Ichikawa’s 1983 adaptation of Tanizaki’s “The Makioka Sisters”


A decade-plus or so ago, the 20th-century Japanese whose work most interested me was Tanizaki Jun’ichirô (1886-1965). I am currently on an Inoue Yasushi (1907-1991) binge, and the Japanese writer I most enjoy remains Dazai Osamu (1909-48). Tanizaki’s foot fetishism eventually tired me along with his lack of interest in such male characters as were necessary evils in his focus on women. And I have not yet tackled his Big Novel/family chronicle Sasame-yuki, which means small snowflakes. In English, both the novel and Ichikawa Kon’s 1983 screen adaptation of it are titled “The Makioka Sisters.”

The movie is set in Osaka during the years 1938-40, years in which Japan was already at war conquering Manchuria and China, male concerns that are only fleetingly signaled, though the novelist and the film-maker were as aware of the rush to disaster as readers and viewers are.

The elder two daughters Tsuruko (Kishi Keiko) and Sachiko (Sakurma Yoshiko) are both married. Not just married but with husbands who have “married in,” that is, taken the Makioka name, which only social inferiors would consider doing.

The youngest sibling Taeko (Kotegawa Yukô) has a serious of disastrous “romantic” liaisons. I don’t recall her smoking in the film, but she goes to a bar alone, wears western clothes, and has a business (albeit it is doll-making, not a masculine one). Takeo cannot marry until the third sister, the diffident Yukiko (Yoshinaga Sayuri) does. Tsuruko has torpedoed a number of matches quite late in the match-making process, Yukiko has rejected some, and Takeo’s notoriety scares off a few more.


Insofar as “The Makioka Sisters” is a Japanese Gone with the Wind, Yukiko is something of a Melanie, Taeko a headstrong selfish Scarlett. Tara is in danger, not of the bombers who are still in the future, but because Tsuruko’s husband, Tatsuo (Itami Jûzô), is being pressed by the bank that employs him to move to Tokyo. And the upsetting of the Old Order is not the war Japan will lose, but the rejection of tradition by Takeo.

Having read a lot of Tanizaki, I am sure that the book’s literary qualities exceed those of Margaret Mitchell’s blockbuster, but, like GWTW, “The Makioka Sisters” is a soap opera, and there is strong illicit desire (Sachiko’s husband, the delicate Teinosuke [Ishizaka Kôji] for Yukiko the functional equivalent of Scarlett’s for Ashley who married Melanie). And keeping up appearances is a major concern in both movies, though the Makioka sisters do not need to retailor curtains: they have a veritable museum collection of kimonos.

The males in the movie are not as negligible as they are in much Tanizaki fiction. The attention to women’s clothes and exposed flesh (including one longing look at Yukiko’s feet by Teinosuke) is very Tanizaki. Tanizaki was “effeminate” in the older sense of the word in English: a man preoccupied with women and everything about them rather than woman-like. Ichikawa was not and made many movies mostly focused on male characters.


Though she had retired from writing screenplays at the time her husband undertook the Tokyo Olympics documentary in 1964 and died in 1983, it is difficult for me to believe that Wada Natto (née Mogi Yumiko in 1920) did not supply at least some advice for the adaptation of The Makioka Sisters. (She had been credited with the screenplay adapting Tanazaki’s The Key, which was luridly titled in English “Odd Obsession. [1959].)

The eye is Ichikawa’s with gorgeous and fluid camerawork by Hasegawa Kiyoshi (who also shot “The Devil’s Ballad” in 1977 for Ichikawa, a movie I had not heard of before looking at Hasegawa’s screen credits).

I consider “The Makioka Sisters” a late masterpiece from a great master, albeit a movie that I don’t especially like. Its appeal is more for a Douglas Sirk audience than a samurai or Godzilla movie audience.

