed in this country. With Plain, he makes All Quiet on the Western Front look like militaristic boosterism. It is one of his acknowledged masterworks, featuring unforgettable images and deeply disturbing sequences. (Audiences will never forget the phrase “monkey meat” after watching it.) An anti-war classic, it screens tomorrow night at the Japan Society as part of both its Opposite and Shadows of the Rising Sun retrospectives.