Sometimes it’s impossible for a filmmaker to escape being identified with one of their groundbreaking early works, no matter how many different genres or types of stories they may explore in subsequent years. A case in point is 55-year-old Japanese multi-hyphenate filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto.

Fires on the Plain

Although his professional debut feature—the independently produced sensory assault Tetsuo the Iron Man (89)—turned 25 years old last year, Tsukamoto’s career has been defined ever since by its minimalist, cyberpunk aesthetic. One reason for this may be that, with only a couple of exceptions, he has remained defiantly independent of studio and corporate association throughout his career, perhaps the only filmmaker working in Japan to have done so, yet he also been able to tap into the international sales and distribution market, and see his films repeatedly screened at major film festivals. Without a studio, manager, or publicity organization around to rehaul Tsukamoto’s image with each new project, the continued reach of his initial success has remained very strong.

His latest work, also independently produced, is a new adaptation of Shohei Ooka’s 1951 semi-autobiographical, historical wartime novel Fires on the Plain (Japanese title: Nobi). After having its world premiere at the 2014 Venice Film Festival and a U.S. premiere this Saturday as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects, the film will open in Japan in the summer, strategically timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Despite its budgetary limitations, Fires on the Plain is a bombshell that depicts the spiritual and physical trials lone soldier Tamura (played by Tsukamoto himself) undergoes while isolated in the jungles of the Philippines near the end of the war. Without food or a clear sense of where the rest of his unit is, Tamura is assaulted by the unseen enemy and by his fellow soldiers, some of whom have resorted to cannibalism to survive.

Although it shares many similarities with the first film adaptation of the novel directed by Kon Ichikawa in 1959, Tsukamoto chose to bring some of his more traditional genre film experience to the project in order to create a more vivid portrait of the horror and obscenity of war. While some might see a period war film, or a literary adaptation, as a departure from Tsukamoto’s earlier films, it continues recurrent themes in his body of work, particularly that of a solitary protagonist struggling to survive in a hostile environment.

Tsukamoto supports his self-financed filmmaking endeavors by acting in features of filmmakers he likes, and as a voiceover artist for the lucrative TV commercial market. FILM COMMENT spoke with the director via Skype as he prepared to act in a new film shooting in Taiwan. This interview was conducted in Japanese, and translated into English by the author.

Fires on the Plain

Could you tell us about your relationship with the novel Fires on the Plain, and when you first realized that you wanted to adapt it into a film?

The first time I read it was when I was in high school. It tells the story of the wartime experiences of an ordinary man who was also an intellectual, and the impact it made on me was as though I’d gone through a war myself.

Twenty years ago, when I was in my mid-thirties, I began to take the first steps toward adapting the novel into a film. But because it was an epic piece of work, doing it in my usual way as an independent film would have been difficult, and though there were a few opportunities here and there, in the end it all fizzled out due to the large budget required.

About 10 years ago, when most of the veterans were getting to be about 80 years old, I decided that I wanted to hear the real voices of those individuals, and so I interviewed many of them about the horrible things they had experienced. I also went with some of them to collect the remains of their fellow soldiers in the Philippines and through these experiences, the pain of those real-life war veterans began to permeate my own body, and I again thought about adapting it into a movie. But, like before, I couldn’t assemble the money required.

Up until that point, it was only a problem of the budget that had kept me from being able to start, but eventually, I noticed that not only did my producer show little interest in making the film, it seemed like he was actually growing disgusted with it, due to various fears of making something that depicted the real horrors of war. Because our country is steadily moving toward a more warlike state of mind, I thought that if I didn’t make the film now, there would be no chance in the future. Even more urgently, I felt that it was a film that had to be made now. As always, we had no money, and my own production company had even fallen into hard times during the recent economic crisis. I wrote the screenplay and drew my storyboards, then relied upon the power and help of many sympathetic people, and successfully completed it in the end.

