Criterion Corner: The Healing Power of Music: The Burmese Harp (1956)

"The soil of Burma is red and so are its rocks."

Kon Ichikawa's The Burmese Harp (1956) is a beautiful tale that is simultaneously melancholy and uplifting while also showcasing both the good and evil side of humanity. The film takes place during the tail end of World War II and follows the trials of a regiment of Japanese soldiers who are stationed in Burma. This regiment is lead by Captain Inouye (Rentarō Mikuni) a former choir conductor who teaches his men songs to sing while they travel. These songs are accompanied by the talented PFC. Mizushima (Shōji Yasui) and his trusty harp. After an unfortunate incident with AWOL Japanese soldiers, Mizushima goes missing and the rest of the film concerns Inouye's attempts to locate him and bring him back.

Music plays a huge part in The Burmese Harp and one could categorize the film as a musical due to the large amount of singing. Inouye's troop passes the time by singing songs to raise morale and Mizushima's harp elevates the music to a whole other level. While the harp's sounds are intended to be diegetic, it is obvious that it's a romanticized version of harp music intended to be transcendent, perhaps even magical. Music is what brings humanity together, a universal language that binds us all. In one scene Japanese and British soldiers realize that they have a song in common--the melody is identical it's just the lyrics that differ. Instead of fighting each other they sing together, united by music.

While this movie often dips into sentimentality, it is not all uplifting and Ichikawa has never shied away from showing the horrors of war. While he would explore the brutality of death more thoroughly in his later film Fires on the Plain (1959), there are a few incredibly graphic scenes in The Burmese Harp. Mizushima disguised as a Buddhist monk, on the run in the Burmese countryside, comes upon an area where dead Japanese soldiers have been unceremoniously dumped in a pile and allowed to rot in the sun. Since they are enemy soldiers the Burmese see no reason to bury them and Mizushima is absolutely devastated to see the mounds of bones and putrid flesh, the only mourners of which are the vultures circling above. It is at this point he decides that his mission is now to bury his fellow Japanese instead of trying to return to his troop and eventually back to his homeland.

It would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that during the Japanese occupation of Burma between 1942 and 1945, many innocent Burmese villagers were massacred by the Japanese soldiers. Imperialism fostered an environment where atrocities occurred and The Burmese Harp doesn't touch on this at all. The film can been seen as more of a fairy tale than any sort of historical period piece, though it is at its heart an anti-war narrative. It would seem that Ichikawa wanted to focus more on the ability for people to empathize with each other. There were many Japanese soldiers who wanted no part in the war but were forced to fight (this happened on all sides) and this film focuses on men who just want to get home to see their families and loved ones.

The black and white cinematography, borne from lack of funding for expensive color cameras, lends the film a dreamlike quality. Ichikawa is fond of expansive wide shots making Mizushima's journey seem more lonely and isolated. As the film progresses Mizushima transforms into a mythical figure, less of a man and more of an archetype--the idea that mankind can coexist peacefully and that war is pointless. The ideology is a mixture of both Japanese and Buddhist ideals taking the best aspects of the two and making something new. We can exist in peace if we try and though much blood has been shed we do not have to continue the fight.

--Michelle Kisner