Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) is a soldier in the Japanese Army currently stationed on an island in the Philippines during the last months of the Second World War, not that he or any of his fellow troops are aware of that stage the conflict has reached. His commanding officer is disgusted with him, seeing as how he has contracted tuberculosis but the hospital sent him back to his platoon because he was still able to walk around, something Tamura is regretting now the officer is ordering him to return to the hospital. And if they won't allow that? Then he has been instructed to take his last grenade and blow himself up.
This is the beginning of the film, but for the characters the sheer hell of their existence has been going on for some time as the Japanese are inexorably losing the war on the Pacific islands, leaving all the troops we see starving, injured, losing the will to go on and in most cases dying if the American bullets and bombs don't get them first. Director Kon Ichikawa had presented a tale of the war before in The Burmese Harp, but in the case of Fires on the Plain this was a story edging ever onwards to horror movie territory as Tamura, the ultimate outsider in war who isn't even wanted by his own countrymen, wanders the countryside.
What this also begins to look like is a cross between one of those rub your nose in it war suffering movies and one of the darker folk tales where the lead character is unable to stop himself taking part in an action which repulses him, yet events conspire to force him to carry out anyway: Oedipus is the obvious example, but in this case it was cannibalism which Tamura is straining to avoid even as those around him are falling prey to moments of weakness and starting to eat people. There just isn't any way of finding enough food to survive, and every so often we will see Americans or Filipinos who are managing to cope far better than those Japanese who find the odds stacked against them.
Rejected by both the hospital and the Army, the gaunt Tamura - Funakoshi applied such dedication to his craft that he refused to eat, eventually collapsing on set - roams around, meeting various individuals who either try to kill him or tell him to get lost, unless they're Japanese soldiers who see he has a meagre amount of food and want to help themselves to it. In the meantime, he sees his boots deteriorating, his perception dimming, and such indignities as getting attacked by a hungry dog which he is forced to spear with his bayonet, although such moves towards staying alive grow to look more and more like a sick joke someone is playing on him given how miserable his existence is.
As the hope of getting out of this fades, we find ourselves watching a plot whose message is that if life has dealt you a terrible hand, then death is the most preferable option. And this is not a going to heaven release, this is a sweet oblivion which is the only remedy to your endurance of torture: the absolute nothing of the void awaits, and that is the best option when the alternative is this nightmare. So in a very Japanese manner, Fires on the Plain was a pro-suicide movie, which might give one pause as to how far you'd want to endorse it, distinguishing it from the other war films of its day not by depicting heroism but the very opposite, not cowardice but the sense of futility arising from the conflict, a defeatist work which squirms out of any ray of hope by closing off all avenues to redemption or salvation. Of course, such ironies of his existence as him not actually being able to turn cannibal after all when his teeth fall out are lost on Tamura, in a film which drags its characters through the mire to make a bitter point. Music by Yasushi Akutagawa.