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.