The Criterion DVD looks great. The only bonus feature on the disc is a trailer. There is a booklet essay by Audie Bock that is excellent, but I’d forego bonus features to see more Ichikawa films. I could easily wish-list a box of them (for the Eclipse series?).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Tokyo Olympiad: the greatest Olympic documentary in color and arguably the greatest of sports documentaries



The official documentary of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, “Tokyo orimpikku,” is more readily available here than are most other Ichikawa film. I don’t know why I had not seen it before, having twice seen the mediocre “Walk, don’t run,” Cary Grant’s last movie that had the Tokyo Olympics as a background and explanation for lack of housing. There are many Olympic events that don’t interest me, and it seems to me that I’ve seen on tv enough flag-raising, national anthem-playing awards ceremonies more than enough for one lifetime. And for aestheticization (a broader term than “body fascism”), it is difficult to imagine anyone competing with Leni Riefenstahl’s great documentary of the very dramatic 1936 Berlin Olympics, “Olympia.”

Tokyo Olympiad” does include portrayal of some events in which I have no interest, but the angles and edits of some of these overcomes my uninterest in the particular sport. It’s surprising that in nearly three hours (170 minutes including an intermission) there is no diving, seemingly the most cinematic of events (and one portrayed memorably by Riefenstahl). There’s only a glimpse of boxing (including Joe Frazier) and basketball. There’s not much gymnastics either, though the gymnastic shots that are included are superbly shot.

Those who commissioned the documentary felt that there was too little coverage of Japanese athletes (who won more medals at home than before or since away from home), though it seems to me that Japanese also-rans are more likely to be included than also-rans from anywhere else except Chad (the lone contestant from the then-new nation intrigued Ichikawa). The protracted end of the Japan:USSR women’s volleyball final contest (finally won by Japan) commands a substantial amount of running time (whereas, one does not know from the movie which teams competed in the men’s final).


Insofar as there is a star of the show, it is the Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila winning his second gold medal (at the age of 35 and only a month after an appendectomy). If there is a theme I could induct from the five Ichikawa movies I’ve seen, it would be perseverance. I thought that it was characteristic that in the 2001 interview of Ichikawa included as a bonus feature on the Criterion DVD, he remembered everyone who started finishing, though the film shows an Irish runner who was among the first three to reach the first cooling station dropping out, and another being carried away, and the narration notes that ten of the 86 who started did not finish. The focus is on the strain of those who did finish (which, along with predisposition, explains Ichikawa’s misremembering). Abebe Bikila’s pace at the end is the same as at the beginning of the marathon and he appears less drained than some who took longer to return to the Olympic Stadium.

I deride NBC coverage of Olympics for the inordinate focus on American competitors, penchant for sob stories, and medal counting. Although there is some contemplation of the lone athlete from the Chad eating alone, there are no sob stories, no talking heads (interviews), and no running or final tallies of medals per country. From Ichikawa’s documentary, the viewer does not learn what country amassed the most medals in Tokyo (all the winners are listed in the booklet accompanying the Criterion DVD).

Ichikawa focused on individuals, especially Japanese and African ones, and in those two categories on those who did not win nearly as much as on those who did win medals. Winning was everything in the ancient Olympics (with no second or third-place finishes gaining recognition or adulation), and most of the athletes were trying to win, not just glory on having made it to the Olympics. And despite his interest in pain and suffering, Ichikawa does not slight triumphs.

I’ve already mentioned that the women’s volleyball match is followed to the end. The men’s 10,000 meter (an upset victory by the American runner Billy Mills) and the marathon are followed beyond the end (showing the last finishers). Some of the other high drama competitions are also included: the high-jump won by the Soviet athlete Valery Brumel, the pole-vaulting duel running far into the night (won by an American, Fred Hansen, after more than nine hours) and the two electrifying gold medal-winning races by Bob Hayes. At the time, Hayes was billed “the fastest man alive,” and may well be the fastest runner of modern times (considering the low-tech shoes, slow track, and scuffed-up inside lane on which he ran there and then). He was the first Olympic runner to turn in 10-second 100-meter dash and also overcame a three-stride disadvantage when he took the baton and somehow reached the finish line of the 400-meter relay first. (Alas, part of that final dash is eclipsed by someone’s red cap in the movie.) My interest in these events of triumphs by Americans perhaps suggest sthat I am not immune to the US focus of the televised Olympics I’ve watched since 1960?

