The Burmese Harp

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #379: Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp.


The Burmese Harp seems less the anti-war film it is often billed as, and more of a post-war re-eval­u­a­tion of Japan­ese nation­al­ism. For prac­ti­cal pur­pos­es there are two char­ac­ters in this film, the desert­er Mizushi­ma and the rest of his bat­tal­ion. After the Japan­ese sur­ren­der, both char­ac­ters find them­selves bereft and in search of a new direc­tion now that their ide­ol­o­gy of Impe­r­i­al Japan no longer exists. This loss is com­pound­ed by their expa­tri­a­tion in Bur­ma and British cap­tiv­i­ty; they are orphaned in a for­eign land and unable to return to their home for heal­ing. Because of this it is not sur­pris­ing that they cling to one anoth­er; when Mizushi­ma goes miss­ing after an attempt to save the lives of some stal­wart Japan­ese hold­outs, the rest of the bat­tal­ion spends the film con­cerned with his dis­cov­er­ing his where­abouts and then con­vinc­ing him to come home with them.


Mizushima’s fail­ure to con­vince the Japan­ese at Tri­an­gle Moun­tain to sur­ren­der, and their result­ing destruc­tion in his pres­ence [and his wound­ing], are life-chang­ing events. He is nursed by a Bud­dhist monk and con­vinced to rid him­self of the past and take vows. Yet, for a man who has sworn to start anew, he has a tor­tur­ous time com­ing to grips with this. On his jour­neys he repeat­ed­ly stum­bles across the unburied and unmourned corpses of Japan­ese sol­diers. The emo­tion­al toll this takes on him doesn’t reach its peak until he arrives in Mudon and watch­es the bur­ial of a British sol­dier with full hon­or. Dis­traught, he heads back into the wilder­ness to bury his dead broth­ers at arms, by hand. This vague­ly pen­i­ten­tial pur­pose brings him great respect all over Bur­ma; instead of inflict­ing suf­fer­ing as a solid­er, he endures his own to ease that of oth­ers.

I’ve not yet men­tioned the role that music plays in this film, and it is an impor­tant one. The bat­tal­ion cap­tain is a trained choir­mas­ter and in the rough times in the Burmese jun­gle trains his men in the ways of choral singing. Mizushi­ma plays the role of accom­pa­nist with his Burmese harp. The music through­out the film is out­stand­ing, and it even saves the Japan­ese lives on the night of their sur­ren­der, as the tune they sing is well-known to the British. At the very begin­ning of the film, the cap­tain says that the ease of singing is meant for times of suf­fer­ing, and there seems to be a direct cor­re­la­tion between his battalion’s rea­son­able­ness and ratio­nal­i­ty in con­tem­plat­ing sur­ren­der and their love of music. The con­trast to this is the resis­tant hon­or-unto-death atti­tude of the Japan­ese at Tri­an­gle Moun­tain. Thus, Mizushima’s spir­i­tu­al jour­ney con­tains a com­po­nent of ten­sion between these two atti­tudes as well.


In the end the bat­tal­ion and Mizushi­ma take inevitable sep­a­rate paths toward the same goal. The bat­tal­ion is eager to con­tin­ue in its com­po­nent lives back in Japan, and Mizushi­ma is focused on putting to rest all of his dead com­rades. Every­one is mov­ing on and com­ing to terms with their new lives. Mizushima’s monas­tic life inter­sect­ed the battalion’s in a way that made him tru­ly seem dead to the past, a silent ghost, except for the music of the Burmese harp; a reminder that there are ties that bind between cul­ture, dis­tance, reli­gion and even death. This is a beau­ti­ful, wretched movie, def­i­nite­ly the kind of film meant for the Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion.