Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Burmese Harp: A Movie Review

Ironically, as we are now learning about the horrors of the typhoon in Myanmar, this past weekend I watched a film set in that country (formerly known as Burma), during a time of another disaster there—World War Two. Interestingly, this Japanese film came out at approximately the same time as the western World War Two film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, which is also set in Burma.
The Burmese Harp, Directed by Kon Ichikawa, 1957, B&W, Japanese with English subtitles.

The war is almost over and a Japanese unit is on the run in the hills of Burma. Captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni), a former music teacher, has instilled a love of music into his troops. When feeling down, they lift their spirits in song, accompanied by a harp played by Mizushima (Shoji Yasui). At the war’s end, they sing with the British troops to whom they’ve surrendered. Mizushima is a special soldier. He looks Burmese and without his uniform, is able to pass as a native. The unit uses this for its advantage, as Mizushima is sent out ahead as a scout. As a POW, Mizushima is asked to go into the mountains to encourage another Japanese unit dug in there to surrender. His captain tells him not to let anyone die needlessly and he takes his orders seriously, but the troops refuse to surrender. He begs them to save themselves and to surrender so they can help rebuild Japan, but they vote to continue to fight and abuse Mizushima, calling him a coward. The British shell and mortar their position, killing and wounding all the soldiers. Only Mizushima survives. He begins his walk back to Mudon, where his unit is being held. Along the way, he sees the horrors of war, bodies decomposed and being eaten by birds. Taking the dress of a Buddhist monk, he takes time to bury the dead, always honoring them with a salute. Mizushima under goes a transformation and decides to stay in Burma as a monk, for there are too many Japanese bodies that need to be buried. His unit, at first thinks he’s dead. Then they recognize him as a local monk, but they are unable to talk him into returning to Japan. On the ship back to Japan, the Captain reads Mizushima’s letter to the unit, where he writes fondly of his comrades and vows to wander through Burma honoring the dead.
The soldiers in this film are portrayed as sensitive and caring. They long to go home and rebuild Japan and look forward seeing their families, to taking a nap on the veranda and even to listen to the machines in a factory. This is an antiwar film; it shows the unity of comrades who are presented, not as killers, but as additional victims of war. It’s interesting seeing such a film from the perspective of the defeated. Unlike The Human Condition, a trilogy of Japanese War films that deal with atrocities committed by the military and one man’s fight against the system, The Burmese Harp focuses on bond between the men. In this way, the movie reminds me of the German film, “Das Boot,” which centers on the experiences a U-boat crew during the Second World War, without getting into the larger political issues of whether their fight was right or wrong.
Although filmed in Black and White, the film shows the beauty of Burma, the land of the many Buddhas. In the interview with the film maker on the DVD, he pointed out that the shots of Mizushima wandering Burma were filmed on location. They could take one actor to Burma, but not the whole crew. The rest of the film was shot in Japan where he had the challenge of making his homeland look tropical. I enjoyed this film and recommend it.


  1. What's interesting about these movies from the mid to late fifties, (the German film Die Bruecke (The Bridge) comes to mind) is that were directed inward, i.e. to the Japanese or German audience, attempting to get them to come to grips with the reality of the military dictatorships which the vast majority of them had supported. It was still too early to deal with the "Big Picture" and thus, looking at individual soldiers allowed the audience to draw the larger conclusions about their own role/culpability.


  2. In someways India relates to Myanmar. Watching that typhon was very painful. More than 4000 have died.

    This movie seems like a good one. Although I don't watch much movies, I might consider watching this.

    BTW, do check out Weekly Geeks #3. You might consider doing it. It is for book lovers!

  3. I admire Mizushima's courage, passion and compassion. It amazes me how you find such deep, engrossing films to watch. I must be at the wrong end of Blockbuster's.

  4. Sherman, good insight. You seem to know a lot about German cimena--but then you have a degree in German if my memory is correct. Have you seen the Japanese film, "The Human Condition?"

    Gautami, The death toll keeps climbing--that weekly geek thing sounds like a lot of work!

    Scarlet, I rent from Netflix and they make suggestions based on your other rentals.

  5. Sounds like an interesting movie.

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