Ultimately, I am more interested in “Tokyo Olympics” as film than as documentation of sporting event(s). Slow-motion (used sparingly here) is not a cliché of sports coverage, but some of the slow-motion closeups here remain fresh. The closeups in general were chosen with great discernment. There are also some great long-shots, most memorably the long take of the torch carrier passing in front of Mount Fujiyama at dusk (see below), overhead shots of the bicycle race, the marathon, and the always comical walking event. The women’s hurdles and the winning gymnasts are also filmed and edited particularly memorably.

TO6.jpgLike Kurosawa, Ichikawa loved telephoto lenses, and his cameramen scored many great images. However, a downside of using telephoto lenses is that it obscures the relative depth of objects, including racing human beings who look closer together than they were.

The Criterion DVD

Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, superbly transferred (with very few signs of age).

As I noted, there are no interviews and practically no dialog in “Tokyo Olympiad.” The Criterion DVD provides the Japanese voice-over narration with subtitles that are not burned in (that is, may be switched off). It also includes English-language narration by Peter Cowie, whose voice and attitude both annoy me. For those interested in one relatively cynical commentator placing the 1964 Olympics in the context of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the commentary track includes a great deal of information and opinion. It includes very little about the cinematic choices (here, my standard of comparison is the superb commentary track to Kurosawa’s “Red Beard” in the Criterion edition). Whereas the original movie has sparing narration, Cowie talks incessantly. He also sounds affected to me (and would to most Americans, I think). In short, what he was saying and how he was saying it so annoyed me that I only listened to about a third of the commentary track. When I watch it again, I’ll switch off the subtitltes, too.

The booklet is very substantial, including information on the film nearly being recut by the unhappy official sponsors (Ichikawa’s version was saved by international acclaim, starting at Cannes and became a box-office success in Japan) and the views of multiple experts (plus the listing of medal winners at the Tokyo games).

The interview with Ichikawa in the stadium in 2001 has some interesting statements, but the interview is long, involves some torturously long questions, and is visually dead. Considering that he was still alive and mentally sharp when the DVD was made, a commentary track from Ichikawa would have been more valuable (and I’d like to have had the option of a dubbed version of the original narration, too, but, I realize the picture is the thing, and the picture Criterion delivers is first-rate.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray



An Actor’s Revenge


In 1963 Ichikawa Kon was assigned to remake the 1936 “Yukinojô henge” as punishment (because his recent films had not made money). The very flamboyant result has been variously titled in English “An Actor’s Revenge,” “Revenge of a Kabuki Actor,” “The Revenge of Ukeno-Jo,” “The Revenge of Yukinojo.” The original title means “Yukinojô Transformed” (or “The Transformation of Yukinojô”). Yukinojô is a very popular oyama (male who not only performs female roles but lives the female role offstage as well). Everyone (in a Japanese audience) knows that the Kabuki female roles are played by biological males. I wonder if Yukinojô would be rendered in English now as an “actor” or an “actress” (with gender trumping sex these days in English).


The oyama herein turns out to be a skilled swordfighter (swordsman). Moreover, Hasegawa Kazuo not only plays Yukinojô, but also plays Yamitaro the Thief, the male observer and to some extent abettor of the revenge against three rich and corrupt natives of Nagasaki who drove Yukinojô’s parents to suicide, so I can accept “actor” and realize that the literal translation, “Yukinojô Transformed,” would not have particular appeal to audiences.

Not only the opening kabuki performance in which Yukinojô sees the fatuous merchants in a box watching the performance, but the whole movie, not least the fight scenes, are very stylized (studio-shot for starters), brilliantly filmed by Kobayashi Setsuo (who had shot “Fires on the Plain”, “Ten Dark Women,” and “Being Two Isn’t Easy” for Ichikawa, and would shoot “Princess from the Moon” much later, in 1987). There are scenes with large blocks of a single color (red, gold, blue) recalling Ichikawa’s background in graphic design.

