Burmese Harp Reviews
Its been called an "anti-war" film but I'm not so sure that was foremost in the minds of those who brought this story to the screen. It seems, in retrospect, to be more of a soldier's portrait that has been stripped of its patriotic facade. Whatever their intent, the film makers have given us an under-rated gem that should not be missed.
So far, so good. But the execution of this story is surprisingly mawkish -- an unusual flaw considering that, if anything, Japanese movie characters tend to be too stoic. The problems begin with the music -- this delicate troop of choirboys loves nothing more than to burst into song. Naturally, their solemn, traditional hymns are delivered with perfect pitch and studio acoustics. The songs only seem cornier and more implausible as the film continues -- to give an idea of the script's subtlety, the most repeated tune is "Home, Sweet Home." There's even a second squad who turns up with a hidden talent for choral arrangements. Yup, it's a sing-off.
The weepy sentimentality is further upped by the overuse of talking parrots to convey heartfelt messages, plus the unlikelihood of soldiers in a prison camp being concerned with almost nothing except the fate of their one separated friend. It's all rather heavy-handed -- I found myself thinking of the preachier pacifist episodes of "The Twilight Zone."
If you can filter the above out of your experience and just focus on the philosophical journey of the wayward soldier Mizushima, "The Burmese Harp" holds its own as an affecting anti-war film.
The cinematography is highly appropriate for the subject matter of the film. There are many wide-angle pans throughout the film which highlight both things of beauty and things of horror. The black-and-white film emphasizes the juxtaposition of shadow and color. The result is a subdued feeling while watching the film. The imagery of the vast country, the sky, and of piles of dead soldiers combined with the sorrowful and soulful songs left me feeling morose through the duration of the film.
Ichikawa also uses many close-ups throughout the film. During the scene where the monk is nursing Mizushima, the camera cuts between close-ups of the monk to close-ups of a Burmese idol several times while Mizushima lies immobile. This is where his spiritual transformation takes place. The close-up was also used effectively during the scene where Mizushima?s feet are cut with the feet of his comrades. Mizushima was out walking in the country while the men were walking in the internment camp, but the camera cut back and forth between them as if they were still together.
Ichikawa was the perfect director for this film. Many directors would have turned the film into a blatant anti-war vehicle full of horrific scenes and excessive melodrama. Ichikawa handled the film with subtlety, however. His imagery fits flawlessly with the story and the music. The captain?s reading of the letter during the trip home is an incredibly touching scene which explains the meaning of the film so aptly. It is a fine and appropriate culmination to a lovely film.
I stick with a 4.5/5 rating because the story is still great, and well told. To the point of being downright moving.
In the "idiots on IMDB" files, someone has said that an American version of this movie would be about good Nazis. Leaving aside the conflation of German soldiers and Nazis, there's a much larger problem. Which is that this isn't a Burmese film about good Japanese soldiers, which it would have to be for the analogy to work. However, this is a Japanese movie about good Japanese soldiers. Every side sympathizes with its own, after all. The better equivalent would be an American film about good Confederates, and even that's an imperfect analogy. These are just ordinary soldiers who've spent unknown amounts of time out in the jungle. Oh, they were assuredly part of an occupying force, And "just obeying orders" only goes so far, but I think part of the point of the movie is that these are just ordinary guys who are fighting a war they think they have to and once it's over just want to go home. Any country can make a film about that, and probably just about every country has.
The war is ending. Captain Inouye (Rentar˘ Mikuni) is a basically good man. Like so many other soldiers--at this point in any of the armies, officers--he didn't start as a soldier. He wasn't a career man. He was a musician. This is probably why one of his soldiers, Mizushima (Sh˘ji Yasui), takes up the titular Burmese harp. In fact, they use it as a method of communication, because the sound of that harp in Burma isn't exactly uncommon, though perhaps more so in the jungle. One day, they are told that the war is over, and they are to report to prisoner of war camps to be repatriated. Which they agree to do. Only one group of holdouts is still in a cave up on a mountain, and the British Army decides that a Japanese soldier must go and try to talk them into surrender. For reasons I'm not clear on, Mizushima is the one Captain Inouye sends. He is given half an hour to convince them, and he fails. The cave is bombed, and every man in it but Mizushima is killed. He is found and cared for by a Buddhist monk, and in turn, Mizushima becomes one. He also begins burying soldiers' bodies, though he is still draw back to Mudon, where his unit is held.
Okay. It is true that this movie has nothing to say on the subject of atrocities committed by the Japanese Army in Burma. It does not mention any Japanese atrocities at all. The soldiers we are concerned with here spend more time singing than anything else; we don't really ever see them fire their weapons. It is true that Mizushima's interest lies in the Japanese soldiers left unburied across the country. He is not interested in the Burmese or the Allies. It is also, however, true that the British Army treats the Japanese soldiers very well, almost to the extent of letting them wander wherever they want to. They're in an enclosure surrounded by barbed wire, but at one point, they're also shown at a Buddhist temple--and it's only when the whole lot of them seem about to run off into the jungle that anyone says anything to them. There is also the old woman (Tanie Kitabayashi, I think, unless she had a name and I missed it), who comes and goes into the camp as she pleases.
The point, though, is to show this one man. I don't think anyone with any sense will claim that all Japanese soldiers throughout the war committed Rape of Nanking-level atrocities. I think it likely that at least some of these men availed themselves of "comfort women" earlier in the war. Probably at least one of them had done more, though we don't know for sure. However, none of that actually matters in context. Even, as has been pointed out, assuming that a film showing that could have been made in Japan at the time. It's dicey to think that it could be made in Japan now! However, what we are looking at here is Mizushima's personalization of the horrors of war. There is nothing he can do for the comfort women or the people of Nanking. What he can do, he can do for his countrymen. Probably on his quest, he will bury a lot of other soldiers, too. I can't see him saying, "No, you're not Japanese." Not if his new belief structure is to be at all believable. But it's what gets us at home that we feel first, and it's more striking to its intended audience.
There's very good music in this movie. Honestly, I thought it sounded a little studio-y, and that one little harp turns out to have an awful lot of range. Of course, I'm not familiar with that variety of harp, and it may. It's also probably true that, yes, the music was recorded in a studio and the men are lip-synching. However, I kind of don't care. The film is striking, musically and visually as well, of course, but mostly for its emotional depths. We are mostly focused on the journey of Mizushima. However, in watching that, it's easy to miss the path of Captain Inouye. He goes in a different direction and reaches a different conclusion, but probably it is a conclusion reached by Japanese men all over the theatre. Mizushima is going to care for the Japan left in the jungles and on the beaches of Burma. Inouye and the others are going home to care for the Japan they left behind. That it will not be that same Japan is something they must discover for themselves.
The poetry becomes clearer at the end of the film, when we see the two mimicking parrots sitting on Mizushima's shoulder. Each is a symbol for a life: on the one shoulder, the call for a return to pre-war life ("Return with us to Japan!"), and on the other, the reality of post-war life ("I can't go with you!"). Saddled between these two is death. It is the forgotten, the unexpressed -- a great debt which can never be repayed.
Mizushima, as the lingering ghost of battle, takes it upon himself to honor his fallen comrades with a proper burial. Realizing his task impossible in a blood-soaked countryside, he can only settle by offering a brilliant red ruby in the place of his countrymen's ashes. The gem's luster becomes hidden from the world, and like the spirits of the fallen, it is offered up back to the earth.