Japan has definitely drifted in a more conservative direction under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, notably in his re-interpretation of Article 9 of the 1947 Constitution, which repudiates war and the threat of arms. Do you believe that people in Japan today still hold antiwar feelings?

I think that what’s becoming more prevalent today is that the people who might say “War is absolutely bad,” and who know the actual pain of war, are growing fewer in number, and as a consequence, the tendency for people to say “Let’s go to war” is becoming more common. The government is certainly of that mindset, and therefore, the number of ordinary citizens who strongly oppose it is growing smaller. Instead, the number of people who hold the feeling that to be antiwar is tantamount to doing nothing [with regard to regional or self-defense] might be growing larger. It’s also possible that people have no awareness of the situation at all, or no opinion about the direction the government is headed. And by not having this awareness, they’re tacitly giving approval, and we’re seeing a new generation that doesn’t hold any dissenting opinions, and thus the feeling that we’re getting closer and closer to war. 

When we think of history, it’s nothing but the same thing happening over and over, which to me feels stupid and useless. Japan hasn’t gone to war for 70 years now, and we need to extend this miracle even further. If we don’t, and if the country turns toward war again, it would be a terrible thing.

With that in mind, do you think a film like Fires on the Plain is required to get audiences in Japan today to really think about the reality of war?

Because Fires on the Plain is a strongly antiwar film, it’s possible that it’s become necessary to show contemporary Japanese audiences the reality of war through violent means. War is horror, plain and simple. But you have to keep in mind that a film is not a fixed ideology or ideological statement. At its best, it’s an artistic creation. Because audiences have the freedom to decide how to feel on their own, film should not be a means to express one fixed idea, but rather a means for audiences to feel something about what they see onscreen. In the end, I made the film to stimulate a more general reaction from the audience.

Fires on the Plain

Once you finally got started on making the film, how did production proceed? Can you speak a bit about casting, locations, and the other aspects you’re personally involved in?

At first I just sent out a message via Twitter, and assembled a bunch of potential soldiers through basic auditions. We needed everyone to be thin, like starving soldiers, as well as guys who could grow a beard easily. I also needed people on the crew as well who were thin and could grow beards, since they’d also have to appear in the film. Because this film was made primarily with a volunteer staff, we needed people who, no matter what they did on the film, they could also appear in it. For our main actors, I specifically invited Lily Franky and Tatsuya Nakamura. I first met Lily Franky when we appeared together in director Teruo Ishii’s final film Blind Beast vs Dwarf [01]. We became close friends at the time, and since then he’s grown into a wonderful actor. Nakamura first appeared in my film Bullet Ballet [98] and had done several films afterward, but is mainly a drummer and musician. But he has a great presence as an actor, and I was happy to have him appear this time. So these two were like guest actors and, with only a few other exceptions where we hired professionals for small roles, most of the rest of us were wearing two hats as both cast and crew.

Regarding the production, it all took a lot of time. Originally, I thought I would only be able to make the movie by myself. The first storyboards I drew were along those lines, in fact, with me setting up the camera in a fixed position, then going around to perform in front of it. That’s really how I thought it would turn out—that I’d have to go to the Philippines alone. I worked on the solo version for about six months, and then in March 2013, I received permission from the novel’s author to make the film. From that point on, it really took off. Eventually, we were able to assemble a decent crew, primarily of volunteers, and together we made the uniforms, helmets, guns, and so on, and obviously it took a lot of time to get that finished. Location hunting, prep, and photography took another six months, then six months for editing and postproduction, which included some additional photography. So in the end, it took a year and a half to actually make the film, closer to two years when I really think about it.