Since (some? most?) Japanese accept the artificiality of fairly hulking males impersonating simpering, demure females in kabuki, it’s difficult for me to guess whether the movie seems as campy to Japanese as it does to me. (It seems campier to me now that when I first saw it decades ago at the Pacific Film Archives and knew less than I do now about Japanese culture in general, and gender-crossing roles in particular. I’m not even sure that I recognized that the movie was set in the waning decades of the Tokugawa Shogunate. And it remains difficult for me to distinguish what is parodying kabuki and what is stylized within kabuki theater.)

The merchants first seen in the box, Sansai (Nakamura Ganjiro) and Kawaguchi (Funakoshi Eiji) are accompanied by Sansai’s daughter, the shogun’s favorite concubine, Namiji (Wakao Ayako), who is staying with her father convalescing from something or another. Because she is what her father loves most in the world, Yukinojô realizes from the start that she is going to be collateral damage, not deserving the psychological torture he intends to inflict on her father and his co-conspirators—the third of whom is Hiromi (Yanagi Eijiriô).


I find it difficult to credit that a beautiful and privileged young woman would fall in love with a female impersonator (actors being of very low social status) decades her senior, but she is not the only one. The rather cocky and also quite attractive female pickpocket (Yamamoto Fujiko) also does. (She proclaims herself a man-hater, but eventually feels attraction to Yamitaro the Thief (feeling some resemblance of Tamitaro and Yukinojô, whom the audience realizes is played by the same actor). The movie should appeal to those interested in gender-bending and/or Japanese stylizations. The visual flamboyance is supplemented by a very eclectic soundtrack that combines jazz, folk music, and ambient sounds (as in Takemitsu’s sound-engineering.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray


The Wata/Ichikawa adaptation of Tanizaki’s “The Key”


Ichikawa Kon and his wife, Wada Naddo, adapted many novels, perhaps most notable The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Enjo) and The Burmese Harp, often making major changes as in changing the protagonist of the latter from Christian to Buddhist.

It is, perhaps, better not to have read the works they adapted (with the exception of Mishima’s). At least I found what I remembered of Tanizaki’s Kagi (The Key) getting in the way of watching what got titled in English “Odd Obsession” (1959). There are plot points remaining and the names of the characters, but the novel is about the consciousnesses as recorded in their diaries of the older husband needing help to avoid impotence, Kenomochi Kenji (Kanô Junko Nakamura Ganjirô [Enjo, An Actor’s Revenge, The Pornographers]) and the younger wife, Ikukuo (Kyô Machiko [Rashomon, Ugetsu]) aware that she is being used (plied with liquor and photographed while unconscious) and that jealousy stimulates her husband.

A young Nakadai Tatsuya plays the young man (Kimura, an intern treating the husband) at whom Ikuko is thrown, though he has been courting the daughter, Toshiko (Kanô Junko) whose face and figure are less beautiful than her mother.

Tanizaki juxtaposed the diary entries of the husband and wife. Ichikawa opens and closes with voiceovers from Kimura, who is slow to understand the game his patient is playing and eventually realizes that what he thought was a good match with Toshiko is not, since the house is mortgaged and the antiques belong to others (have been brought for appraisals and kept about by the devious older man).


And agency is exercized by Toshiko, and, more effectively, by a seemingly befuddled servant, Hana (Kitabayashi Tanie). I was right that the ending was quite different and pulled down the book and confirmed that Kimura was going to wed Toshiko as a cover for continuing his liaison with Ikuko. (In A Hundred Years of Japanese Cinema, Donald Richie called the movie ending “lazy”; it certainly traduces Tanizaki’s novel).


(maid, physician, husband, wife, daughter)

So Wada and Ichikawa radically (and melodramatically) changed the ending as well as jettisoning what makes the novel interesting: the subjectivities of Ikuko and Kenji and their awareness of what the other has written. It would have been difficult to keep the divergent narrations of Kenji and Ikuko, but substituting Kimura’s to some extent and the foreshadowed almost-farcical poisoning seems to me betrayal of the source, which was not a satire on materialism or narcissism, though Tanizaki’s characters were without question narcissistic, and at least Kenji was materialistic, but also was passionate (consciously risking his life for sexual arousal directed at his wife of decades). Even without any foot fetishism (a Tanizaki hallmark), the movie was voyeuristic, which, perhaps was not the forte of the great cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo (Rashomon, Ugestu, Sansho the Bailiff, Enjo, Yojimbo) who also shot Ozu’s second version of “Floating Weeds” in 1959

The movie tied with “L’avventura” for the Cannes Jury Prize, with four other movies including “Wild Strawberries” and “Black Orpheus” for a Golden Globe. For me, “Fires on the Plain” was the great Ichikawa movie from 1959 (following “Enjo” from 1958).

