The Burmese Harp (Biruma no tategoto)

The Burmese Harp

Everyone lives as he pleases.

I didn’t think I’d see a Japanese film about Japan’s loss of WWII that was made so soon after the war ended. Sure, Kon Ichikawa waited a decade after the war to make it, but for the Japanese to have the sort of mentality on display in The Burmese Harp even a decade after their defeat and surrender is definitely something to be admired. They could have gone the easy route and simply made a picture detailing how the war was awful, or even gone the way of pity and made a story of “woe is Japan for losing”, but The Burmese Harp is more than that. While other films opt for the sucker-punch-to-the-gut method of anti-war sentiments, this has a much more peaceful message to convey, and it conveys it beautifully.

I guess I should clarify; this film isn’t technically about Japan’s loss of WWII, it just takes place during it. It also does not take place in Japan, but (as you might’ve guessed from the title) in Burma, in what is now present-day Myanmar. There at the tail-end of WWII is a platoon of Japanese soldiers, who get by through choir training their captain has taught them. One of the men, Private Mizushima, provides the background via a Burmese harp he has learned to play while the men have been stationed in the country. When they meet with a troop of British soldiers who inform them of Japan’s surrender, Mizushima is selected to be sent to another Japanese regiment to convince them to surrender as well, but those men opt to die fighting rather than give up, and their mountain stronghold is shelled and Mizushima presumed dead. He survives, however, and after shaving his head and dressing as a Buddhist monk, begins to realize a better purpose for his continuing life than to merely be sent back to his homeland with the rest of his captured men. Having only seen two other Ichikawa films (the other two of his on the list), the documentary Tokyo Olympiad and the rather obscure and stylistic Yukinojo Henge, I wasn’t too sure of what to expect from a “normal” Ichikawa film. Imagine my surprise when I found a lovely and moving character piece and anti-war statement that rivals the best of Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu. The film starts out like a run-of-the-mill war picture of the times, albeit without the actual war parts, but it is the direction the film chooses to go in that separates it from the pack. Instead of a catch-all about how war is bad and atrocious and all that, rather, we follow Mizushima as he undergoes a personal transformation upon being alone in the Burmese wilderness, and seeing the ravages of war that have befallen the country. The cinematography was a large part of the success of this one; Ichikawa knows exactly where to place his camera in order to capture the most idyllic of compositions, or the most horrible of images. But what really sells this film, above and beyond other war films of its kind, is the music; the score for this film was absolutely glorious, and held so much power and strength during the sequences it was used (not to mention the excellent decision making of when and where to not have any music at all). If you watch this film for one reason, other than the out-of-the-ordinary anti-war message, have it be the music. Thankfully, the rest of the film is up to par with the audio, though I personally felt the second half of the film was stretched longer than it needed to be.

If there were a rule that stated that a director could only have one film on the must see list, this film would get my vote to represent Kon Ichikawa; this isn’t the best Japanese film I’ve seen, but it is definitely up there. And again, that such a film could and was made so soon after the end of WWII is pretty astonishing, at least to me. This is definitely one to seek out and see at some point in your life; aside from the somewhat protracted second half and the fact that it’s a foreign film with subtitles, I can’t really come up with a good reason why someone should not see this film, or otherwise would be reluctant or adverse to watching it themselves. This was another nice little unexpected find from the unassuming “filler” of the Book, and I look forward to finding a few more.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

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