Fires on the Plain is a 1959 film directed by Kon Ichikawa.
February, 1945, Leyte, the Philippines. Organized resistance by the Japanese to the American liberation of Leyte has long since ended. All that's left of the Japanese presence on the island is scattered stragglers, in units of company size or less, trying to escape. All the Japanese remaining are suffering from starvation, scurvy, and disease.
As the film opens Pfc. Tamura has been kicked out of his unit. Tamura is tubercular, coughing up blood and too weak to work, and his company commander says that with the situation looking very grim, the company can't afford any useless mouths consuming what little food they have left. Tamura makes the long walk back to the field hospital, and while on the way he sees a mysterious column of smoke, which may be a signal fire. Tamura reaches the hospital only for them to refuse him admittance, because they aren't taking anyone who can still stand on his feet.
With no other options, Tamura joins the stragglers waiting outside the hospital. However, the hospital is soon hit by American artillery and totally destroyed. Tamura then wanders aimlessly for a while, seeing horrifying sights. Eventually he runs across the remnants of a Japanese army unit that is trying to make it to the port of Palompon to evacuate. As the ragged, filthy, starving soldiers stagger through the jungle, Tamura sees new depths of human depravity. He also continues to see the mysterious fires, far off in the distance.
- Almost Dead Guy:
- Ragged soldiers are marching down a jungle trail when one sees a body lying on the ground in a puddle. The man says "Is this how we'll end up?" The "corpse" lifts his head and says "How's that?" before apparently dying for real, his face fully submerged in the puddle.
- In a later scene Tamura is resting on a hilltop when another soldier walks over. He asks where the road to Palompon is and Tamura points, but says that they can't get through because the Americans are in the way. The other soldier then collapses and dies on the spot.
- An Arm and a Leg: Among the random horrors Tamura sees is a severed hand and forearm lying on the ground.
- Artistic License – History: Actually, it's hard to tell if it's this or if it's All for Nothing. But the ragged remnants of Japanese units on Leyte are trying to make their way to Palompon so they can evacuate to Cebu. In reality Palompon, the last Japanese-held port on Leyte, was captured by the Americans on Christmas Day 1944.
- Autocannibalism: Tamura is crossing a mountain when he meets a man who has gone totally insane and thinks that he's a Buddha. As they talk a cloud of black flies rises up from between the man's legs. The man then lifts up what appears to be a handful of his own guts, and eats it.
- As You Know: The first scene is a great huge slab of exposition from the squad leader. While yelling at Tamura for coming back from the hospital, he feels the need to recap the whole combat history of the unit, how they were supposed to reinforce Japanese forces at Tacloban, but they couldn't get over the mountains, and now they're cut off and starving.
- Black Comedy: A soldier is staggering along the trail when he sees an abandoned pair of boots. He abandons his own, rattier pair for the pair that he found. A trailing soldier with still rattier boots switches them out for the boots that the first soldier abandoned. Another trailing soldier with boots that are falling apart abandons them for the ratty boots that the second soldier abandoned. Finally Tamura arrives, sees the torn-up boots with no soles that the third soldier abandoned, then takes off his own shoes and leaves them there too.
- Body Horror: Near the end, Tamura is losing teeth from scurvy.
- Brandishment Bluff: Tamura pretends to raise a grenade to stop Nagamatsu from shooting him. It works.
- Death by Adaptation: In the source novel, the narrator is remembering his horrible experiences in flashback, after he's back home in Japan. In this film Tamura is killed at the end.
- Disturbed Doves: Pigeons flapping around and lighting on the spire of the church in the abandoned village Tamura enters.
- Dope Slap: The first shot of the movie is the squad leader slapping Tamura across the face in frustration, because Tamura has returned after being refused admittance to the hospital.
- Downer Ending: The very end has Tamura, all alone, walking towards one of those mysterious fires. Whoever's setting that fire is hidden by smoke, but they shoot and kill Tamura as the movie ends. In the book, they’re Americans and accepted the clearly unarmed guy’s surrender.
- Face Framed in Shadow: When Tamura encounters the civilian couple in the hut, the light from the window is framed to illuminate only their eyes.
- Foreshadowing: One soldier says more or less at random that when his unit was in New Guinea, they resorted to eating the dead. At the end Nagamatsu is shown to be murdering Japanese stragglers and eating them.
- Gray Rain of Depression: The misery of the retreating Japanese stragglers gets worse when torrential rains start falling.
- Hope Spot: The tattered Japanese group that Tamura falls in with has to make a difficult crossing, across a road, through a muddy river, then up a ravine to the far bank and the forest. They wait for nightfall. They make it across the road, across the waist-deep river, and up the ravine, and they're headed for the forest and what they think is safety. Then a bunch of searchlights flip on in the forest, and the American tanks hidden there open up on them. Everybody except Tamura is killed.
- Idiosyncratic Wipe: A soldier blows a bunch of chicken feathers in an abandoned coop, which obscure the screen. When the feathers fall down the scene has cut to Japanese soldiers marching through a trail in the forest.
- Informed Attribute: Supposedly Tamura is sick with TB. The squad leader boots him out of the company because he's coughing blood and too sick to work. But afterwards he spends days on end hiking all over Leyte, up hills, across rivers. Also, he never coughs once over the entire film.
- Inner Monologue:
- In voiceover, Tamura wonders why he didn't kill himself after the field hospital was wiped out by American artillery.
- Later, after all the soldiers with him are wiped out by American tanks, Tamura is thinking "I don't think I can make it to the forest."
- Jump Scare: Tamura is walking around an empty village when a dog jumps at him out of nowhere. It turns out badly for the dog, spitted on Tamura's bayonet.
- No Party Like a Donner Party:
- One soldier mentions offhandedly that his unit ate the dead when they were in New Guinea.
- The ending reveals that Nagamatsu's "monkey meat"...isn't. This is followed up by Nagamatsu murdering Yamada and eating him raw, whereupon Tamura shoots and kills Nagamatsu.
- Slasher Smile: A Filipino peasant that Tamura runs into acts friendly and offers him food, but the rather disturbing smile on his face isn't friendly at all. Tamura runs off when the man leaves and apparently calls Filipino guerrillas.
- Time Skip: "Many days passed and many nights," as Tamura is more or less aimlessly wandering after the hospital is destroyed.
- Title Drop: Tamura and the other soldiers wonder about the fires after finding an abandoned fire pit. Some think they're signals to guerrillas, but another soldier says that farmers are burning corn husks. He mentions how his family burned rice hulls back home, then says "They're just fires on the plain."
- War Is Hell: The story avoids François Truffaut's warning about making war look exciting by taking place after major combat operations on Leyte have already ended. Instead, there are sick, starving Japanese soldiers running for their lives. The result is a portrait of terror and suffering and human depravity.