In looking for locations, I wanted to stick very close to the novel, since the setting is described very vividly: vast natural areas, a beautiful, blue sky, white clouds, red flowers, and deep green vegetation. That kind of natural color makes a deep impact in the novel, particularly when contrasted with the human elements, and the horrible things that happen to them. I really wanted to create the same kind of imagery, but because of the budget we had, I wasn’t able to rely only on locations available in the Philippines. So we only shot the sequences where I appear alone on location there, since it was important for me to include footage actually shot in the Philippines in the film. For scenes featuring more of the cast, but without major events or difficult sequences, we shot in Okinawa. And then finally, for scenes featuring battle footage or explosions, we shot in some wooded areas in the suburbs of Tokyo. It made it a bit of a puzzle during editing, to put something together shot in so many places but meant to appear as though it was all from the Philippines. Additionally, the scenes featuring the largest amount of natural beauty were shot in Hawaii, in Kauai. That was where we shot the biggest, most natural landscape—it was a luxury to be able to do so much on such a small budget.

Fires on the Plain

The jungle setting of Fires on the Plain makes it unique among your films, since almost everything else you’ve made takes place in an urban setting. But given how your characters seem to be adrift within or assaulted by the city, it seems like there are similarities between the jungle and its urban counterpart. Do you feel there’s a relationship there?

Most of my films up until now, including Tokyo Fist [95] and Bullet Ballet, and of course Tetsuo and Tetsuo II [92], have been about human beings’ relationship to the city, to the high-tech concrete jungle. The “hard” and high-tech city contrasted with “soft” humanity is what I’ve usually depicted, and there’s been little awareness of natural things outside of that environment and relationship. For example, in Tetsuo, the ending was simply the destruction of the city.

But in Vital [04], you could say that the natural environment was represented by the interior of the human body, in terms of the story being about autopsies and dissection. In that sense, the physical self, when viewed this way, becomes “Nature,” hence the image of the woman dancing in a forest from the film.

Although I’ve developed this theme of human beings struggling to exist in an urban environment, I’ve also gradually come to feel that what we call the “urban environment” is more like a small concrete boat floating in the middle of a vast sea of nature. So I’m slowly realizing that those stories about concrete cities, which I’ve told up to this point are all about a small, floating boat, within which we are gradually gaining an interest in the massive natural environment on the outside.

It was after I made Vital when I really felt the strongest need to make Fires on the Plain. It was then that I felt a desire to try to visit that outside natural world, you could say. That’s the point when I felt that my films might shift course away from concrete and toward something more natural. Whether it’s the same sort of experience for the protagonist, I think for me, it’s not. It’s a different meaning. A new theme for my work, that’s what’s inside Fires on the Plain.

It does feel substantially like a new start, but when I compare Fires on the Plain to your other films, I think that it sometimes feels very close to your 2005 short feature Haze, which also features a solitary protagonist [again played by Tsukamoto] who cannot get himself out of a place he is stuck in. In Haze, it’s a claustrophobic concrete channel and in Fires, it’s the vast Philippine jungle, but thematically the two feel very close to me. Do you think the films share anything?

That’s surprising, because Fires on the Plain takes place in the most sprawling environment in any of my films! But it’s also interesting because, yes, the action of Fires on the Plain sets a solitary protagonist against a huge background in what’s essentially a “locked-room story” [misshitsugeki], a mystery drama that takes place in a small room. In making Fires on the Plain, my intention was to center a lone protagonist within a special type of empty space, and no matter how many other people he encounters in the story, that protagonist always has the feeling that he isolated. But unlike a typical locked-room story, there is no adversary waiting outside the room. More than that, you don’t even see the superior officers who give orders to the protagonist, nor do you see the enemy. Although it takes place on a more grand stage, I think it’s very interesting to compare it to Haze.

Another powerful theme in the film is that war is not only a violent, horrific experience, but also a chaotic, absurd one. In several parts, your film reminded me deeply of Apocalypse Now, particularly of that film's sequence set around Do Long Bridge, when Colonel Willard is unable to find whoever is in charge of the chaos that’s happening there. Was there an inspiration there, and why do you sometimes think of absurdity rather than horror, when you think about war?

