Better known for the 1959 film version, Shohei Ooka’s 1957 novel Fires on the Plain is a disturbing and beautiful examination of the hardships faced by one World War II Japanese soldier.
Ooka, himself a WWII POW, explores more than just the ugliness of war. Through Private Tamura’s struggle to survive in the Filipino jungle, it is his experience of God that is most striking. Tamura’s fascination with Christianity, as filtered through his Buddhism worldview, gives us some of the most beautiful descriptions of unity with the divine in literature.
“I approached the body. With Yasuda’s cherry-red flesh before my eyes, I vomited. My empty stomach brought forth only a yellowish liquid.
“If at this time God had already transfigured my body, glory be to God!
“I was seized with anger: if as a result of hunger human beings were constrained to eat each other, then this world of ours was no more than the result of God’s wrath. And if I at this moment could vomit forth anger, then I, who was no longer human, must be an angel of God, an instrument of God’s wrath.”
Tamura’s transformation into the wrathful comes through a combination of hunger, guilt–both for having killed an innocent woman and for knowingly eating the flesh of his fellow fallen soldiers–and trauma. From the outset of the novel Tamura vacillates between being resigned to death on foreign soil and his struggle for survival. As he weakens the dichotomy does as well; even as he eats the potatoes he has discovered he questions the purpose, almost hoping death will come despite his efforts to keep it at bay.
When readers are finally treated to the author’s description of death–and it is a delight to read–we learn “Things do not come to an end with one’s death…Albeit that they are voiceless, dead people continue to live. There is no such thing as individual death. Death is a universal event. Even after we die, we are constrained to be permanently awake and day after day to continue making decisions.”
Karma, action, never ceases for Ooka. Whether these decisions continue to have an effect we are not told, but the effects of the actions of life certainly do. Tamura is greeted in death by those he has killed but has not eaten. As for those whose flesh he consumed, the guilt of those meals haunts him continuously.
As a literary work, it is the thoughts of Tamura that hold the most weight. His struggle to understand his own actions and his memories provide the book’s most vivid descriptions. The delicate descriptions of a horrific world are reminiscent in their pacifism of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. Private Tamura’s country is on the losing end of its war, a perspective rarely heard from in history, and Tamura himself, because of illness and injury, is of no use to his country. He is an outcast who must fight a people he has no anger toward in order to survive, to return to the home he neither longs for nor wants to dismiss. He simply wants to escape the suffering war has inflicted on him, knowing that suffering will continue no matter whether he lives or dies.
Stay tuned for (part two: The Film)