2018년 5월 3일 목요일

Hell in the Pacific- Tsukamoto Shin'ya's FIRES ON THE PLAIN (2014) Blu Ray Review

FIRES ON THE PLAIN 野火 (Japan, 2014). A Kaiju Theater Production. 1 hour 27 minutes, Aspect Ratio 1.85:1. Director/Screenplay/Producer/Editor/Cinematography: Tsukamoto Shin'ya 塚本晋也. Costume Design: Okabe Hitomi 岡部仁美. Production Design: MASAKO. Music: Ishikawa Chū 石川忠. Special Effects Makeup: Rikuta Chiharu 陸田千春.   

CAST: Tsukamoto Shin'ya (Tamura), Mori Yūsaku 森優作 (Nagamatsu), Lily Franky ("Old Man" Yasuda), Nakamura Tatsuya 中村達也 (Corporal), Yamamoto Hiroshi 山本浩司(Squad Leader), Yamachi Mamoru 山内まも留(Medical Officer), Nakamura Yūko 中村優子(Tamura's wife). 




Tsukamoto Shin'ya has carved out a significant position as, along with Kitano "Beat" Takeshi, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Miike Takashi and Sono Sion, one of the post-'80s Japanese genre auteurs. These days, he is equally well known for his acting, most recently delivering excellent performances in Martin Scorses's Silence (2016) and Shin Godzilla (2016).  Widely regarded as one of the masters of cyberpunk cinema, Tsukamoto has rigorously pursued the path of a maverick filmmaker, putting together independent projects through his company Kaiju Theater. 

You can be rest assured that a Tsukamoto Shin'ya film will never feature a lame pop tune in lieu of a proper end title music, imposed by a TV company or some such financial powers-that-be, unless it is directly relevant to the film (as was the case with the director's previous film Kotoko [2011], starring Okinawan folk star Cocco).  Nor will it feature some pretty faces from TV or "idol" singer circuit, or include "cute" situations copied from the pages of a "light novel."  However, just because he is making a film close to his heart-- adapting the novel by Ōoka Shōhei while remaining faithful to its devastating depiction of violence, misery and insanity-- and on a subject little to do with his usual SF-fantasy-thriller interests-- the descent into a living hell by the Japanese soldiers in the aftermath of the Battle of Leyte Gulf (1944)-- Tsukamoto has no plans to go "soft" or "easy" on the viewers not familiar with his aggressive-- some might call assaultive-- style of filmmaking.  In other words, Fires on the Plain (previously adapted by the ultra-versatile Ichikawa Kon into an almost equally devastating but much more lyrical and elegiac cinematic version in 1959) is still every inch a Tsukamoto film. Those whose typical idea of a Japanese film is Tampopo or a Studio Ghibli animation feature need to come prepared.  Even those who are used to "cartoonish" violence of a Beat Takeshi-directed Zatoichi (with spurts of CGI-drawn blood) or a Kitamura Ryuhei film might not be ready for the sheer emotional and graphic intensity and unflinching gore to which they will be subject.


As the movie opens to Ishikawa Chū's dissonant musique concrete score, the Japanese soldiers, including the "intellectual" protagonist Tamura (a moving performance by Tsukamoto), have already fallen to the depth of wretchedness. They are caked in inveterate filth, their teeth are falling out and gums are spontaneously bleeding, and they are subsisting on shriveled sticks of yam no bigger than a man's raised index finger.  No one talks about the glory of the Empire or winning the war against the dastardly Anglo-American forces. Everyone seemingly knows that the war is lost, and they reminisce about hometown and their family members in feeble voices, as if they are discussing long forgotten dreams the contents of which need to be painstakingly reconstructed. 

Tamura, afflicted with tuberculosis, is sent back and forth between his squad and the makeshift hospital, which looks more like a slaughterhouse, but his dilemma is rendered moot when the American Air Force blows up the head of the medical officer like a watermelon and razes the hospital with a bomb.  Presently, he is joined by a group of soldiers retreating on foot to Palompon from the Leyte Gulf, and later by the two survivors of the hospital massacre, a wily middle-aged soldier Yasuda (Lily Franky, a.k.a. Nakagawa Masaya, better known as an illustrator-musician) and a young rookie, Nagamatsu, who is an emotional wreck and tethered to Yasuda in a very unhealthy way (Mori Yūsaku).