Haze once again comes to mind, since it’s a story of confinement in a very small space, with the protagonist continually wondering “Why? Why?” about everything that’s happening to him to the point of absurdity. Fires on the Plain is set against the backdrop of Mother Nature, and yet I wanted to impart that same feeling. As I mentioned earlier, he’s unable to see the enemy, yet bullets abruptly come flying at him as he’s walking along. Or bombs fall from the air and blow up the hospital, and everything abruptly changes at once, leaving the characters wondering how things could have gotten even worse. It’s never explained in the film who the enemy is, or even where the protagonist’s own allies are. He isn’t even sure whether the order given to him by his superior officer—“Assemble with the other troops at Palompon”—will lead him anywhere. Everything is uncertain, yet the protagonist has no choice but to keep walking. I wanted to convey the ultimate horror of war by stripping and scraping away all but the simplest elements of Tamura’s reality, to reveal the absurdity within it all.

Therefore, rather than being a densely plotted story, it’s more accurately a succession of individual episodes—strange, absurd, and horrible ones—one after the other. You could say that Apocalypse Now, through its narration by Martin Sheen, is also a story told through individual episodes, as the protagonist goes deeper and deeper into his own jungle. My film is also an absurdist drama told with the background of Mother Nature.

What do you think of Kon Ichikawa’s original 1959 film version of Fires on the Plain? Do you consider your film a remake of it?

My film isn’t a remake of Ichikawa’s. From the start, I wanted to make another film version of Ooka’s novel, and have always stressed that I didn’t intend it to be a remake of the earlier film. I first saw Ichikawa’s film when I was in high school, and thought it was fantastic. You could say that I’m a fan of Ichikawa’s movies in general, and I hold him in high esteem as a filmmaker. In black and white, Ichikawa told the internal story of these human beings, keeping the camera very tightly focused on the human characters. Since the film was shot in Gotenba [outside Tokyo, near Mt. Fuji], he had no choice but to use close-up camerawork and focus on the internal drama of its characters, since he wasn’t actually in a Philippine jungle. When I read the novel of Fires on the Plain, I was more interested in the contrast between the vast jungles of the Philippines and the filthy, mud-covered humans. I wanted to explore the contrast of why humans take part in such foolish actions amidst all that beauty. Because of that specific emphasis, my approach had to be very different than Ichikawa’s.

Fires on the Plain

Your adaptation does share many similar scenes with Ichikawa’s, but also some notable differences, such as the final, postwar scene. Why did you choose to have the protagonist survive the war, and what is he thinking about in that haunting final shot?

That final scene is taken directly from the original novel. In the last scene of Ichikawa’s film, the protagonist dies in the Philippines, but in the novel he survives and returns home, and I followed the same storyline in my adaptation. There’s some additional story after the protagonist returns home and, while I shortened that section in my film, it’s essentially in the same spirit as the novel. That is, when someone who’s experienced war comes back to the “real world,” it’s often impossible for them to return to a normal lifestyle, due to the massive trauma they’ve had inflicted on them. That’s what the ending is saying.

As for what the protagonist is thinking in the final shot… In my performance in the role, I tried to convey that, even though the war had ended some 70 years earlier, the fires of the title are appearing before my eyes once more, leading the character to reconsider his actions at the time, with his facial expression betraying his deep regrets for what he’s done. When I read the novel, I felt that the “fires on the plain” were a very abstract symbol that I couldn't fully understand, but that, to my mind, there were two meanings. One is of ordinary fires we use in our lives, that people need to survive. The other is the fire of war, fires that were caused by conflict. Keeping both of those interpretations in mind, I wanted to show how at any moment, the fires of war could consume the ordinary life that we struggle to live.

Another major difference between your film and Ichikawa’s is that, in your adaptation, it's made clear that the protagonist eats human flesh. But in Ichikawa's version, because his teeth are falling out, the protagonist cannot partake. Is the protagonist’s participation in cannibalism also directly from the novel?

