Hell in the Pacific (1968).
Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998) might seem an unlikely comparison, but in some ways Fires on the Plain feels almost like a corrective, eschewing philosophical detachment in order to investigate the same red in tooth and claw themes of the natural world and man's bloody place in it. In fact, even the blood that sprays from wounds is a startling ruby red. Tsukamoto, who also acts as his own cinematographer, keeps his camera focused tightly on Tamura, giving us subjectivity throughout. There are sudden jumps (almost like blinks) as reality jars, uncomfortably extreme close-ups and a hyperreal immediacy. This is the vividness of someone living through their last moments in an environment of unbearable danger. Colours are brighter, details leap out and noises are louder and confusion reigns. The retreat he participates in at one point requires the taking of an enemy position on the hill. The soldiers creep forward in the darkness and are almost there when a searing light pours on them (pictured above).
The resulting massacre is as terrifying and accomplished as anything Steven Spielberg showed us in the Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan (1998). The physical destruction wreaked on the body is explicit. But beyond the conventional violence of warfare, the film also hits a Conradian 'heart of darkness' as Tamura falls in with two other survivors, who are battling starvation by feeding on forbidden flesh. Can Tamura survive? Should he survive? And if he does, what will be left of him? Tsukamoto's Fires on the Plain is an important and vital work on routed Imperial Japanese Army, a million miles away from the sedate framing of a HBO mini-series. It's a film that renders the violence, terror and madness of armed conflict so palpable as to make for terrifying, yet exhilarating viewing.
The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.