Compared to Ichikawa's widescreen film that punctuated the abject misery suffered by the soldiers with beauty and grandiosity of the South Pacific landscape, Tsukamoto deliberately heightens the intensity of color and contrast, as if to suggest that in the eyes of the Japanese soldiers these beautiful sights of paradise have turned poisonous and glaring.  The vegetation is too blatantly green: the red and scarlet flowers blooming all over the jungle look positively alien, seemingly beckoning the gazers with a secret, hostile intent: a sun-baked rock immediately boils drops of red blood into raspberry-colored dry stains.  Tamura has only a few moments of respite in the anonymously dark night, when a couple of blue-fluorescent fireflies land in his palm.  Rejected by the natural environment itself as alien invaders, the Japanese soldiers are reduced to the state of the living dead: one lying on the wet ground in a fetal position has fat maggots crawling in and out of his ear, but he jolts Tamura (and the viewers) by verbally responding to the latter's muttered statement, "That is how I will end up eventually."     


Given his propensity as well as his desire to be faithful to the source, it is really not surprising that Tsukamoto films Fires on the Plain as an extreme horror show rather than a war film.   Indeed, some might chafe at the ultra-gory sequence in which the surviving Japanese are gunned down by Americans.  Faces and limbs are torn apart: one booted foot wetly steps on a grey and pink mound of brain matter just ejected from a man's skull, whose lips are still moving as if to protest: and so on. Tsukamoto lingers on the carnage a bit too much, as if to impress on the younger viewer's mind the notion that this is what a soldiering in an exotic foreign country really amounts to. These scenes are so extreme that they become rather theatrical, the cinematic equivalent of a Grand Guignol experience.  We could certainly debate if this type of excessive presentation is the most effective way to convey an anti-war message, although we would be hard pressed not to recognize the aesthetic consistency in Tsukamoto's portrayals of the extremes of human experience, whether a man turning into a metallic cyborg or one being shot to death by machine gun sprays.

Moreover, Tsukamoto refuses to "humanize" his characters by either celebrating heroism of soldiers as Spielberg did in Saving Private Ryan or allowing them to choose death over degeneration into cannibalism or worse, as in the Ichikawa version. Tamura, the observer-protagonist, is certainly not excused of his culpability, and his reaction to a fellow soldier who tries to surrender to the Allied Forces being summarily killed by a Filipino guerrilla clearly shows that his subjective POV is shaped by the moral weight of a terrible murder of a Filipino native he earlier committed.  




Unlike Ichikawa version's elegiac and mournful tone, Tsukamoto's version retains a harsher perspective that never forgets the moral status of the Japanese army as invaders and despoilers of the natural order.  And perhaps this is, after all things are considered, the more "humanistic" version, as Tsukamoto clearly addresses, in his powerful coda, the imprinting of this hell-like war experience on a man's psyche and body: this is not something that an empire can "purge" by re-telling the story of its invasion as soldiers as victims.  In the Ichikawa version the "fire on the plain"-- actually smoke signals by the Filipino civilians or guerrilla fighters-- symbolizes the Heimat, a zone of imaginary peace for Tamura.  Here, it begins as such too, but by the end of the film, the fire ends up illuminating his tormented face from outside his home, blazing as "living memory," that refuses to die out, even today, in 2010s.

Blu Ray Presentation:  1) Third Window Films. Region Free. Video: widescreen 1.85:1, 1080p. Audio: Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. English subtitles. Supplements: Theatrical trailer, Making -of-documentary, "Fires on the Plain: 20 Years in the Making," audio commentary by Tom Mes. Street date: September 11, 2017. Amazon.uk price: £17.99.   2) Shochiku.  Region A. Video: widescreen 1.85:1, 1080p. Audio: Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. No subtitles.  Supplements: Theatrical trailer, Making-of-documentary, visual map of the Battle of the Leyte Gulf.  Street date: May 12, 2016. List price: ¥5,076.

