Plot: What’s it about?
As World War II rages on, the soldiers on all sides endure brutal battles and face death on a regular basis. But in such horrific conditions, one man seems to have more of a burden than others. Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) is a Japanese private stationed in the Philippines, a man who faces death like the others, but not always from a bullet or a grenade. Tamura has tuberculosis, but he is unable to get medical attention for his illness. The hospitals are overcrowded as it is, with more wounded than they can handle, so a man who can walk and function, like Tamura, is told to count his blessings. But he is sent back to the hospital to try again, as his staff sergeant doesn’t want him around if he isn’t at his best. Tamura has been told that if he cannot get into the hospital and be treated, he might as well take his own life. When he arrives at the hospital, he is forced to leave, but not due to being rejected, instead because an attack has leveled the institution. As he wanders through the battlefield, Tamura struggles to survive and hold on to what little humanity remains, but in this kind of situation, how can he?
A lot of films have tried to show us just how horrific the ravages of war can be, but few have done so to the depths of Fires on the Plain. If the phrase “hell on Earth” was literal, the location would be the one shown in this film, as there is no hope, not even a slight glimmer in this world. I think we’re used to having a hero or outfit of heroes in war movies, but in Fires on the Plains, not only is there no hero, there isn’t even an attempt to offer one. No one even tries to be heroic, some merely try to endure and survive, while others take pleasure in the sadistic environment. In other words, this is about as bleak as it gets, so if you need inspiration or a magical ending, you’d be better off elsewhere. There are some touches of humor in places, but it is dark humor, so there isn’t much relief from this brutal world. Even so, what little humor is found here is much needed, as the other elements are so grim, we’d almost be lost without those moments of humor. This isn’t the typical war movie, as the tone is bleak and realistic, not one about a super hero, but about a broken man trying to survive. As usual, Criterion has hammered out a solid presentation, so if you’re at all interested, Fires on the Plain is well worth a rental.
Video: How does it look?
Fires on the Plain is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The print is in good condition, with no serious marks or debris, though a little grain can be seen in some sequences. I noticed a level of softness throughout, but this never proves to be a real issue, though it is evident. The black & white visuals look good outside of the softness, thanks to well balanced black levels. So the image here has some flaws, but given the material’s age, I think we can overlook the mild softness.
Audio: How does it sound?
The original Japanese soundtrack is preserved here, via a somewhat dated, but more than acceptable mono option. This is a much cleaner, clearer presentation than I had expected, as very few age related defects can be heard. I heard a few minor pops and moments of harshness, but given the age of the material, this is a superb effort. Even the smallest sounds can be heard with ease, so nothing is ever drowned out or lost in the shuffle. No worries on the dialogue front either, as all the vocals are sharp and never muffled. This disc also includes newly refined, optional English subtitles.
Supplements: What are the extras?
A couple of rather brief interview featurettes are included, neither of which offer much substance. I expected more here, but even Criterion stumbles from time to time.