(1959)4.5Mark DemingFew films have captured the horror and futility of war with the bleak power of Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain. Near the end of World War II, as Japanese soldiers attempt to flee the Philippines before the arrival of invading American troops, soldier Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) is perhaps the most damned of all men. Suffering from a severe case of tuberculosis, Tamura is unfit for duty, but the Japanese field hospitals have no beds for a man destined to die soon of consumption, so he is doomed to wander the jungles as his fellow soldiers sink deeper into hunger, disease, and madness. His journey reaches a shocking conclusion when he encounters a band of soldiers who have resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. While it's hard to imagine a film presenting a more unrelentingly grim portrait of war, Fires on the Plain does not concern itself with shock for its own sake. Ichikawa (with the help of cinematographer Setsuo Kobayashi) wrings a dark poetry from this story, as the soldiers struggle to hold on to the last threads of their dignity and humanity, until they finally submerge into insanity at its most beastly. There is a terrible desperation as the men cling to such precious commodities as potatoes and salt, but also a flash of human compassion as they share their meager treasures. And Funakoshi delivers a unforgettable, profoundly moving performance as Tamura; from the first time his deep, haunted eyes meet the camera, we sense that we are visiting a ghost sent to give us a vision of hell, and, as we follow him through the Philippine jungles, that is exactly what he presents to us.