Criterion Review — Fires on the Plain

Posted: July 20, 2010 in Alex Miller, criterion, Film, Reviews
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Reviewed by: Alex Miller

Kon Ichikawa, 1959 / "Kill yourself only if you have to."

Although this is technically the 2nd Criterion Collection film we have reviewed (after Videodrome), this is the first in our “Criterion Review” series. If you don’t know what the Criterion Collection is, it’s basically a company the strives to release important classic and contemporary films while giving them the highest possible treatment. Crtierion DVDs/Blurays are known for their high quality video transfers, outstanding cover art, and exclusive bonus features. Here is a complete List of the Collection. Now without further adue let’s take a look at today’s film “Fires on the Plain”!

Some people go to the movies for pure entertainment. Others go because they view film as a form of artwork that can be both deep and moving. I think film can be either one or both. This film, while entertaining to me, is dark and depressing. It is definitly art, however. This is a WWII movie from the Japanese perspective, released in 1959. It follows starving Japanese soldiers in the closing days of WWII when the only thing more scarce than food is hope. While it doesn’t try to make any political statements regarding that particular war, it is definitly an anti-war in general film. In the included interview, Director Kon Ichikawa states that he wanted to show the horrors of war at every possible opportunity. He himself was from Hiroshima, but he was away when the atomic bomb hit. He came back to see the utter destruction which he says, “no words can describe”, believing his family had been completely wiped out. Luckily he later found out that at least some of his family had managed to survive, but I think he channels this moment of total despair into the movie.

While watching the film, I was in shock at how believable the portayal of starvation was. Little did I know it was because the actors themselves were actually starving. They were not even allowed to bathe, brush their teeth, or cut their fingernails. If you look closely you can see some of the soldiers fingernails bent down over their fingers. This was an attempt by the Director to make it seem more believable, and while I think it was pretty cruel for the actors involved, it works like a charm. It did stop production for a couple weeks however, when one of the actors passed out. Having been through some military survival training myself, I had no problem believing the extent at which the soldiers would go to get food. Hunger is a powerful, powerful motivator. Only one who has actually been THAT hungry can truly understand what they themselves would do in that situation. I think you would surprise even yourself.

This is not a movie like “Saving Private Ryan” or anything like that. There are battle scenes, but this is mostly an intimate look at the starving soldiers. The only thing I could compare it to is a live-action version of “Grave of the Fireflies”. That is an anime about starving Japanese children during WWII. The film is in Japanese with English subtitles. So if that is a bother to you I even more highly reccomend you watch this. Many of the great films made are not in English and you need to get over that problem sooner rather than later. After a while you don’t even know you are reading subtitles it’s just instinct. It is also inherently a black&white 50’s Japanese film. So don’t be surprised if it doesn’t fit your preconceived notions of what a film should be like. If you have seen the original Seven Samurai or any otther early Kurosawa film you should know what to expect. Although I’m a huge Kurosawa fan, this film probably has even better cinematography in comparison to most of his works.

Basically, I encourage you to expand your film horizions if you haven’t already. Experiment with older films like this one and you may find you like more types of movies than you thought! I very much enjoyed this one. However, if you’re planning on a date night, save this one for after they leave. It’s just not that kind of movie.


  1. Kellie says:

    Nice review on Fires on the Plain. I love Criterion films so it’s great to have them reviewed. :)

  2. Mary Kate says:

    “Outstanding cover art” is right! Wow. Just added this to the Netflix queue!

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