A search for spiritual enlightenment in the midst of wartime violence is the crux of The Burmese Harp (1956)
A few weeks ago I posted a review of Kenji Mizoguchi's Musashino fujin (1951), which charted the lives of a family in the wake of WWII, when Tokyo - a rising utopia - had been bombed to hell, forcing citizens into other districts including the marshes of Mizoguchi's melodrama. The reason I mention this is that early on in The Burmese Harp Captain Inouye (Rentarô Mikuni), after being taken prisoner as the result of Japan's surrender, notes that life in Japan is no longer the same. "All of Japan has been heavily bombed. Many are dead. Many are homeless and starving. Our country lies in ruins..." To me his words recalled the opening scene of Musashino fujin, which finds an impoverished couple hobbling away from the rubble and ash of their beloved Tokyo in a stunning tableau that sees death, rising in the form of smoke, overpowering the frame and belittling the characters. It was as if that image were a memory of my own experience. For a moment the emotion simply overwhelmed me, as the soldiers under Inouye's command resigned themselves to an unknown fate, thousands of miles from home. More and more in my mind it's becoming clear that the Japanese were masters of evoking the feeling of life during wartime - whether it be the family-based melodrama of Mizoguchi, or the poetic minimalism of Kon's spiritual adventure.
Ichikawa began life as an artist and his film career in animation - his first feature was a puppet short entitled Kachikachi yama (1934) and it wouldn't be until he made The Burmese Harp for the Nikkatsu company (part of a three-picture contract) that he would become a respected figure on the international stage. The film, adapted from the novel Harp Of Burma by Michio Takeyama, was originally to be shot in colour on an old three strip system (all that was available to the company at the time) but as Ichikawa was planning to shoot on location in Burma the huge cameras would have been too cumbersome and impractical. The crew would eventually end up shooting in Japan, capturing the locations in a stunning black and white courtesy of DoP Minoru Yokoyama. Ichikawa's beginnings as an artist would serve The Burmese Harp immensely - indeed, the painterly composition and attention to shading, as well as the attention to colour in the dialogue, help to make the film as gorgeous as anything from the period.
The film has two central narrative threads that run parallel to each other. Captain Inouye is a former music teacher who has taught his unit to sing chorally; additionally a young solider named Mizushima (Shôji Yasui) has learnt to play the harp. This also comes in useful during tactical situations - Mizushima can scout ahead, for example, and play the 'all clear' song if there are no enemy traces to be found. It can also be a diversion - the unit can prepare arms while singing, to give the enemy the impression that they are unaware of their position, while they actually prepare to attack. It is soon discovered that Japan has surrendered and the Pacific War has come to an end - therefore the men are taken to a British POW camp, where Mizushima is sent on a special mission by the British (with Inouye's consent) to force a unit in the mountainous regions to surrender. The unit are all older, classical military men - in fact, they reminded me of Col. Blimp - who are non-defeatists and feel shamed by their country's decision to surrender. They decide to stand their ground in a suicide offensive; a stand of pride, and just after Mizushima tries to stop them with the waving of a white flag, the unit is bombed and killed. Everyone dies except for Mizushima, who attempts to make his way to the POW camp to rejoin his captain. Before long starvation and fatigue set in, and he encounters a pack of vultures feasting on the bodies of fallen soldiers.
It is here that the film makes a radical departure from the novel and Ichikawa's natural storytelling abilities come to the fore. In the novel Mizushima (after weakening and fainting) is saved by a group of cannibals who, after nursing him back to health, plan to eat him alive. Such nonsense is not suitable for the naturalistic and humanist tale Ichikawa had his sights set on (although he was a fan of the book) and the plot was changed to Mizushima being saved by a Buddhist monk whose clothes Mizushima steals when he is bathing. At first the solider merely poses as a monk and teaches a young boy to play harp, but this is the key element of the film. Music is salvation for the soul, an expression of deep feeling without words, a way of building bridges with enemy opponents (which is literally represented in one obvious scene) and a way to neutralize conflict. Inouye's unit are first seen singing to relax themselves; perhaps to find harmony in the midst of war. Next we hear the harp on the defensive; a deterrent to the advancing British soldiers as the unit prepare arms at a stronghold. Music will next be used to form a silent bond between a mentally fractured soldier and a lonely young boy. Finally, the harp is played in a moment of heartbreaking beauty, as Mizushima serenades his ex-comrades, as he is now on a journey to bring peace to all those who fell without a grave. Music in The Burmese Harp originates from violence, emerges as a mediator and ends on a simplistic moment of transcendental grace - a communication through barbed wire that says more than a thousand words. It's not just the soul of the film; its truly a representation of the soul.
Lets backtrack slightly, to highlight the double narrative. The first strand concerns Mizushima, who at first only steals the monks clothes as to disguise himself, but the guise soon starts to take an effect on him. As he sees the corpses littered on the beaches of Burma - the charcoaled remains of brave men that he could have fought beside, he comes to the realization that nobody will put these men to rest. Our world is an unjust one, and one without compromise. The young boy whom Mizushima teaches to play harp takes him to the burial of an unknown solider. A soldier with no name. His identity, like his body, is soon to be lost to the ground and never known again. The war now exists internally; shall Mizushima deny his true calling or rejoin his men to go back home? He does, of course, choose the former - but in a beautiful letter to his comrades at the finale he expresses with great honesty the hardship of that decision and how he longs to be with them, and see home once again. He learns (or perhaps never learns, but willingly accepts) that the task he has accepted is bigger than him. Truly his destiny is a divine one. The second narrative concerns Inouye and the imprisoned unit as they struggle in claustrophobic confines and worry for the well-being of their comrade. Some accept him as dead but Inouye won't quit until he's found the man he feels responsible for. Mizushima does indeed appear to the men at the barbed wire fence, but they do not recognize him as a monk (they do suspect it is him, however). The two stories occasionally mesh with one another, but they are equally powerful individually. Scenes of Mizushima dragging charred soldiers into their graves are devastating, as is the scene where Inouye locates a small box that he had seen the monk carrying. Reduced from 143 to the current 116 minutes every scene is vital, and the narrative journey is perfectly constructed; in fact, not a single scene feels out of place in the context of the whole piece. One of the final shots in the film sees the warm orange sun radiating over an oil-black ocean; light illuminating the dark. It comes after the reading of Mizushima's letter and could be seen as a sign that he is still with the unit in heart, watching over them. Either way the souls of these savaged, war-torn men - who have seen horrors no man should see - have been salvaged by the monk, and by the soothing strings of his harp, which sing a universal language. I don't think I've ever seen a film where music is so instrumental (excuse the pun) to the narrative in the sense that it doesn't just underscore the film, but it is the film.
The Burmese Harp, as well as being anti-war and pro-faith, contains a journey totally in touch with the human spirit. Indeed, its transcendental beauty defies description and an attempt would be useless - the presence of soul and compassion here cannot be described with words. It reaches places within me that I didn't know I had, and that's a level of filmmaking that disregards the need for cerebral analysis or critical poking. Forget everything you think you know and believe me when I say that this is one of the best films you'll ever see... because it really is.
Extras: Typically informative for a MoC release, there's a 40 page essay booklet with rare black-and-white production stills, a video interview with Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns (who also provided Criterion notes) and the original Japanese theatrical trailer. The image and sound have also been remastered for this edition and the English subtitles are more accurate than ever.