“Biruma no tategoto” (The Burmese Harp/Harp of Burma, 1956), directed by Ichikawa Kon from an adaptation (by Ichikawa’s wife Wada Natto) of Takeyama Michio ‘s novel is one of the 1950s films that put Japan on the map of international cinema (with a tie for the top prize at the Venice Film Festival). Like Ichikawa’s later “Nobi” (Fires on the Plain, 1959) and the third part of Kobayashi’s “The Human Condition trilogy (1959), “Burmese Heart” shows the aftermath of World War II for Japanese soldiers far from home. The ones in “Burmese Harp” are not as desperate for food as those in the other two movies, though before they learn that Japan has surrendered, foraging food is a problem.
Led by Captain Inouye (Mikuni Rentaro, who later appeared in “Harakiri” and “Kwaidan”), who is very concerned about the well-being of the men he commands and who was a music teacher in civilian life, the company sings (in two-part harmony) when they are not concerned about being ambushed. Mizushima (rank unspecified, played by Yasui Shoji) is a scout who can pass for Burmese and has mastered the Burmese harp.
Ichikawa had the eye for composition of John Ford (except Ichikawa had two to Ford’s one) and was not one to leave lighting to his cinematographer (Yokoyama Minoru here). There are many, many shots that are visually very striking and the Criterion bonus feature interview with Mikuni stresses that every scene followed very closely Ichikawa’s storyboarding). There is also something of Ford’s sentimentality and its expression in music. “Home, Sweet Home” plays a significant part in the plot, more than once. And there is a very long letter that, in a bonus feature on the Criterion DVD, Mikuni recalls thinking very sentimental. Ichikawa restrained his getting too emotional reading it (which takes about six minutes) by shooting it from last page to first (so that Mikuni could not build histrionics).
“Burmese Harp” has the reputation of being an anti-war film. I think that it a Buddhist film focused on compassion rather than a war film or an anti-war film (or a POW film). I’ve already mentioned Capt. Inouye’s concern for his men, but the main exemplar is Mizushima.
After the company surrenders, the British seek Capt. Inouye’s aid to send an emissary to another company of Japanese soldiers that is holed up (literally) in a cave. I think that Inouye does not go himself, because he feels that his paramount duty is to do all he can to take care of the men in his command in the ordeal of prison. He asks Mizushima to go, and Mizushima immediately agrees.
The British officer at the site of the battle that has continued days after Japan has surrendered, only gives Mizushima half an hour of cease-fire to get up to the Japanese position and convince those there to surrender. He attempts to convince them that they can do more for Japan by returning and helping rebuild than by dying, but convinces none of them.
I will skip over what then happens (which is quite interesting) to Mizushima regaining consciousness among many corpses. Disguised as a Buddhist monk, Mizushima makes his way to where his company is imprisoned. Along the way, he finds many more corpses. He buries one, but feels that his duty is to return to his own company.
The cumulative force of seeing so many unburied countrymen, however, along with being treated by Burmese as an itinerant monk changes his mind, and he decides to remain in Burma, burying and praying for his fallen countrymen.(Though initially a disguise, the role of being a Buddhist monk engulfs Mizushima.)
In the interview on the Criterion DVD, Ichikawa says that Yasui lost weight to play the part. Yasui still looked fairly well fed (monk robes leave one shoulder exposed), but other than that, he is astounding in the role of the one crossing cultures (already as a scout dressed in Burmese sarongs, before donning monk’s robes and eventually becoming a monk).
Mikuni and the sergeant are also outstanding. Returning again to John Ford, Ford said that the most interesting geography to him was that of human faces. There are close-ups and recurrent panning of faces in “Burmese Harp” that recalled this statement to me.
Although containing some stark images of unburied corpses, “Burmese Harp” is more a fable than a realist film. (It is less a horror film than its companion piece, “Fires on the Plain” is!) And more a film about compassion than about war. The carnage of war is an occasion for the compassion (in my view at least).
The war movie part is above average, but not what makes “Burmese Harp” a great movie. What makes it a great movie (IMO) is the striking visuals and the character(/performance) of Yasui’s Mizushima.
The print is far from perfect, but what makes this a great DVD—aside form containing a great but not always good movie—are the very informative interview of Ichikawa (running 16 minutes) and the genuinely moving (and also very informative) interview of Mikuni (running 12 minutes). Mikuni stressed how important Wada was. He recalls that she and Ichikawa were the only ones who watched rushes and attributes whatever reshootings the following day that there were primarily to her inputs. As I already noted, Ichikawa had the shots storyboarded and the timings thought out in advance. (Ichikawa began as an animator. The pre-WWII American directors he mentions are Walt Disney, Frank Capra, and Ernst Lubitsch—the last one is a bit of a puzzle to me! Elsewhere he cited Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” as a particular inspiration. His 26 movies before “Harp of Burma” wre comedies, the 1954 “Mr. Pu” was an “unusually inventive” satire according to Tony Rayns in the essay for the Criterion booklet.) Mikuni attributes the visual glories of the film to Ichikawa but opines that Wada had great influence on the characterizations even beyond having written the lines the actors speak and the timing of the dialogue.
(Only Yasui’ and the crew went to Burma, though I would never have guessed this from watching the film, and did not suspect it when I first saw the film years ago at the Pacific Film Archives. The main locations wre Hakone, Odwara, and hte Izu peninsula.)
I suspect that the film would seem mystifying to those without some familiarity with Buddhism. There are aspects of Japanese behavior and expectations that seem very odd to me, despite having read shelves of books about Japanese culture and repeated viewings of many of the great post-WWII Japanese movies. The way groups rush to inspect some report (the young samurai in Kurosawa’s “Sanjuro” provide a very memorable example—Mifune strides, but they rush) seems comic to me and there are several instances in “Burmese Harp.”
A considerable part of the film is the other men in the company trying to solve the mystery of whether Mizushima survived the slaughter of the troops who refused to surrender and then the mystery of his not rejoining them. The aforementioned long letter to Capt. Inoyue crosses the t’s and dots the i’s on this (while providing more opportunity to scan their faces as the captain reads Mizushima’s letter to them on the boat that is taking them back to Japan).
Ichikawa shot a color version in 1985 that runs 17 minutes longer. (The original plan was to shoot in color, but taking the unwieldy camera to jungle locations where there would be no one to fix anything that went wrong dissuaded Ichikawa, he says in the included interview. The color version was the #1 grossing film of the year in Japan, but, like most of Ichikawa’s large body of work, was not exported)
©2016, Stephen O. Murray