Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp (1956) is one of those movies I’ve heard about for years—or at least seen on lists of key Japanese cinema titles—but have never bumped into. I experienced one of those wonderful “wow” moments that sometimes happen when playing catch-up. I found this gentle story about Japanese soldiers in post-war Burma (though they don’t know it’s post-war at the beginning) thoroughly engrossing in its humanism and often heartbreakingly beautiful in both tone and image. I’m saddened, upon looking into the film’s history, that this is one of those movies that has somehow fallen slightly out of favor in recent years—and wonder if that says more about recent years than it does about the film.
At the beginning of the film, the small troop is limping through the wilderness of Burma, keeping up their spirits as best they can by singing. It helps that their captain (Rentarô Mikuni) is musically inclined and one of the men, Mizushima (Shôji Yasui), has fashioned a harp like the ones played in Burma and uses it to accompany them. They chance upon a village that offers them hospitality, but soon find themselves surrounded by British soldiers. Attempting to make the enemy believe they’re unaware of their presence, they sing, and are surprised when they undertake a Japanese version of “Home, Sweet Home” to find the opposing army joining in. At first, they think the soldiers are also Japanese, until they realize the words are in English. It’s a curious, strangely moving sequence that bridges the two worlds—and not entirely because the British know that Japan has surrendered. No, this has as much to do with their common humanity.
The troop is hardly war-minded. They are perfectly happy to give themselves over to the British—though they’re reasonably skeptical of what will happen to them. However, not all Japanese soldiers are quite this philosophical. There is, in fact, a contingent of soldiers in a mountain fortress who are determined to fight on. Mizushima is sent to them as an emissary in an attempt by the British not to have to blast them out of existence. The group, however, refuses to surrender, and Mizushima is caught up in the British bombing, but isn’t killed. Nursed back to health by a Buddhist monk, he attempts to make it back to his own men—now in a prison camp awaiting repatriation—disguised as a monk. But things are not so easy, since his mind is plagued by visions of the hundreds, if not thousands of unburied dead Japanese soldiers he encounters on his journey.
The largest part of the film concerns his men trying to find him and the conflict Mizushima experiences over the changes made in him by the journey and his personal transformation into the role he at first only adopted as a disguise. In his mind, these changes make it impossible to go back to whatever normal life might still exist for him—at least until he manages to do right by the fallen soldiers by giving them a decent burial. In terms of plot, that’s really all there is to the film, but thematically a great deal more is taking place.
Beautifully photographed and warmly played by a winning cast, The Burmese Harp is one of the most astonishingly uncynical films to come out of the post-war era. It is also perhaps the most philosophical and forgiving. Do not, however, assume that it’s all sweetness and light. This is a tough-minded work that doesn’t flinch at showing the masses of decomposing corpses that lie in the wake of the war. That Ichikawa has managed to create something lyrical and beautiful out of this is an achievement of considerable note.