The Burmese Harp (1956)

directed by Kon Ichikawa

Plot Summary
The film takes place at the end of WWII in the country of Burma where a group of Japanese soldiers learn of their nation's surrender and are sent to a POW camp in the town of Mudon. One of them, Mizushima, is sent on a mission to inform another unit of the surrender and to convince them to stop fighting. The unit refuses to give up, and they are killed by the British army; Mizushima is the only survivor. He takes the guise of a Buddhist monk and travels across the region in search of his unit. Along the way, Mizushima encounters many deceased Japanese soldiers and tries to bury some of them. He gradually becomes obsessed with burying and honoring the dead and cannot go back to Japan with his unit, choosing a more spiritual life in Burma.


The Burmese Harp deals with war and its effects, but there is very little battle footage. The film takes a more contemplative and pensive tone in describing how war can traumatize its participants. These soldiers are not presented as emotionless, conditioned killers who are eager for battle. Mizushima's particular unit is shown to be concerned for each other and even sensitive. The captain of the group has a background in music and has passed his interest on to his men; Mizushima has become an expert at playing the harp. Even as war pulls people apart, music brings them together--even those on opposing sides, such as the British troops who join the Japanese to sing at the war's end. The film has a certain sentimentality, but it manages to balance this well with the portrait of a man horrified and ultimately changed by the aftermath of war.

The choice of a more passive and spiritual lifestyle over a pragmatic one is central to the film. Initially, Mizhushima is inspired by his captain's speech about returning to Japan to rebuild the ravaged country. The trapped unit that he tries to persuade to surrender, contrastingly, sees no point in doing anything but fighting to the death. Their notion of war as a win-or-die contest conflicts with Mizushima's more sensible solution; he tells them their deaths would serve no purpose. This statement holds true, and the purposelessness that Mizushima now associates with all the bodies he finds on his journey moves him to a transformation. At first he hides his eyes from the corpses that line the region and psychologically treats all of them as one. However, in an important sequence, Mizushima stops by a dead soldier to pick up a photo of the man with a child, and he realizes that each of the numerous bodies was an individual person whose death affects many people. He sees no reason for the death of the Japanese soldiers and can only show respect by burying the bodies--there is nothing else to do. Mizushima realizes and states at the end of the film that man cannot know why suffering exists but should try to ease the pain it inflicts. Having the functional purpose of war shattered by witnessing the tragic waste of life, he develops a more spiritual perspective.

The film utilizes numerous long shots, particularly when Mizushima makes his trek back to Mudon and becomes aware of the great number of unburied bodies along the beaches and mountains of Burma. The camera places him alone in the larger context of the otherwise beautiful landscapes of the country, signifying his development as an individual and his place as part of the more natural Burmese countryside. His compatriots, meanwhile, are framed behind barbed-wire fences and always move as a group. At the film's conclusion, the unit sails back toward Japan, and the captain reads Mizushima's letter explaining why he couldn't return with them. The camera is turned toward the expansive and constant ocean, emphasizing the importance and wisdom of his statements. The men are moved by his letter, but their thoughts eagerly turn to their return home. The final shot shows Mizushima continuing along his spiritual path through the Burmese plains, looking to transcend rather than return. The Burmese Harp is a film which, even while dealing with war and all its senseless tragedy, refuses to cheapen life and maintains the importance of death.

8 of 10

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© 1998

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