In the original novel, yes, he does wind up eating human flesh. In my film, toward the end, the young soldier Nagamatsu tells Tamura that it’s dried “monkey meat,” and since he’s starving on the verge of death, Tamura eats what he’s been given. But at that time, he feels an instinctual regret, as if in his heart, he knows full well that he’s eating human flesh. I’m fairly certain it’s described the same way in the novel, as well. I think Ooka wrote: “There was a mysterious sadness within it.”

Also in the novel, the protagonist is Christian, which imparts a particularly religious guilt to the question of whether he’s eaten human flesh or not, and his anguish grows greater as a result. In my film, I did away with his having a relationship to religion, as I simply wanted to pursue the question of whether or not an individual human being ate human flesh. In Ichikawa’s version, I think it’s also clear that he decided not to make the protagonist a Christian.

On the Philippine front, there were many more soldiers who died of hunger than who were shot and killed by bullets, so I think what’s more important than the theme of an individual’s conflict over whether or not to eat human flesh is the depiction of the horrors of war in general, and that’s what my intention was in the film.

What are your plans for distribution of the film in Japan, and what do you think the reaction will be from audiences and critics?

Because this film is more of a challenge to promote, due to its subject matter as well as to our current political climate, rather than contract with an outside company, I’ve assembled more sympathetic people and we’re doing it ourselves. It’s all people who share the same passion I have for the film, and are enthusiastic about it. They’re heroes to me.

The only thing that I’m unsure about is the reaction. It may be that people in this country aren’t feeling much opposition to the warlike direction we’re headed, or possibly that they might be kind of happy about it. It sounds strange, but people of that mindset may find the film enjoyable. It might also be that, instead of having an opinion about the film, audiences simply feel overwhelmed by it. Though because I really want to make a deep impact on the people who are already strongly antiwar, I very much want them to see it.

In preparing for this interview, I read some old reviews of Ichikawa’s film, which was distributed overseas in 1963. Surprisingly, many reviews from that era were extremely negative, despite the film being considered a classic today. Most of the complaints were about the film being too dark, or showing too much of the true horrors of war. Your film garnered some similar reactions when it was first screened at festivals, most notably from Variety, which uncharitably compared it to a splatter film. Do you think that audiences have changed at all in the last 50 years?

I’m also surprised to hear that the Ichikawa version received some bad reviews! I think it’s a spectacular film, and not bad in any way. As for my film’s pros and cons, those who like it have said it’s quite good, and those who said it wasn’t any good… yes, the main reason is that they say there’s too much violence and that I went too far. And actually, that splatter-like, blood-spray scene was something we added after the film was initially shot and edited.

My way of thinking was that, if someone goes off to war, they’re going to witness the completely horrible things that happen—arms and legs flying off, guts spilling out—and that I had to include them, no matter what. More than depicting the human drama, I think it was important to depict the absurd and cruel things an individual person might experience, over and over again, in wartime.

Even though someone might say that the film has its pros and cons, overall, I think it might function well as a kind of strong medicine for today’s generation, a powerful antidote without which we’d find ourselves in a greater danger. As long as young people can see the film, and grasp some kind of appreciation of what war is really like, then I feel as though that’s a good reason to have made it and included those elements.

As for whether it’ll attract an audience and make any money, honestly I’d like to make some money this time since, of course, most of my films have been financed with the proceeds made off the previous one. I’m always thinking about my next films, and while I don’t have anything specific coming up, I’m always saying that I’d love to do a jidai-geki [samurai film] or kaiju eiga [monster movie], and there are also various children’s scary stories from the Sixties and early Seventies that I’d like to make into a film. So, if only in order to make the next film, I’d like for this one to make some money. But foremost in my mind, rather than box office, is that I’d like people to see the film.

I certainly think that all my films are a little strange, and that they appeal to a special kind of audience. If those audiences are happy with the film, then I’m delighted. With this film, it’s important that certain people see it and wonder “what’s going on in Japan today?” I think it’d be good if it sparked debate among friends and acquaintances on various topics about the current situation in Japan today. But in the end, an odd movie like this can’t change everybody.