Fires on the Plain
January 3, 2011
Fires on the Plain is a Japanese novel by Shōhei Ōoka, published in 1951. It was made into a movie of the same name in 1959, directed by Kon Ichikawa. Ōoka was a novelist and while Fires on the Plain is not a “true story” it is based on his and others’ experiences in the Philippines during World War 2. It is sometimes described as a horror story and its connection to actual events makes it that much more creepy. Some soldiers did resort to cannibalism, it is true.
The movie’s opening scene of Private Tamara and the officer and the final scene of Tamara and Nakamatsu are especially memorable. The book is notable for Tamara’s Christian ponderings and other depth not present in the movie. I’m not inclined to recommend one over the other, but it was the strength of the acting and visuals in the movie that led me to the book.
A common thread of the three books that I’ve recently read about Japanese soldiers during WW2 is the central importance of the characters’ fateful interpretations of events and signs. In Fires on the Plain, the plumes of smoke are said to be from farmers innocently burning leftover corn husks, but Tamara interprets them as signals created by Filipino guerrillas to direct American artillery fire towards routed Japanese soldiers…even towards a single desperate soldier wandering the jungle. Are the fires following him or is he following the fires? Tamara seems to find his answer, though the endings of the book and the movie differ in its portrayal.