At the tail end of World War II, Tamura's company are located in the Philippines attempting their retreat. Tamura is sick from tuberculosis and is of no help to his company, and the hospital refuses to take him in. Taruma wanders the jungle back and forth between the camp and the hospital, but is eventually left on his own to survive.
Shinya Tsukamoto's new movie is based on the anti-war novel of the same name (a.k.a. "Nobi"), written by Shohei Ooka. Perhaps better remembered by our viewers from the 1959 film by Kon Ichikawa. If you have seen the early version, then there is no doubt that you will be familiar with the story of Shinya Tsukamoto's take. But what a lot of people seem to forget when they went into Tsukamoto's version of the story is that while he might be portraying the same hell, his style is and always has been completely sensory. Seen in a massive theater with incredibly loud volume, I was thrown into a graphic and hypnotic reimagining of a known story and left it feeling like I've been in a tumble dryer with a corpse.
The Japanese are retreating from the Philippines at the end of the second world war. Shinya Tsukamoto himself plays a soldier who is sick of tuberculosis and starvation, but is unable to get help from the field hospital nearby his company's camp. His leader refuses to take him, as there is nothing to gain from this weak man, and the hospital won't treat anything that isn't wounds. He's told that if the hospital refuses him one more time, it is better for them all if he just kills himself with his grenade. Suddenly his camp is on fire after an attack, and Tamura decides to take off on his own. What follows is one soldier's personal hell as he tries to find safety to get back home to his girlfriend. From meetings with locals, to acts of cannibalism, there isn't a moment of rest for our sick protagonist.
There is no doubt that the original "Fires on the Plain" knew more what it wanted to say, but Tsukamoto's attempt to wake us and remind us of the horrors of war is not without effect. Yes, it is the most gruesome and brutal movie that Shinya Tsukamoto has ever created, and in his typical way he doesn't hide away from showing more than most would, but the violence is not the only thing that's on display. The movie is visually intense, mixing the beauty of the landscape with the powerful tail end of a war, and what might be even more captivating is the sound, where every bullet and explosion is out to get you. Watching Tsukamoto's "Fires in the Plain" is a hypnotic, loud and grim event to take part of.
There is no other movie in Tsukamoto's filmography that can truly be compared to "Fires on the Plain". Where you could say that "Kotoko" is within the same walls as something like "A Snake of June", I think that this movie stands alone. Here he attempts to show realism paired with his supersonic chaos. What we end up with is a movie that puts us close enough to the realities of war that we can smell the rotten corpses, but with a psychological and surrealistic style that slowly shakes the ground beneath you.
With its limited budget you can expect that certain aspects of war are trimmed down, but personally I always felt like the war was out there. We're closely following a soldier who does whatever he can to stay away from the war so it always makes sense storywise, but I personally never had a problem with what they managed to show during the more action-heavy sequences. To the contrary, I felt they were extremely effective and jarring, even when stylistic choices were made to hide the fact that it has a low budget. The effects are certainly graphic, but they weren't of usual Tsukamoto style where its over-the-top in an almost anime way (I'm looking at movies like "Tokyo Fist" and even "Kotoko"). Here, the dead bodies on the ground look as if they're from a documentary rather than a horror movie - dirt, flies and maggots, rotten skin. The action gore is obviously of a more splattery flavour, which can be distracting to those who are after a thoughtful drama, but it is perfectly in line with the Tsukamoto experience that I was after when I heard that he was making this.
If the reason behind this remake was to remind us of the horrors of war, then I think they did a good job. This is in no way a pleasant experience. It is a very brutal movie with some downright disgusting scenes of dread. You could argue the need for this remake, as they both tell the same story and have a lot of similar scenes. I am positive that certain people are better off going back to the original movie from 1959, but if you want Tsukamoto's relentless sensory power and graphic brutality then this is a must. This movie truly put me in the midst of an inferno and forced me to feel the heat, starvation and complete confusion that Tamura goes through - sometimes more clearly than the original does to me. The new version of "Fires on the Plain" is a vivid hell.