In 2016, Shochiku has embarked on a plan to release on Blu Ray better-known films from the Tsukamoto canon, newly remastered in HD, and started off with the newest of the batch, Fires on the Plain. Their transfer is, not surprisingly, state-of-the-art, capturing the high-contrast, aggressively hued look of the digital-lensed motion picture well. The darkness is impressively inky black, and some of the natural landscapes, filmed in Mindanao, Philippines, as well as Hawaii and Okinawa, are preternaturally gorgeous yet strange and foreboding, never picture postcard-pretty. DTS-HD Master Audio also comes across very well, although given the film's low budget, Fires on the Plain is not exactly a demo film for showcasing a three-dimensional ambient soundscape.


I was initially wary of the Third Window Films release not measuring up to the stellar quality of the more expensive Japanese disc (without English subtitles, alas), but thankfully the UK version's transfer (the outer package says it is coded for Region B, but it plays in American machines without any problem) seems to be identical to the Shochiku one.  If anything, the gamma level seems to have been toned down just a miniscule level, so that the UK version in fact is a trifle easier on the eyes.  The colors and lightings of the film in the Japanese version at times appear unnaturally harsh.  I remember the times when Japanese DVDs tended to sport a rather low-contrast, bleary countenance that sometimes rendered dark scenes into a sort of nondescript grey.  But the reverse seems to be the case here.  Third Window's English subtitles are most welcome and appear to be of good quality.

The Third Window edition also carries over roughly one-hour documentary "Fires on the Plain: Twenty Years in Making" from the Japanese edition, which is far superior to the usual EPK stuff.  Tsukamoto, relaxed-looking in a wool cap and sporting salt-and-pepper beards, walks the viewers through the history of the project, from long gestation periods, multiple attempts at initiating the project only to abandon it, mostly due to lack of finance, and the grueling but rewarding production and distribution process.  Speaking in a friendly, soft voice that sounds a bit like a schoolteacher, Tsukamoto nonetheless exudes enormous passion and commitment as he discusses the original novel's life-long impact on his political and artistic views, the lump-in-the-throat moment in which Ōoka's surviving wife finally gave him permission for adaptation over a phone message, the footage of octa- and septuagenarian ex-Imperial Army soldiers regaling him with anecdotes about their wartime experiences, some of which are just as horrible as or even worse than those depicted in the film, and the guerrilla filmmaking necessitated due to the low production cost (at one point, Tsukamoto's crew-- who included many volunteers as well as professionals-- managed to build a life-sized mock-up of an American army truck from repainted cardboard boxes).  It is striking that, even given Tsukamoto's international fame, it was so difficult to raise money for this modestly budgeted project. It is even more amazing-- and moving-- to witness the director's absolute refusal to compromise his film by inserting commercial elements, or hitching a ride on the big theater distribution bandwagon (instead, Tsukamoto personally toured dozens of independent theaters throughout Japan, with the film's release print in tow).   

The UK disc also includes Tom Mes's audio commentary. He propounds on, among other topics, the key differences between the Ichikawa and Tsukamoto versions, a sense of political urgency on Tsukamoto's part that contributed to the latter's determination to make the movie in time for the seventy-year anniversary of Japan's Pacific War defeat, thematic and aesthetic connections between his cyberpunk-inflected genre works and this ostensible World War II film, his approaches to female characters, rundown on the actors who play supporting characters and his musical collaborator Ishikawa Chū (who sadly passed away in 2018, a big personal loss for Tsukamoto), and the downside of his fiercely independent filmmaking style that results in a high turnover rate of his staff (aside from his core collaborators).   

One thing that I found perhaps a bit churlish was Mes's criticism of the reviewers who call Fires on the Plain a "splatter" film or otherwise classify it as horror.  I can see his point, but was it really necessary for him to diss those who write for "trade papers?"  I also beg to differ with his opinion that anyone who tries to make something like the Ichikawa Kon version today would be instantly pegged as a hypocrite: in my view the Ichikawa version is perhaps just as horrific, conceptually at least, as the Tsukamoto version regarding the dehumanizing conditions of a total war.  As a whole, though, this is a very informative and thought-provoking commentary.