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“Fires on the Plain” and “City of Life and Death” Essay (Movie Review)

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Updated: Jun 30th, 2020

The two films that were chosen for comparison and review are “Fires on the Plain” (1959) directed by Kon Ichikawa and “City of Life and Death” (2009) shot by Lu Chuan. Despite the fact that both films describe the image of a Japanese soldier and Nanjing massacre, there are different techniques used to portray characters and events.

Both historical drama war films are set during the early days of the Japanese invasion and occupation of Nanjing in 1937 that is known as the “The Rape of Nanjing” in the Second Sino-Japanese War. In “Fires on the Plain” the Japanese army is demoralized, the remains of infantry are cut off from reinforcement and condemned to death. The central hero, a tubercular Japanese private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) is perceived just as a burden for his group. He is ordered to go to a field hospital and, if they refuse to accept him, to commit suicide. In the crowded hospital, he recognized insufficiently sick to be treated.

When the territory of hospital starts being fired, the medical staff runs away, having left patients. Tamura escapes but decides not to come back to help to wounded. He begins aimless wandering during which he faces murders, cannibalism and other brutal consequences of war (Quandt 424). At the same time, Nakaizumi Hideo, the actor portraying Kadokawa Masao character, presents the deep inner world of the Japanese soldier who in spite of despair of war and omnipresent violence around him does not lose his humanity and honor. Kadokawa falls in love with a Japanese prostitute named Yuriko and promises to marry her after the war. Unfortunately, she has died after leaving Nanjing. At the end of the movie, he understands that life is more difficult than death.

Pictures shown in “Fires on the Plain” and “City of Life and Death” seem plausible for the historical context. Ichikawa and Chuan place the viewer within the private hell of a Japanese soldier, detailing into the human soul’s darkest abyss, through tuberculosis, starvation and finally cannibalism. Hernandez notes, “the essential moral irony of war has rarely been reflected on screen as honestly as in “City of Life and Death”; it is a masterwork implicating the viewer in the horrors of bearing witness” (Hernandez 1). The episode when the Japanese machine guns kill off the Chinese prisoners of war represents the real events that happened on December 18, 1937, on the Yangtze Rive banks (Chang 6).

Movies described above give a powerful antiwar message through abominable colors, febrile camerawork, and unsettling sound design. They dissipate the myth that all Japanese soldiers had the desperate desire to die for their country. First of all, people should live in peace and enjoy every moment not to fight to each other. Therefore, directors remind that everything is marked by the war atrocities and that both losers and winners have to bear the burden of their memories and once peace returns struggle to find their humanity anew.

It goes without saying that both movies have received positive reviews. Kate Muir of The Times states, “the picture has the grandeur of a classic. It should be witnessed.” and she describes the “City of Life and Death” as “harrowing, shocking and searingly emotional” (Muir 2). At The Washington Post, Michael O’Sullivan elucidate it as “a muscular, physical movie, pieced together from arresting imagery and revelatory gestures, large and small” giving it three out of four stars (O’Sullivan 2). Speaking of “Fires on the Plain,” it won several awards, for instance, Golden Sail at the Locarno International Film Festival or the Best Foreign Language Film at the 32nd Academy Awards.

The technical aspect of those films is different due to the time they were produced, and it has some common features. Shot in black and white, both movies films convey all the horrors and violence of the Nanjing massacre and citizens under the Japanese occupation. Grey colors, tense, gripping atmosphere, and harrowing scene after scene influence on spectators with great power making them feel everything they watch. The use of color would have weakened the films. Meanwhile, the action of Ichikawa’s film occurs slower than in “City of Life and Death” as it was the peculiarity of movies of that time and promoted better comprehension of the film. The perfect quality of acting and directing helps to understand how war changes, affects, and destroys people.

The approximate budget of “City of Life and Death” for which no expense was spared valued at $12 000 000 while “Fires on the Plain” has a low budget enterprise: “one hears American air raids, yet no planes are seen in the sky, and the damage they inflict is very low scale, reflective of the limited budget the Daiei Studio provided Ichikawa” (Schneider 6). Finally, good special effects mean just that a movie has good special effects. Of course, the film “Fires on the Plain” stood the test of time despite there is a release of it, the old version evokes a curious stir of emotions. As for “City of Life and Death,” it is likely that the film will be a warning of war for a long time.

Obviously, it is people who have any direct connection to the Second Sino-Japanese War or those who are interested in Asian culture whose attention directors want to draw to the considered theme. Nevertheless, those films may be useful for everyone to learn new information and broaden horizons.

In conclusion, it should be stressed that both films are undoubtedly worth watching. In the ruins, despair, and confusion it all becomes a story of survival. It is a powerful denunciation of the absurdity and pointlessness of war. However, if you are to choose one, it would be Kon Ichikawa’s “Fires on the Plain”, for its stark originality and for showing the spectator some of the most bone-chilling war episodes ever seen on the big screen.

Works Cited

Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. New York: Basic Books, 2012. Print.

Hernandez, Eugene. The Horrors of Bearing Witness: Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death. 2011. Web.

Muir, Kate. . 2010. Web.

O’Sullivan, Michael. City of Life and Death (Nanjing! Nanjing!). 2011. Web.

Quandt, James. Kon Ichikawa. Ontario: Cinematheque Ontario, 2010. Print.

Schneider, Dan. The Horror of War. 2009. Web.

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