Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp is not only among the greatest anti-war movies ever made, it is also one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, and, ultimately, uplifting movies ever made. Visually, the film is not only gorgeous, but also inspiring. Ichikawa’s cinematographic poetry pays tribute not only to the desolate mountains of the Burmese jungle, but to the power of music. His black & white photography captures the bleakness of a natural paradise rampaged by a waning war.
We are lucky to have companies like Criterion that restored this film beautifully and made it available to a mainstream American audience, as this film is not only an experience that must be had by anyone who believes in the human spirit, but is also an important film. The Burmese Harp is one of the few movies offering the Japanese viewpoint of WWII. To many Americans this film is the first and possibly only opportunity to compare Japanese soldiers with our own and, indeed, the similarities and camaraderie are striking. As the film opens, an aerial camera zooms down on a Japanese troop marching through the forests of Burma, trying to cross the border into Thailand when the tide had turned against Japan near the end of the war. These soldiers tease and kid each other much like US troops, as exemplified in a charming scene when a scout sets off into the jungle to scan the area and encounters Burmese villagers that rob him of his uniform. When his comrades catch up to him they cannot help but mock him about how they left him wearing nothing but a skirt made of banana leaves.
Brotherhood that knows no national boundaries is the message of the entire film. Probably the film’s most significant (and most beautiful) scene comes when the troop is found by the British hiding in a hut. The war, the Japanese are informed by the British, ended. Together they share a song that brings both armies together for the first time since the war. Of course, the British would arrest them once they surrendered but the point is taken. This is a movie about peace and music is its communication tool.
Now we get to know some of the main characters including Captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni) who plays the Japanese version of Col. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, refusing to leave any of his men behind. They also build a small bridge while prisoners. Under Inouye’s command is the taciturn Mizushima (Shôji Yasui), who brings solace to his compatriots with his harp. When Inouye hears reports of a militant Japanese fighter resisting defeat somewhere in the hills, he sends Mizushima, with his musical abilities that soothe the soul, to convince him to surrender. The encounter does not go well, there is a scuffle that alerts approaching snipers, and then comes a big blast that kills nearly everyone except for Mizushima.
Suffering from survivor’s guilt, Mizushima follows the classical journey of the hero who seeks redemption after failing at his mission. He wanders off into the mountains and disguises himself as a monk. Appropriately, he steals the robe of an old monk bathing in a river. Water is a symbol often associated with rebirth and this is the start of Mizushima’s new life. At first, his Buddhist robe is a disguise, but then it becomes his natural outlook on life. It is as a monk that he discovers his mission in life, since now he can bring peace to himself and others.
He eventually encounters his unit again and, initially, they have some trouble recognizing him. At one point, Mizushima is unsure of the choice he made and seems to second guess his decision, leaving his buddies for the spiritual life of a monk. Ultimately, he rejoins his friends in the spiritual sense, bringing them happiness by playing the harp. There is a barbed wire fence between them representing the new physical barrier between them. The music from the harp is the happiness that transcends the fence and unites them. His unit was right in a sense, then, when they at first thought he had died in the mission. His old self had indeed died only to be reborn.
It is also as a monk that Mizushima finally realizes the cost of war. His first deed is burying the hundreds of fallen soldiers. Japan was not afraid to expose the true horrors of war, even if artistically. The shots of death in this film are heartbreakingly powerful. There are shocking images of skulls and mountains of decaying corpses being devoured by ravens.
These compelling shots communicate the importance of peace. The Burmese Harp celebrates the homosocial bonds formed during war. Mizushima and his buddies become a family. It is a bond that lasts until the film’s somber conclusion. It once again stresses the importance of nations working for peace. It is a message that is sadly seldom seen in war movies.