by Jeremy Clarke.
The writer Shohei Ooka (1909-1988) is best known for his novel Nobi (Fires on the Plain, 1951), one of a number influenced by his World War Two experiences as a solider fighting in the Philippines. Nobi takes place against the backdrop of the Japanese army falling apart under the American onslaught and concerns one Private Tamura’s lone wanderings around the battlefield as his ties to society and faith in humanity disintegrate. He reaches a hospital at the story’s end. It was translated into English in 1957.
It was filmed in 1959 by Kon Ichikawa, whose insistence on shooting in stark black and white contributes to an overall bleak atmosphere. Refused admission to the field hospital because they can’t cure tuberculosis, and disowned by his CO because he can’t fight, Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) wanders through jungle and plain but can find no way out. He sees the military hospital blown up as abandoned patients attempt to crawl out. Eventually he falls in with fellow soldiers surviving by hunting “monkey meat” i.e. other Japanese soldiers. But he can’t eat this because his teeth are in no state to chew. In the end, alone again, he talks about wanting to see people living a normal life and advances across a plain towards enemy gunfire before collapsing.
It was filmed again in 2014 by Shinya Tsukamoto. On the new disc, his hour-long diary never mentions the Ishikawa version instead stating that he read the novel in high school with its “green jungles, vital riverbeds and almost unbearable sunsets”. It became a favourite book. He would seem to be discovering a very different element within the novel from that behind Ichikawa’s black and white vision.
The diary races through Tsukamoto’s career to cover his obsession with filming the novel. Following tantalising glimpses of his early 8mm film Donten (1976) based on Tatsuhiko Yamagami’s war-themed manga Hikaru Kaze he focuses on talking about Nobi in his promotional interviews for his breakthrough film and cyberpunk classic Tetsuo The Iron Man (1989). Charging breathlessly through Tetsuo 2 Body Hammer (1992) and Tokyo Fist (1995) he alights on Bullet Ballet (1998) as the point at which “war started to creep into my films”.
For Tsukamoto, the backstory to Bullet Ballet is the conflict between his own generation, which has never experienced war first-hand, and the younger generation to whom he thinks war must appear to be something out of science fiction. He fast forwards through A Snake of June (2002) and Vital (2004) mentioning how his protagonist in the latter (Tadanobu Asano) finally emerges from the urban environment into nature at the end of that film. He wanted to make Nobi as his next film and have that character morph into Private Tamura at its start. But he wasn’t to make Nobi for another ten years, preceding it with Kotoko (2011) in which at one point a baby-protecting mother fights off soldiers.
The year after Vital, Tsukamoto finally managed to visit the Philippines. Expecting to see scars of the conflict, he instead found blue sky, dense greenery and bright sun. Anyone familiar with his films will recognise this sensibility of different colours from the monochrome of Tetsuo, the separate blue and yellow sequences of its sequel and so on which can perhaps now be reassessed as derived from his youthful reading of Nobi. And in Tsukamoto’s Nobi, these colour sequences are very much to the fore. Intense green or green and dark blue jungle vegetation. Sun baked, sand coloured earth and rock. Grey pebbled riverbanks. Burning buildings bathing their surroundings in bright orange light. Battle carnage sequences soaked in blood-red.
He finally got the rights to the novel from the author’s daughter in March 2013. Determined to make the film at this point despite lacking a budget, he enlisted a crew of volunteers to make props and do prep work, and, emboldened by acting in Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016), cast himself as the lead. He bought one soldier’s uniform and used that as a template to make another fifty. He filmed in the Philippines with a crew of six including himself which may explain in part why the film possesses the energy of his earlier films. However, he hired a professional crew for the Japanese shoot’s more challenging production material, such as the hospital explosion. He eschewed CGI in favour of an army of real flies. Horrified by the cost of jeep hire, he mocked up rather than hired an army truck. And after taking the film to the 2014 Venice Film Festival, he distributed it himself. Clearly a labour of love.
To anyone who’s been following Tsukamoto’s output over the years and wonders why he would want to make a war film, it’s immediately apparent that this isn’t a remake of the 1959 film but a very different interpretation of the novel, chiming with the director’s ongoing concerns. Distinctive colour palette notwithstanding, Private Tamura’s (Tsukamoto) coughing suggests a transition towards some sort of ‘new flesh’’, underscored by the sight of patients undergoing primitive and gory surgery in the field hospital. Breathless rushes through green foliage recall similar frenetic camerawork in earlier films. Beautiful crimson flowers dissolve to a crimson studded, fly-encrusted, severed human leg.
But in the theatre of war, the only evolutionary path on offer seems to be cannibalism, which ultimately leads nowhere. Although Tamura eats human flesh in Tsukamoto’s version, he does so unwittingly and rejects this path. He also makes it out alive, as per the original novel, and is seen at the end writing his memoirs under the watchful eye of his wife as he stares out his window at mental images of fire. It certainly feels like a film that’s been gestating in Tsukamoto’s head for decades and may well be his best since A Snake of June, at least of the films that have been released in the UK.
Shinya Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plain (Nobi) is released on Dual Format Blu-ray and DVD.