I’d like to see the 1975 adaptation of Natsume Sôseki’s I am a Cat with Nakadai. Criterion did release on DVD Ichikawa’s 1982 adaptation of Tanizaki’s magnum opus, The Makioka Sisters and the great “Tokyo Olympiad” and the delirious “An Actor’s Revenge,” about each of which I’ll be posting in coming days).


©2015, Stephen O. Murray

(This should have been posted before what I wrote about the 1962 “Being Two Isn’t Easy.” Neither is available in the US on DVD, though both were on VHS.)

Being Two Isn’t Easy


I had confused Ichikawa Kon ‘s (1962) “Watashi wa nisai” (Being Two Isn’t Easy) with Ozu’s (1959) charming “Ohayô” (Good Morning).* Long before the “Look Who’s Talking” movies, Ichikawa had an infant narrator (a less sardonic one) reporting frustrations with his parents’ child-rearing (and appreciating his doting paternal grandmother’s). The baby boy is heard from often, but by no means provides continuous narration. There is at least one terrifying scene that does not include him at all, and he is often sleeping during conversations between his parents, , who would also play a major role the next year in Ichikawa’s “An Actor’s Revenge ,” and some of those between his mother and his grandmother (Urabe Kumeko).

The movie is a little gooey a portrait of parenthood maturing parents and extremely different from Ichikawa’s grisly WWII dramas “Fire on the Plains” and “The Burmese Harp.” He had great range, also pulling together the greatest of Olympic documentaries, “Tokyo Olympiad” (1965).


BTW, “Being Two” is about the first year of the baby boy. Japanese are considered to be one year old when they are born, and the film ends with the anniversary of his birth (turning two by Japanese reckoning, one by Anglophone). The infant boy first voices over blurry images when he is nineteen days old.

I think it is the mother’s sister (though it may have been a neighbor in the apartment building onto the stairway of which the boy has wandered) who tells the mother that it is necessary to keep the child in view every minute until he starts kindergarten. This one is quite a handful, quickly learning how to open his crib, whether it is tied shut or screwed shut, and visualizing climbing over the barrier his father builds to keep him inside the apartment.

One of the funniest scenes in the movie has a roomful of squalling children who got separated from their parents at the zoo. Of course, our protagonist is puzzled why he is there and why all these children are making so much noise. Other than being confined with other children, his primary interest at the zoo is watching monkeys. His father thinks he should be more interested in elephants and giraffes, but it does not surprise me that monkeys exercise special fascination for very young children (I’m pretty sure for me in the day). Being Japanese, the boy is also transfixed by the moon, seeing it sometimes as a banana, sometimes as the benign face of his grandmother.

The muted conflicts between the parents generally stem from the father’s half-hearted at best ventures into taking any responsibility for housework or child-rearing. His mother, with whom they go to live when the son who has been living with her is transferred from Tokyo to Osaka, is adamant that a man should do nothing at home except relax. And, as grandparents are prone to, she spoils the child to the dismay of her daughter-in-law.

Being a parent of an infant is not easy, as the film reminds viewers. I think the movie appeals not only to those who have raised newborn children but to everyone who has ever been a baby.

* Getting television sets is a major plot element in Ozu’s movie, as well as Ichikawa’s. The headstrong boy in Ozu’s is older than the one in Ichikawa’s.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Ichikawa’s 1958 “Enjo”

Ichikawa’s 1958 film “Enjo” (1958) has been variously titled in English “Conflagration,” “Flame of Torment,” and “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.” The last is the usual translation of the title of the Mishima 1956 novel that it illustrates, the Kinkakuji temple in Kyoto that was burned down in 1950 by a 22-year-old novice monk. It is very hard to formulate any common themes or to find any visual pattern in the Ichikawa films I’ve been able to see, though the despair of “Enjo” is at least somewhat connectable to the defeat and destruction of the war of “The Burmese Harp” and “Fires on the Plain.”


