Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Fires On The Plain by Shohei Ooka

Fires On The Plain by Shohei Ooka (1951, translated from the Japanese by Ivan Morris, 1957, 246 pages)

Shohei Ooka (1909 to 1988-Tokyo) is know for one  famous book, Fires On The Plain.   He was one of the first Japanese authors to write fiction based on the Japanese experience in WWII.   Ooka was a French scholar and translator.    He translated The Red and the Black and  The Charter House of Parma both by Stendhal into Japanese.   In January of 1944 he was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army and after a brief training was sent to the southern Philippines to fight the Americans and Filipino resistance forces.   In January 1945 he became a prisoner of war of the Americans.

I decided I wanted to read this book as soon as I saw it was about a Japanese soldier's experience in the Philippines in WWII.    A few members of my family still have living memories of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.    

Fires in the Plains is the narrative of Private Tumura.    At the start of the story Tumura has a respiratory illness and is told to leave his company and go a field hospital.    One thing I learned in this novel was just how little regard the Japanese Army officers and leaders had for their men.   If you went to a hospital you had to bring with you enough food to hold you for the projected time of your treatment.   You had to find the food somehow in the countryside.    If you had no food on arrival or were expected not to recover you were not admitted to the hospital.     Tumura has no food and in the eyes of the doctors will not recover so he is denied admission.      Tumura returns to his unit.   His captain, as was the custom, tells him he does not want him in the unit any more as he is ill.   He gives him a grenade to kill himself if he wants and suggests he try to make his way to the coast to see if he can find a ship to take him home.    Tumura, a big city boy, proceeds through the lush and terrifying to him  jungles of the southern Philippines.   He sees  fires in the distance  and he tries to decide if they are signal fires from resistance units or just cooking fires.    As the book proceeds he meets other Japanese soldiers that no longer are attached to a unit.   Some are deserters and some are,  like him, cast outs.    We see his brilliantly depicted descent into madness.    The western media image of the Japanese soldier in WWII is a maniac who cares nothing for his own survival and wants only to die in service to his Imperial God.   Ooka succeeds well in showing that there were many sorts of men in the Japanese army.    Some had been reduced to savages by the war and some carried Stendhal's The Red and the Black  in their rucksack.    The real artistry of this book comes through in showing us a man can be both sorts of persons at the same time.   I will not tell how the book ends but it is very interesting and well done.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in seeing the war through the eyes of a Japanese soldier.   I would say it is near must reading for anyone like myself interested in increasing their understanding of WWII in the Philippines.    However, if someone wants to read just one or a first novel told from the point of view of a Japanese soldier in WWII  then I recommend One Man's Justice by Akira Yoshimura instead.  

I am very happy Dolce Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge 4 has begun.

Here is a link to some of my  other reviews of Japanese literature

Mel u


me. said...

Thanks for this review!

Fred said...

Mel u,

Thanks for the review of the novel, _Fires on the Plain_. I had seen the movie some time ago but haven't had a chance to locate the novel.

The film version was directed by Ichikawa Kon, who also directed another Japanese anti-war film, _The Burmese Harp_, which you did a review of a short time ago.

According to one of the interviews, many of the actors went without food for part of the filming of _Fires on the Plain_ so they would appear more realistic in playing the roles of starving soldiers.

Mel u said...

me-you are welcome

Fred-I wish one day I will have the opportunity to see these two movies

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

This sounds pretty fascinating. I've been drawn to books like this lately.

Anonymous said...

I'm very happy that you've joined in again, Mel. I'd like to say this book sounds interesting to me, but war stories are very hard for me to read. They are so terrible, so grim, so scary because they're so real.

I began Out by Kirino last night, largely due to your strong recommendation. I love it!

Fred said...

Mel u,

I hope you get a chance to view the films. Both are excellent, although quite different, as you may have surmised from reading the two novels.

Eva said...

This sounds fascinating, although like dolcebellezza I find war stories difficult for me to read. The Japanese occupation of the Philippines was pretty awful. :(

Bellezza said...

p.s. I came here via the link you posted to your review of The Housekeeper and The Professor, but apparently it's mislinked. All the same, I love the new look of your blog!

@parridhlantern said...

Another author for the list thanks to your introduction.

kanoyes said...

Thanks for your post. Fires on the Plain is one of my favorite books. It's just outstanding and has an interesting nihilist/Christian vein in it I haven't encountered elsewhere. It's a vivid and quick read.

In your readings, I was wondering if you came across any other novels that have the Japanese/Philippines link that Fires on the Plain does?