The Burmese Harp

The Burmese Harp (1956)

The Burmese Harp
6.6/10 by 10 users

In the War's closing days, when a conscience-driven Japanese soldier fails to get his countrymen to surrender to overwhelming force, he adopts the lifestyle of a Buddhist monk.

Original Title:Biruma no tategoto
Release Date:January 21, 1956
Genres:Drama, Foreign, Music, War
Production Company:Nikkatsu
Production Countries:Japan
Director:Kon Ichikawa
Casts:, , , , , , , , , ,
Plot Keywords:japan, world war ii, burma
  • Japanese soldiers as officers and gentlemen, plus one Buddhist
    June 15, 2003
    This is a justly famous film and well-received by reviewers, however, I could not watch the film without a sense of ironic detachment, especially when it is a Japanese filmmaker who is making a movie about his country's soldiers during WWII, and in a spot made notoriously hot for their enemies, Burma.
    I could not but feel that whatever the good and pacifist intentions of the scriptwriters and director, that there was a disingenuousness about the depiction of Japanese soldiers as polite and caring gentlemen who could do no wrong. The key character here who saves the film is Mizushima, the one soldier who defects to become a Buddhist priest, and is not only outstandingly musical, but also able to "look like a native" Burmese, when wearing a sarong. Mizushima has the symbolic role of the Japanese conscience after the aftermath of WWII, when countries who were attacked and subjugated by the Japanese were still reeling from the atrocities suffered at their hands. The fact that only one female, that of an old Burmese woman, appears in this film -- she conducts friendly exchanges of fruit with the soldiers -- is another ironic detail, when one remembers that scores of women and young girls were raped and prostituted by Japanese soldiers in virtually everyone of their occupied countries.
    Is one to take the skillful filming -- all the poetic shots of scenery and of actors' faces admired by other reviewers -- at face value? Mizushima, the soldier who fails to convince the holdouts to surrender (the only reference to Japanese fanaticism), is the only one who undergoes a spiritual change by the war and who suffers any guilt: he not only rejects further killing and his life as a soldier, but he alone rejects his nationality; this is signified by his desire not to return to Japan with his fellow soldiers at the end of the war. As part of the cast, there is a role for a pair of talking parrots, who have been trained to mimic the pleadings of his compatriots to return to Japan. They offer a light but additionally ironic touch to contrast the difference in Mizushima's and the other soldiers' attitudes. Nowhere in the film, except in the stance of passive resistance that the Buddhist priest is known to take, do the soldiers or the filmmakers acknowledge the aggression of their own country as the cause of the war and reason for all these deaths. On the other hand, the "enemy" is also emasculated of his adversarial role by the filmmakers' particular stance, and the viewer is made to feel that the Japanese seem to have felt no enmity toward them. Was I alone in this reaction?
    Music, moreover, plays a particularly important role: hearty choral singing-- especially using the tune "There's no place like home" -- and harp playing are offered as palliatives to the director's pacifism. In this movie, the harp is a fascinatig symbol. Now I have never heard a Burmese harp, but have listened to much harp music. I wonder whether the music heard over the soundtrack could possibly be that of the instrument that we actually see: what we see is a relatively simple lyre, with no more than an octave range of strings; it undergoes considerable banging about as a result of being carried around on the shoulder, and we never hear it being properly tuned. Yet when the soldiers sing and the harp joins in, it sounds like a Healy concert harp with deep bass resonance. While I enjoyed and admired the music, I also felt that the director was manipulating the listener's emotions more than necessary.
    Am I being too literal? Should I be suspending judgement and accepting the whole movie as an allegory? I wonder. When a film is shot in sharp and shadowy black and white, as if it were a documentary, and we see actual scenery and sunsets, it is difficult to suspend judgement, yet that is what the director is asking us to do.
    The upshot of my reaction is that, I feel it is a film worth viewing for the forceful viewpoint of the director, but that the viewer need be forewarned that it represents a white-washed, factually romanticized, conscience of the filmmaker. On a very distant opposing scale of values, may I recommend the films of Ozu Yasujiro. His post-war films speak eloquently of the effects of war on the daily lives of people of conscience, yet without histrionics and without having to even mention the word "war" or "soldiering."
    Of four **** stars, I would give it three***.