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Shohei Ooka: 野火 (Fires on the Plain)

If Ooka wanted to write a war novel, showing how really horrible war is, he succeeded. Set on Leyte, in the Philippines in the latter part of World War II, it is told from the perspective of a Japanese soldier – Private Tamura – who plays no role in the fighting but is a witness to the horror. At the start of the story, he has TB but has been released from the hospital, as they have no facilities for him, and returned to his regiment. His regiment, however, do not want him as they only want able-bodied men who can go foraging for food, so they send him back to the hospital. They give him six potatoes and he manages o acquire a little corn on his way back to the hospital but there is still no place for him. Fortunately, this does not matter, as the hospital area comes under attack and he flees with the other patients who are able to do so.

Most of the rest of the novel concern his attempts to get to safety, though he is not sure where or what that might be. At one time, it seems that getting to Palompon might be the answer but the Americans have the road blocked. But Tamura is not even too concerned about that. His mind wanders, he searches, sometime successfully, for food but cannot avoid the horrors. He finds an idyllic village but it is full of dead Japanese (but no-one else). He stays there for a while but when a young man and a young woman arrive, he inadvertently kills the woman and then throws away his gun in disgust at his action. He meets up with a group of Japanese soldiers who may or may not have been cannibals on New Guinea. He finds Nagamatsu and Yasuda, whom he had first met at the hospital, loses them and finds them again. They share their monkey meat with him but, when he follows Nagamatsu, who is the monkey hunter, he realises that the monkeys are Japanese soldiers and he has been eating human flesh. Even that seems to bother him little, though he does end up killing Nagamatsu, more for self-preservation than punishment.

The complete lack of humanity (Tamura is the only one who shows any generosity towards his fellow soldiers in sharing food), the awful carnage, the feeling of complete abandonment by the Japanese High Command, the lack of food, the illness, the casual killings, all show as much as any novel of the trenches the complete horror of war. Tamura is eventually captured by guerillas (though he does not remember this) and ends up in an asylum after the war, alienated from humanity and alienated from himself.

Publishing history

First published by Shinchosha, Showa in 1952
First English translation published by Secker & Warburg/Knopf in 1957
Translated by Ivan Morris