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CAST: Shuri, , Ouga Tsukao

PLOT: Amidst robberies and other exploits, a young boy tries his best to survive in the black market area of a ravaged town in post-WWII Japan; his path intersects with other struggling characters, including a war widow and a man who recruits him for an unknown enterprise.

Still from Shadow of Fire (2023)

COMMENTS: Shadow of Fire is the latest offering by Shinya Tsukamoto; more specifically, the Tsukamoto who brought us films such as  Kotoko, Fires on the Plain, and Killing. These late-career outings see the director opt for a more conventional register, while keeping more or less all of the trademarks that define his peculiar filmmaking style.

In the immediate aftermath of WWII, an unnamed war orphan makes his way through a devastated town’s black market, eventually finding refuge in a tavern kept by a woman who has resorted to prostitution after the loss of her husband and her son. She soon develops a motherly affection for the boy; the inn also begins receiving frequent visits from a young soldier.

In spite of all the differences that separate Shadow of Fire from Tsukamoto’s earlier work, the sensibility of the Tetsuo director is still on display here, not only in certain aesthetic choices but also in film’s core themes: for instance, the emphasis on the thinness of the barrier between what we call “human” and whatever lies outside its fragile boundaries. The soldier who finds shelter in the tavern undergoes, at a sudden reminder of his wartime torments, a quick transformation, unlike those in the director’s more fantastical productions, but no less terrifying precisely because of how plausible it is. (One can only imagine how many veterans underwent similar transmogrifications.) Equally notable is how repressed subjects (in this case, war traumas) are always ready to burst forth violently and dramatically—this time, not through physical mutations or explosions of steel and monstrous flesh, but in eruptions of emotional intensity. Shadow of Fire portrays an environment of disquieting uncertainty that underlies even its warmer moments, such as the familial bonding that develops between the three characters, with horror always on the periphery, looking to intrude at the slightest invitation.

In moments like these Tsukamoto’s DIY approach reveals its strengths. The handheld camera adds immersion and immediacy, and a visceral sense of physicality that heightens the brutality. The more discrete scenes might not be pulled off as efficiently, but they are as satisfactorily executed as in a piece by a more traditional filmmaker.

In any case, the drama is genuinely compelling: in particular, the plotline involving the boy’s dalliances with a mysterious man with whom he tags along for a mission whose nature is never disclosed, apart from the fact that it requires the boy to carry a pistol. Tsukamoto maintains an effective sense of tension and intrigue until this arc’s climax, which ties in with the film’s overarching themes of the lasting effects of trauma and dehumanization.

The film’s entire POV is the boy’s, much like in the masterful Soviet war film Come and See. While the adults surrounding him deal with a variety of war scars, his plot arc mirrors his condition as an orphan. Throughout his journey, he finds himself successively abandoned, first by a new mother figure (who unexpectedly rejects him after their time together), and then a masculine figure who accompanies him for a tragically short but intense stint.

The film’s coda may be unnecessary, but further testifies to Tsukamoto’s compromise to conventional narrative film trappings, attempting to close all of the plot’s loose ends and develop them to a conclusion (that is, within the climate of uncertainty that envelops the entire scenario).

Shadow of Fire will please Tsukamoto fans who have stayed on board for his more “sober” output, like his post-2010 war films or, for a less recent example, 2004’s Vital. While the director’s style might not always lend itself seamlessly to the premise at hand, and the content might inevitably lead to cliché and over-trodden territory, the power of certain scenes is undeniable. Shadow is a worthy addition to the Japanese icon’s resumé.

The reviewer saw this film at Fantasporto’s 2024 festival; U.S. release plans are uncertain at this time.


“It is not an easy watch, but, driven by performances that range from haunting and affecting, to terrifying and grotesque, it is a powerful one.”–Wendy Ide, Screen Daily (festival screening)

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