REVIEW: DVD Release: The Burmese Harp

Film: The Burmese Harp
Release date: 21st February 2011
Certificate: 12
Running time: 117 mins
Director: Kon Ichikawa
Starring: Rentarô Mikuni, Shôji Yasui, Jun Hamamura, Taketoshi Naitô, Shunji Kasuga
Genre: Drama/War
Studio: Eureka!
Format: DVD
Country: Japan

Based on the bestselling book of the same name, The Burmese Harp is the story of one Japanese army unit’s experiences at the tail end of the Second World War, retreating through war torn Burma. The film was the first of director Ichikawa’s works to be shown internationally, garnering an Oscar nomination and awards from the Venice Film Festival. The film gave Western audiences one of the earliest depictions of the Second World War from the point of view of the Japanese forces.

The soldiers make their appearance in the film picking their way through South East Asian jungle, a familiar war film motif which swiftly develops into something atypical, as the soldiers are led by their captain in a sentimental song of home, with one soldier accompanying them on a Burmese harp. The narrator, one of the unit’s soldiers, explains that “we often sang...these songs lifted our spirits in times of sorrow and pain”.

The company’s attempt to retreat across the border from Burma to Thailand is curtailed by an encounter with the British army, when they discover that the Japanese war command have surrendered and the war is at an end. Taken prisoner by the British, they are told that they will be taken 200 miles south to a POW camp, to await transport back to Japan. But one of the soldiers will be making this journey alone.

Mizushima is asked by the British to help them persuade another Japanese unit who are holding out in a mountain stronghold to surrender. Here he encounters the Japanese code of honour that is familiar from many war movies – that surrender is shameful and, when faced with capture, death is the only acceptable recourse.

Unable to dissuade the soldiers from their imminent destruction, Mizushima nevertheless manages to survive the British attack. A Buddhist monk offers him food and shelter, but Mizushima is keen to rejoin his comrades and steals the monk’s cloak in order to adopt a safe disguise for the long and lonely journey south. The journey is a physical ordeal as, close to starvation and with bleeding feet, he traverses harsh landscapes under the sun’s unremitting glare. But the journey’s emotional impact is even more harrowing. Over and over, Mizushima encounters the slain bodies of his countrymen, left in the open air to rot and be picked over by birds of prey. The experience causes him to undergo a profound change.

Among his friends at the camp, Mizushima achieves a semi-mythical status, as they fret over the possibility of his survival and catch unconfirmed glimpses of him in the vicinity of the camp. Mizushima reaches his physical destination, but a spiritual chasm has opened between his former and present life, and the film’s purpose is to illustrate how this comes about, and the manner in which Mizushima feels he must resolve it…

The Burmese Harp is a curiously unwarlike war film, with various factors contributing to this. The film’s music plays a major part. Cutting into the film almost from the very start, its music instils a tone of mournful reflection which immediately signposts that contemplation rather than action is paramount to the film’s message. The Burmese Harp was overdubbed with a western pedal harp, while the choral harmonies of the Japanese soldiers are reminiscent of a Welsh male voice choir, giving a curiously European feel to the music. The soldiers repeatedly sing Home Sweet Home, a song which makes explicit the nostalgic significance of music for the soldiers. Far from belligerent, they are disarmed by a melancholic yearning for the simple, lost pleasures of a long disappeared past.

Another aspect of the film which imparts it with a philosophical quality is the way director Ichikawa composes his shots. Perhaps betraying his original background as an artist rather than a director, the light and almost metaphorical anguish of the subject matter of some scenes suggest the devastation of battle as painted by Delacroix or Picasso. The figures of the strangers Mizushima encounters on his journey seem tiny against the monumental landscapes he crosses. When he reaches the shore of a vast river, you could believe him to be at the edge of the river Styx or Jordan, so otherworldly does this landscape appear. Ichikawa frequently frames his shots so that they alternate between the whole group of soldiers and a sudden focus upon a single face, a technique which conveys an impression of how war is experienced by the soldiers both as a collective unit and on a more human, individual level.

Most of the action of The Burmese Harp was filmed in Japan, with only the crew and the lead actor, Shôji Yasui, travelling to Burma to film a limited number of scenes. The Burmese location appears to most powerfully affect towards the end of the film, as Mizushima stands solemnly in his monk’s robe by the worn stones of an ancient stupa, mist drifting among the smoky leafiness of the surrounding trees. For the film to be at all convincing, Ichikawa needed to cast someone in the part of Mizushima who would be believable both as a soldier and as a sensitive man undergoing a profound spiritual crisis. Yasui possesses that quality, which the director identified in Javier Bardem, the lead actor of his film Biutiful, of a “profound and complex inner life.” This quality makes Yasui fascinating to watch, so that the absence of action – and the film does make slow-moving progress – is compensated by the fascination of trying to discern and interpret the inner struggle that Yasui subtly portrays.

Among all this solemnity and emotional longing, the film is lightened by some comic scenes featuring an old Burmese lady who visits the camp to trade goods with the soldiers, providing a link between them and the outside world. These more humorous scenes heighten our awareness of the divide between Mizushima and his comrades, and make his story all the more dramatic in contrast to the more everyday experience of his friends.

The Burmese Harp delivers its pacifist message through the medium of gentle reflection rather than the shock and blood tactics of Oliver Stone or other Vietnam film directors. With modern hindsight, it may seem to skirt the realities of the Japanese campaign in Burma, but there was still relatively little awareness of this at the time of the film was made. Its perspective is humanistic rather than nationalistic, and its images continue to haunt long after the closing credits. KR

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