Criterion Project #13: THE BURMESE HARP (1956)

The Burmese Harp

Spine# 379

Year: 1956

Director: Kon Ichikawa

I’ve been lucky these past two weeks. Both last week’s film (The Night of the Hunter) and this film are among my very favorites of all-time and watching them on back-to-back weeks was a delight. This project was designed to spotlight titles I may have forgotten about that have been sitting on my shelf unwatched for a while, but these past two films are unforgettable

I distinctly remember crying the first time I watched The Burmese Harp. It stood out to me because it was the first time I cried at a foreign film, which is all the more interesting when you consider that I rarely cry at movies at all. Let alone on two occasions!

That’s right, it got me again. Let’s do a brief synopsis from IMDB before I go any further:

In the War’s closing days, when a conscience-driven Japanese soldier fails to get his countrymen to surrender to overwhelming force, he adopts the lifestyle of a Buddhist monk.

I try to choose the plot summary that gives the basics without saying too much, but these short blurbs always fail to point the reader in the direction the movie is going. Specifically, that last bit about adopting the lifestyle of a Buddhist monk. That’s a yes and no kind of statement that doesn’t accurately sum up the gravity of Mizushima’s decision. I’d say I’m nitpicking, except that decision is the point of the entire movie.

And as anti-war movies go, it’s a powerful point.

I’ll say **spoilers** here, but is there a point to it? Knowing the events of the story is unlikely to dim the power of such an incredible film.

The plot largely concerns a Japanese army regiment that gets separated from one of its own after they learn of Japan’s surrender at the end of WWII. The regiment’s Captain (Rentaro Mikuni) is a musician and has taught his troops to sing to boost morale during their campaign in Burma. One soldier, Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), has learned to play a Burmese harp and he plays along while the rest sing.

There’s a child-like comradery within this group of men, especially when they are lost in song and listening to the beautiful strum of the harp playing along. As such, it was unsurprising to read that this was originally a popular children’s book in Japan meant to rile the spirits of a defeated nation’s youth. It’s easy to spot the ethical examples being set forth, the moralistic lessons being taught, and the selfless sacrifices being made to teach kids these powerful truths.

Looking at Mizushima’s arc in this film, I find him to be a unique hero. Unlike your typical hero, he doesn’t have secrets or a dark past, he isn’t an anti-hero, and he doesn’t evolve from bad to good or vice-versa. An unknown narrator tells us at the beginning that Mizushima is a Private First Class, a rank of excellence among Privates. He has also taught himself how to play the harp, a skill that renders his peers and superiors awestruck at the beautiful compositions. It’s a magical sounding instrument that, again, feels like something out of a fairytale or a fable.

So, right away, he’s clearly an exceptional and gifted human being. When a dependable man is needed to go on a mission to convince an overmatched battalion of Japanese soldiers, unaware that Japan has lost the war, to surrender to the encroaching British army, the Captain tabs Mizushima to go. Without hesitation.

And from this point forward, he is only going to improve and become more enlightened. Your typical hero has to overcome several obstacles along a journey, both internal and external, that either ends in victory or defeat, however those concepts are defined by the narrative. They usually have to prove themselves in some way before the goal can be reached and the character arc can be completed.

But that’s not the case here. From the beginning our hero is the cream of the crop, so what is his arc?

Now I’m not saying Mizushima doesn’t have obstacles. He fails to convince the doomed soldiers to give up their gung-ho quest to die for their country, even in the face of certain defeat. It’s this failure that stays with Mizushima for the remainder of the movie and it’s the grand point of the film.

Mizushima first encounters these soldiers acting like a pack of wild dogs, and they nearly kill him once they realize the purpose of his mission. The attitude of the soldiers encapsulates the macho, romantic ideology of dying honorably in battle that governments and militaries have been brainwashing kids with for ages. Mizushima tries to reason with the men, pointing out that dying needlessly in battle is not in service of your country.

Sadly, his pleas fall on deaf ears and Mizushima narrowly survives the ensuing massacre. In the wake of the defeat, he sees the bodies of his deceased countrymen strewn about the mountaintop and reflects. It’s a moment that starts Mizushima on his ultimate journey to find fulfillment in the aftermath of the bloody war.

From this point on, as the IMDB synopsis points out, he assumes the life of a Buddhist monk. At first it’s a useful disguise to safely cross the countryside to where his regiment is being held as prisoners, but it quickly becomes Mizushima’s arc.

In this particular film the hero’s journey, or you could say his road to enlightenment, is a mind-set. At one end of the arc is the soldier’s mentality, of honor and dedication to your country first and foremost, willing to lay down your body for the betterment of your nation. And at the other end is the monastic mentality, more concerned with enriching the mind and the soul and following a path of spirituality and peace.

When discussing this movie, it’s important to note that the atrocities of war are largely hidden, which is also something that makes sense in the context of a children’s book. The key element used for horrific effect are the sights of the lifeless corpses and skeletons left behind in the wake of another bloody battle, which haunt Mizushima throughout. The film isn’t trying to broadcast the horrors of the battlefield, or to paint soldiers as murderous madmen – it’s trying to illuminate the pointlessness of war. Mizushima’s new lot in life isn’t to abolish war, it’s to wander through Burma burying the dead soldiers left behind. When the war is over, sure somebody won and somebody lost, but the thing everyone left behind is the life of every soldier killed in action.

And that’s Mizushima’s arc, and the point of the narrative. The arc is his transformation from mindless soldier, albeit a smart and sensible one, to spiritual priest with messages of peace and respect. The transformation isn’t necessarily in character, I’d say he experiences and learns a universal truth and has an awakening akin to an epiphany. How many cinematic heroes wander that kind of path?

In the end Mizushima makes a bittersweet decision to continue on his path in Burma and remain apart from his friends, who have been granted passage back home to Japan. Before they part there’s a brief return of that childish comradery near the end of the film, a reconciliation of sorts with his brothers in arms/song. It’s the moment the film get its title from and it brings me to absolute tears of joy. There’s an eruption of emotion that overwhelms me every time, like the highs and lows of a going away party all rolled into one feeling. A great thing has transpired, a momentous rebirth of the soul, and the mark that leaves on his friends is deep and meaningful. So much so that we learn our nameless, faceless narrator was a comrade of Mizushima’s. Just one of the men in the regiment. No different from anyone else and not someone who routinely converses with Mizushima. Yet he guides us through this story, seemingly untouched by it but somehow unable to stop thinking their deserted friend.

Now that the movie is over, I think I know how he feels. Incredible film.

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