Excerpts from the Criterion essay:
[Ichikawa is] one of the preeminent figures in the golden age of postwar, “humanist” Japanese cinema
Few war films have ever had the courage to wallow so directly in the offal of man’s inhumanity to man, or to render so bleakly and so bluntly the emotional carnage that festers long after the battle’s end.
Based on Shohei Ooka’s award-winning 1952 novel, drawn from the writer’s own experiences as a soldier and prisoner of war, Fires on the Plain seeks to detail the increasingly desperate conditions endured during the final days of World War II by what remained of the 65,000 members of the Japanese forces who had so brutally conducted a three-years-plus occupation of the Philippines. Set on the Philippine island of Leyte, in 1945, the film is told largely from the perspective of a battle-harrowed and sunken-eyed foot soldier named Tamura, who, suffering from tuberculosis, has been ordered to blow himself up with his last remaining grenade should the Japanese field hospital refuse him admittance. Fires on the Plain’s ever more oneiric visions of everyday wartime atrocities (landscapes strewn with stinking corpses, feral dogs so ravenous that they seem to have slipped the surly bonds of gravity, rigor-stiffened hands clawing up at the heavens black with swarms of feces-maddened flies) serve to emphasize a single abiding point: the innately human will for survival can sometimes seem a fate far worse than the certainty of death. And yet Tamura—played with a sense of dissociated bemusement by Daiei Studio’s genre stalwart Eiji Funakoshi (a familiar face to fans of both Yasuzo Masumura’s pressure-cooker social satires and the Godzilla-come-lately rampages of Gamera the giant turtle)—keeps on living, if only to set himself apart from the soldiers all around him who, in their desperation, have begun to regard the mortal remains of their fallen comrades with hungry eyes.
Ichikawa was apparently pretty well disliked by Japanese critics and industry types until a few years later when Masumura and the Japanese New Wave came along to back him up with their even harsher and crazier films.
Movie has a few moments of humor, and a few vaguely moral scenes, like when our hero (who later played the title role in Blind Beast) shoots a Japanese soldier who just killed (and plans to eat) another soldier, but mostly it’s just “horrors of war: the movie,” beautifully shot. Emory showed Peeping Tom the following week, warning us that PT was a horror movie, but this one certainly has more horror in it than PT does. Very good, but not easy to watch.