The Japanese Film Festival has come to a close for 2015, after a huge three months and spanning across all our capital cities. As always the program was an eclectic mix of quaint local productions and bizarre, mind-altering madness.
One of the program’s highlights was the release of guerrilla filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto’s Fires On The Plain, based on the 1951 antiwar novel of the same name, written by Ooka Shohei.
The film follows the same premise as the book, from the perspective of Private Tamura (played by Tsukamoto) of the Imperial Japanese Army during the final days of World War II. After fleeing his unit during an attack, Tamura is forced to survive in the Philippine jungle by any means necessary, encountering various locals, forces of nature, enemy attacks and fellow soldiers on the brink of insanity.
With the help of a translator, we probed the very humble Tsukamoto during his visit to Australia as part of the Japanese Film Festival in Melbourne. “From the point of when I actually started thinking that I wanted to make a film out of this, it’s been several decades… 20 years actually. The first time I read this book I was in high school, and it was a big shock,” he reminisced.
“My first most wish was to be as close to the original book as possible. I think that with some Japanese movies, especially with war movies, there’s a certain amount of heroism and also tragedy and victim mentality. With this book it actually depicted that in war, we can actually be the people who inflict all these things, and that’s actually the scary part of war.”
For those with a keen interest in classic Japanese cinema, you may remember this novel was already adapted back in 1959 by acclaimed filmmaker Kon Ichikawa. When asked how he approached this film differently, Tsukamoto said he wanted to shift the focus and stay closer to the source material.
“[The original film] had a very big impact on me. At the time when Kon Ichikawa made that movie, he actually wasn’t able to go abroad so everything was filmed in Japan. Consequently, it was more focussed on the human aspect and the characters’ interaction in the film,” he continued.
“However, when I actually looked at the book I could see the Philippines; the big nature and the jungle… and then there are these little tiny people and they’re basically doing silly things and they’re not able to cope. So from that point of view, even though director Kon Ichikawa’s film was such a masterpiece, I felt that by focusing on nature and the people within it, I was looking at it from a different point of view and I dared to make another movie.”
Fires On The Plain is as visually daring as the many themes it deals with, with Tsukamoto using overlays, rapid cuts and other editing techniques to stunning effect. “I wanted to have the contrast between the beautiful nature and these dirty, insignificant people. I really wanted to make the contrast big. I do know that some filmmakers actually film it black and white deliberately, but I actually wanted to use colour so that the contrast would be even clearer,” he explained.
“It would have been good if everything was filmed in the Philippines, but due to financial constraints some of the scenes we actually filmed in Okinawa, and also we filmed in this place called Saitama Prefecture in Japan, in those forests.”
In addition to budgetary constraints Tsukamoto certainly had his work cut out for him, juggling roles as the film’s director, lead actor, writer and producer – an impressive feat for any filmmaker. “That’s basically the style I employ for most of my films. But having said that, this is one of the biggest films that I’ve ever made, so I would have actually wanted more delegation but we just didn’t have enough of a budget. All the staff did so much more than they really should be doing in a sense. They had to come up with all sorts of tricks to get it into place.”
Reception of the film has been mixed but not to the filmmaker’s surprise. It’s a confronting piece that delves into confronting subjects such as mortality, psychological torment and even cannibalism – and Tsukamoto was not shy in his approach. “I wanted to depict that war is a terrible thing, and that it actually makes people twisted. So if you do define that twisted nature of humans to be scary, then it could definitely be classed as a horror movie. Generally speaking, the opinion of this movie has split in half; one is that it’s too violent and the other one is it’s a masterpiece, because that’s what war is,” he explained.
“The thing that was a pleasant surprise was that it’s been very well received in Japan. I think it’s because of the timing, as in, Japan has recently had to renew the laws in regard to war, so the politicians and general public are quite conscious about the subject.”
Fires On The Plain was screened as part of the Japanese Film Festival in Australia. Visit the website for more information about their annual program, www.japanesefilmfestival.net.