The Burmese Harp

"Extraordinary"

The Burmese Harp Review


The meaninglessness and waste of war is illustrated with heartrending precision in Kon Ichikawa's masterful Burmese Harp, a moving tale that takes place in the final days of World War II, when everyone involved takes a moment to look around at the carnage and see what they've done.

In the sweaty jungles of Burma, a small Japanese unit led by Captain Inoyue (Rentaro Mikuni) is marching toward nothing in particular. Hungry and exhausted, they just hope to make it back to Japan alive. To keep his troops' spirits up, Inoyue, a choirmaster in civilian life, has the men sing constantly, and they sound pretty good, especially when they're accompanied by the soldier Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), who has taught himself how to play an elegant little Burmese harp.

When the war is finally over, the victorious British ask Inoyue to send one man to tell a group of Japanese holdouts who are still shooting out of a mountainside cave to give up the fight. Mizushima goes on the mission, but with only 30 minutes to make his case to the crazed soldiers, all of whom would rather die for the Emperor than face the shame of defeat, he fails at his task, and a slaughter ensues. Mizushima is presumed dead, and the rest of his unit marches sadly to a Burmese prison camp.

Days later, some of the soldiers spot a Buddhist monk who looks just like Mizushima. Could it be him? Is he still alive? Yes he is. We watch in flashback as Mizushima staggers alone through the jungle in search of his friends and comes across many scenes of gruesome carnage. Hundreds of Japanese soldiers' corpses are rotting in piles and being devoured by vultures. After watching a British medical team bury the body of an unknown Japanese soldier with grace and dignity, Mizushima realizes his mission in life will be to bury each of his dead comrades, a gruesome task that he begins immediately.

Mizushima's colleagues try everything they can to persuade him to rejoin them, even delivering to him a talking parrot that they teach to say "Hey, Mizushima, let's go back to Japan together." In the film's most amazing moments, he stands outside the prison fence silently appearing nothing short of Christ-like as he plays his harp along with the singing of his mystified and tearful friends.

Ichikawa is a master of black and white cinematography, and the film is an absolutely gorgeous study of light and shadow. With plenty of chances to push emotional buttons, he bravely holds back and uses understatement to deliver the hardest emotional blows. Mizushima is an unforgettable character, a man of few words who says no to the violence of the world and yes to enlightenment without ever saying very much at all. He lets his harp do the talking.

The new Criterion Collection DVD includes recent interviews with Ichikawa, who says he would have shot in color if the camera hadn't been too big and fragile to bring to Burma, and actor Rentaro Mikuni, who reveals that Ichikawa forced him to perform his final big monologue in bits and pieces out of sequence so he wouldn't build to a maudlin climax unbefitting of a Japanese officer. Fascinating stuff.

Aka Biruma no tategoto.

Do you guys know "Mr. Bojangles?"



The Burmese Harp

Facts and Figures

Run time: 116 mins

In Theaters: Friday 28th April 1967

Distributed by: Criterion Collection

Production compaines: Nikkatsu

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Fresh: 10 Rotten: 1

IMDB: 8.0 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Kon Ichikawa

Producer: Masayuki Takaki

Starring: as Captain Inouye, Shôji Yasui as Mizushima, Jun Hamamura as Ito, Taketoshi Naitô as Kobayashi, Shunji Kasuga as Maki, Kô Nishimura as Baba, Keishichi Nakahara as Takagi, Toshiaki Ito as Hashimoto, Hiroshi Tsuchikata as Okada, Tomio Aoki as Oyama, Nobuteru Hanamura as Nakamura

Also starring:

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