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Book Review: Fires on the Plain (Tuttle Classics) by Shohei Ooka

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In a recent conversation with a friend, he remarked what a shame it was that more Westerners did not read, much less know the works of many of the great Japanese writers. After all, you say the words Tolstoy and Proust and many know who you are speaking about. But say the names Kawabata and Ooka and you will receive blank stares. I say what a shame because Fires on the Plain by Shohei Ooka is a terrific novel that should be on everyone’s list of Classics. It is a novel that puts me in mind of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, not just because of the obvious subject matter, but also in the spare yet poetic way in which the stories are told. Remarque’s novel details the life of a German soldier during World War I. Ooka’s novel details a Japanese soldier while in the Philippines, during World War II. Both countries lost their wars, yet one is able to empathize with these “enemy” soldiers.

Throughout the tale, Private Tamura battles starvation, fatigue, delirium, and his own sense of self. Far more than a mere war novel or anti-war novel it's a story about humanity, and not in the obvious PC dumbed-down soap-Oprah sense, but really about those things human: the past, memory, experience, what divides good from evil, consciousness, loneliness, observation and the list goes on.

The tale begins on Leyte Island with Tamura waking to the slap of his squad leader. Upon waking he is told the Japanese are dying a slow and painful death, all to the brunt of the American forces. There is not much food left, and whatever rations remain are being foraged among those few survivors. Tamura is told to then return to the hospital to get more food rations, and if they are not willing to take him in, he is to use his hand grenade to blow it up. Much of the battle that goes on within Fires on the Plain is that between the Self and the abstract Higher Order, be it God, the Emperor, or Japan the nation. While Tamura is starving and wandering the woods, he is making insightful observations about his own place within the cosmos — offering up the realization that not only he, but no one around him, has ever been regarded as an individual.

A solder’s life is primarily one of repetition, and yet ironically when Tamura speaks about the recurrence of everyday human experiences, he also mentions that the wooden path he is walking upon is not one he will ever return to again. So even though his daily life on this island has been one repeated again and again (both in his own everyday minutiae and also in repeated dead bodies he is witnessing along the way) he has conceptualized his own self and place within this stark universe: “Does not our entire life-feeling depend upon this inherent assumption that we can repeat indefinitely what we are doing at the moment?”

The sentences tend to be short and yet there is richness and lyricism present throughout the text. Interesting points Tamura makes are those involving his perception of things, and how isolation, loneliness and desperation alters these perceptions. Nature, for example, is not something beautiful, but instead has a beauty that has lost meaning:

A successful infantryman must look at nature only from the standpoint of necessity. A gentle hollow in the ground is nothing but a shelter from the artillery fire, the beautiful green fields simply dangerous terrain that must be crossed on the double … nature in all her sundry aspects is essentially meaningless.

While Tamura is wandering, he encounters people along the way, many of whom are dead, though he is surprised to find what appear to be corpses still clinging to life. In one scene, he is shocked to see a man he assumed dead being taken away by an American Red Cross truck, but not before a cigarette is lit and inserted into the man’s mouth. When he encounters a cross above a church, items that normally would bring about comfort instead carry fear with them. He notes: “Prolonged loneliness had by now made me easily frightened of anything new, and the sudden appearance of this religious symbol gave me an almost physical shock.”

The cross carries fear because it is something belonging to the enemy and the enemy will have nothing but “fierce enmity,” if approached by a wandering Japanese soldier. At one point, when he sees a Filipino woman from a distance, she reminds him of the Filipino woman he shot while he was still in the seaside village. He then identifies himself as that individual who had killed an innocent person, and thus he has “forfeited all right to live with his fellow man.” Tamura’s intention is to surrender, but he is unsure how to get his message across to the American troops. Fires on the Plain is not without humor, notably when he decides to use his underpants as a flag: “Unfortunately I possessed nothing white but my underpants, and even these were far from sparkling.”

Tamura notices that many of the corpses left to rot along the road are missing flesh from their buttocks. Random body parts he sees strewn about no longer shock as they once would, for he begins to see things objectively and in a more detached manner — almost outside himself. He comes to learn the reason behind the missing soldiers’ flesh, and tempted by cannibalism himself, he is physically divided by it. (Literally one side of his body prevents him from carrying out the act, and it is only when a corpse is covered with leeches that he is able to suck the human blood from them). This carries a larger metaphor in terms of Christ offering up his body, when Tamura encounters a crazy man offering his flesh once he has died. This complements the earlier scene where he encounters the village cross and is fearful of it. Soon guilt overwhelms the thought of eating anything organic. The religious undertones are certainly there, but they are only one facet of this rich and philosophical work.

Eventually, Tamura ends up in a mental hospital and we are left knowing only what his memory allows him to remember. Fires on the Plain is a book about the mind and perception more than anything else. Isolation, hallucination and fear are what one perceives, and “What makes symptoms take root in our consciousness is that they appear intermittently or periodically — just as on the island what made me fear the fires in the planes was the order in which they appeared and their number.”

Tuttle Press offers an excellent copy of this great novel, translated wonderfully by Ivan Morris. Seek out this underrated Classic.

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About Jessica Schneider

  • Great review-by coincidence I have this book on order from Amazon. By coincidence I live in the Philippines which will make this book even more interesting-if you have not yet read it you might like One Man’s Justice by Akira Yoshimura-a marvelous account of a Japanese soldiers experience on the run as a war criminal in post WWII Japan-

  • Dear Mel:

    Thanks for the recommendation. I will look into it.