Essay on Kon Ichikawa's Nobi

Kon Ichikawa's Coolheaded Take on Christianity and Cannibalism

Edan Corkill

Histories of the Pacific War report that the battle for the Philippine island of Leyte ended on December 31, 1944. Yet Nobi (1959; Fires on the Plain), Kon Ichikawa's film depicting the decidedly dismal endgame of the battle, is not set until February 1945, two months later.

How do battles like this actually come to an end? Ichikawa's film shows very clearly the process can't be reduced to a single date. The Japanese soldiers he follows, apparently in February, are still on the run, if that's not too energetic a term to describe their starved and painfully slow stumble through the island towards the beach of Palompon, where, rumor has it, the Japanese navy is waiting to pick them up. They have neither food nor ammunition, they are entirely cut-off from their superiors off the island and they are unsure of whether they will be killed by the Americans if they try to surrender.

It is an absolutely appalling situation, and it is not surprising that it drives the soldiers – if you can still call them that – to extreme measures. Some take their chances on surrender, others choose suicide and others still just collapse and die. The two characters that form the core of the film make choices that set them at either end of this desperate spectrum: cannibalism and Christianity.

It's a credit to director Ichikawa that such weighty themes, and such emotionally loaded choices, are presented in a way that is not only watchable, but quite engaging. The key to the film's success is that he entirely guts it of sentimentality. He plies us with dry images of starvation and desperation – the Japanese wander around like zombies almost oblivious to the planes strafing them from above – before he lets on that Nagamatsu's (Mickey Curtis) key to survival is that he is hunting his own comrades for their meat. It almost seems excusable. For the same reason we can understand why Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) takes his time before mustering the moral fortitude to confront the cannibal.

The film is fairly true to the novel Nobi written by Pacific War veteran Shohei Ooka. Of course, being a film, Ichikawa is able to compress a lot of the novel's wordy first person narration (by Tamura) into purely visual imagery and symbolism. Tamura's gradual embrace of Christianity, or at least its morality, is handled particularly well. After he comes across a church in the middle of his wanderings, Ichikawa's camera begins to find crucifixes in the landscape. There's nothing preachy about a couple of intersecting branches, but they are enough to subtly remind viewers – as they remind Tamura – that there is such a thing as human decency, and that it continues to exist despite the depravations occurring on this hellish island.

(Fires on the Plain)

Director :Kon Ichikawa
Producer :Masaichi Nagata
Idea :Hiroaki Fujii
Novel :Shohei Ooka
Screenplay :Natsuto Wada
Cinematography :Setsuo Kobayashi, Setsuo Shibata
Production Design :Atsuji Shibata
Sound recording :kenichi nishii
Lighting :Isamu Yoneyama
Film Editing :Tatsuji Nakashizu
Original Music :Yasushi Akutagawa
Cast :Eiji Funakoshi, Osamu Takizawa, Mickey Curtis, Mantarô Ushio, Kyu Sazanaka, Yoshihiro Hamaguchi, Asao Sano, Masaya Tsukida,
Hikaru Hoshiand others

1959/JAPAN/108min./Black and White/1 : 2.35/Mono/Daiei Studios