Shinya Tsukamoto‘s Fires on the Plain screened in competition in Venice but arrives empty-handed (not even any “collateral” awards) in Toronto. It’s fared better with the critics than with the juries, so let’s begin with Jason Anderson, writing for Cinema Scope.
“Few things bode less well on paper,” he begins, “than the prospect of the director of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and A Snake of June adapting Japanese literature’s most famous anti-war novel, a book that already yielded an equally venerated, Criterion-sanctioned film version by Ichikawa Kon in 1959. Given the apparent distance between the material and Tsukamoto Shinya’s default modes—body-horror bombast, Lynchian psychosexual melodrama, an alternately sensuous and punishing physicality that’s a carry-over from his parallel career in experimental theatre—Fires on the Plain ought to be as appealing as the idea of Eli Roth remaking All Quiet on the Western Front. Yet the horrifying blunt force and almost relentless repugnancy of Tsukamoto’s effort prove to be the film’s greatest (if goriest) virtues.”
“On an island in the Philippines during the tail’s end of WWII, the tropical landscape is emerald-green one moment and darkened by diseased-looking filters the next,” writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook. “Basically kicked out into the jungle with only chunks of yam and a grenade filling his pockets, a tubercular Japanese grunt (grimaced by Tsukamoto himself) stumbles past half-insane survivors, hails of American bullets and whole fields littered with purplish corpses. The terrain is mauled, torched and drenched with spilled viscera until, as befits the monstrous-transformation specialist behind the Tetsuo films, it resembles the setting of a zombie apocalypse…. The single-minded piling of nightmarish images has scabrous integrity.”
“Tsukamoto gives us La Grande Illusion by way of the grindhouse,” suggests the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks. Variety‘s Peter Debruge suspects that Tsukamoto “seems to be deriving a bit too much pleasure from all those decapitated heads, stacked corpses and maggot-infested flesh wounds to treat the pic’s anti-war message seriously…. Tsukamoto would do well to study Sam Fuller’s early work, especially The Steel Helmet, to see how pressure-cooker character scenes invite audience identification. Instead, he’s invested in sound effects and shocking visuals, assuming the best way to give us a taste of war is to pummel us with as many of its sensory horrors as possible. That’s not war, that’s torture.”
“Expressing its anti-war sentiment in a sustained, unmodulated shriek, it’s not an easy watch but a highly rewarding one,” finds Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter. More from John Bleasdale (CineVue, 4/5).
Updates, 9/14: At the AV Club, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky notes that “the film’s central image is of a country degrading, disfiguring, and cannibalizing itself in order to accomplish an increasingly meaningless goal…. It’s a blunt idea, expressed in a scuzzy, deliberately artless style that somehow makes the gore—heads cleaved in half by machine gun fire, faces peeling off, injured bodies swarming with maggots—seem both more outrageous and less disgusting. Tsukamoto specializes in pushing body horror past Cronenbergian discomfort and into the territory of the out-and-out unreal; after a certain point, the injuries and deformations no longer feel visceral, which makes it easier to appreciate them as metaphors.”
“The film is shot and edited in a brilliantly uncomfortable, almost claustrophobic style that even further pushes us into the barely watchable gore of the story,” writes Ambrož Pivk at the International Cinephile Society. “The ending feels deceptively cathartic at first, but only for so long that it clearly shows that such terrors cannot result in much else than psychological trauma, burning like the fires inside Private Tamura’s head.”