Appellate Judge Dan Mancini thought this Japanese classic was renamed The Myanmar Harp in 1989.
I gaze on the moon
The Burmese Harp is such a powerful and unusual war film that director Kon Ichikawa (Fires on the Plain, Tokyo Olympiad) made it twice: a decent full color version in 1985 co-starring Bunta Sugawara (Battles Without Honor and Humanity), and this original (and superior) black-and-white outing from 1956.
Facts of the Case
In 1945, a Japanese regiment in Burma softens the drudgery, terror, and loneliness of war by singing to the harp accompaniment of Private Mizushima (Shoji Yasui, Swords of Vengeance). In a Burmese village, the men encounter a group of British soldiers and learn of Hirohito's formal surrender to the Allies. They give up their arms. As the regiment is taken south to a prison camp in Mudon, Captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni, Harakiri) gives Mizushima a special mission. A group of Japanese soldiers is holed up on Triangle Mountain and besieged by British troops. Mizushima is to go to the mountain, inform his fellow soldiers of the Japanese surrender, and persuade them to lay down arms.
When Mizushima's mission fails tragically, the heartbroken soldier takes on the guise of a Buddhist monk and wanders the countryside. During his travels, the young man discovers delicate beauty and nobility in the horrors he witnesses. Meanwhile, his fellow soldiers believe he's dead. They mourn his loss even as they're haunted by the odd familiarity of the monk they encounter from time to time during their imprisonment. Finally convinced the monk and their comrade are one and the same, the soon to be repatriated soldiers scheme and struggle to convince Mizushima to return to Japan with them.
For its first 20 or so minutes, The Burmese Harp feels like the weirdest, darkest musical ever made. The movie opens with a group of Japanese soldiers bivouacked in the Burmese jungle and singing a traditional tune in order to pass the time. Later, the same soliders march into a village and are welcomed by locals. They watch in delight as the Burmese perform a little song and dance. The festivities are interrupted, though, by the arrival of British troops. Cloistered in a hut, the Japanese soldiers peer out at the jungle, listening to the movements of the British soldiers, who begin singing "Home, Sweet Home." Private Mizushima accompanies the Brits on his harp and soon enough the Japanese soldiers have joined their enemies, singing the English traditional in their native tongue. It's an odd scene; slow, distended, and a little goofy. It's also surprisingly suspenseful because we're not quite sure whether or not violence will erupt out of the surreal comraderie.
Ichikawa handles this odd and somewhat awkard introduction with such sure-footed skill that it only barely feels like a deficiency. It's widely noted that the director began as an animator, then moved on to make dozens of light comedies before expanding his filmmaking horizons with movies like The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain. This experience developed Ichikawa into a formidable visual stylist. The musical standoff between the British and Japanese soldiers might be interminably long except that Ichikawa gives us shot after perfectly composed shot. The movie is loaded with so many arresting compositions one begins to take them for granted—or at least accept them as naturalistic.
If The Burmese Harp is a lesser film than Fires on the Plain (and it is), it's because it isn't about characters so much as ideas. We experience the Japanese soldiers' plight less as the suffering of individual human beings than as a moment of cultural upheaval. Captain Inouye is the one character with whom we connect as an individual because his turmoil over having somehow failed Private Mizushima is complex and personal. By contrast, Mizushima's internal conflict, his escape from the military and embrace of the monastic life, embodies postwar Japanese angst. He's less a man than a symbol of a country and culture stripped of identity. As his fellow soldiers sing "there's no place like home," Mizushima understands on some mysterious spiritual level that sometimes one can't go home because neither the old self nor the old home exist any longer. Faced with this sad conundrum, Mizushima does the only thing he can: devotes himself to laying the old world to rest.
The Burmese Harp is extremely well-preserved for a Japanese film made in the mid-50s. Criterion's transfer comes from two separate 35mm fine-grain master positives. As with all of their recent full frame transfers, the image is window-boxed in order to avoid overscan on some televisions. The black-and-white picture offers luscious contrast and a dearth of source damage. A few scenes have density problems, and isolated shots don't quite achieve deep blacks, but the image is mostly amazing for a film of its age.
The original Japanese mono track has been digitally restored and is presented in a single-channel mix. Distortion is prevalent during swells in the score's volume, but that's the only major flaw you'll find. Despite the limitations inherent in monophonic optical soundtracks, the source is bright, well designed, and natural.
There aren't many supplements on this single-disc release, but those offered provide the viewer a relatively decent background on the film. Ichikawa and Rentaro Mikuni discuss the production of the film in separate interviews shot by Criterion in 2005 and 2006 respectively. The pieces run 16 and 12 minutes in length and are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The only other extra on the disc is a trailer for the film.
An 18-page insert booklet contains an informative essay by film critic and historian Tony Rayns, as well as notes about the video and audio transfer.
The Burmese Harp is a delicate, lyrical, intensely sad anti-war film that doesn't depress because of its keenly observed portrait of human resilience and nobility. It's the thirtieth feature made by Kon Ichikawa and the first of his great works. Not as fine a picture as Fires on the Plain, it's still well worth a couple hours of your time.
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Scales of Justice
• Video Interview with Director Kon Ichikawa
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