When I saw it for the first time long ago (on a date!), I thought that the film aimed to make the audience forgive the very antisocial act of burning down a “national treasure,” the exquisite ancient temple that had survived American fire bombing of Japanese cities. Watching it again on video(tape; it’s not, alas, available on DVD), I think that Mishima thought that the stuttering boy who destroys what he loves more than anything (or anyone) else—the temple—was justified, because it was being profaned by ignorant and unreverent tourists and by an abbot whose mistress bears a son the night that Mizoguchi Goichi (Ichikawa Raizô) sets the fire. Mishima himself was given to excessive reactions to what he considered the trampling of what he considered the glories of Japaneseness, culminating in his theatrical suicide.


There is also the Buddhist perspective, which may be that attachments, especially attachment to things, make attaining enlightenment impossible. Against such musings is the lack of enlightenment—and even of the prime Buddhist virtue of compassion—of any of the characters.

That Goichi burns down the temple is established at the very beginning (so noting it is not a “plot spoiler”!), because he is in police custody, not responding to interrogation. The flashbacks begin with him bearing a letter from his father to the abbot Tayama Dosen (Nakamura Ganjiro, who was an Ichikawa core trouper {An Actor’s Revenge, The Key]) who had been a friend since student days of the elder Mizoguchi. The abbot takes the now-fatherless boy in, provides for him, sends him to school, and considers him a possible successor despite Goichi’s painful stutter. The abbot is very disappointed in Goichi, and Goichi is very pained by what the abbot believes are his failings. (The abbot reflects on some of his own failings and sees the conflagration as due to his sins and unfitness as its custodian.)

Goichi is shy and venerates the temple more than anything else, including any possible vocation as a priest. He forms a fairly insidious relationship with a nihilistic, crippled student Tokari (Nakadai Tatsuya [who also starred in “The Key”]). He suffers inarticulately, but visibly. If he were an American teenager in 2016, he might go on a killing rampage. He is the 1950s, Japanese version of the puzzle of violent lashing out. Except, as I said, I am less convinced now than I was the first time I saw “Enjo” that Mishima and Ichikawa consider it senseless violence. I still feel sorry for Goichi, and perhaps it is a latent pyromania in me that find the conflagration of that old, polished wood quite beautiful.

More likely, it is the cinematography of Miyagawa Kazuo. Most of the film is very dark (and I remember this being true when I saw it projected, so it is not the video transfer)—dimly lit, but in sharp focus. The scenes are beautifully framed. I don’t remember any camera movement, and frequently there is very little movement of the actors either. Miyagawa filmed some of the greatest of Japanese films, including “Ugetsu” and “Sansho the Bailiff” for Mizoguchi. “Rashomon,” “Yojimbo,” and some of “Kagemusha” for Kurosawa. Thus, he did much to define the look of classic Japanese films, at least the American canon of classic Japanese films. (The Japanese I meet know nothing of these films. It’s not that they have an alternate canon of postwar Japanese films, but that they cannot conceive of anyone being interested in old black and white films. Perhaps, I meet the wrong Japanese, and there are admirers of the heritage of the great masters—though Donald Richie, the person most responsible for introducing Japanese art films to American audiences, agreed with me when I recently asked him] Mishima also seems better known in America than in Japan now.

The film may be a meditation on vandalism and isolation or on the dangers of attachment. There is a plot and some action, but the main reason to see “Enjo” is its visual brilliance.

(The real arsonist, Yoken Hayashi, attempted suicide, but survived to be tried and sentenced to seven years imprisonment, He was released in 1955, because he was considered mentally ill (shizophrenci) and soon died of tuberculosis. The abbot of the rebuiltpavilion asked that the movie not use the old name, Kinkauji, which had been Mishima’s title. The official name is now Rokuon-ji, “Deer Garden Temple.”)


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Ichikawa’s “Harp of Burma” (1956)


“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