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Movie Review: The Burmese Harp. Director: K. Ichikawa. Year of release: 1956. Nominated for the 1957 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (re-made in 1985 with a new cast – I saw the original version). Available through Netflix.

July 7, 2007

Of course, this review is less-than-timely as the film came out 51 years ago, unless I can somehow argue the 50th anniversary of the making of the film merits this attention. But I won’t stoop to that (although I thought about doing so). Just thought that it was/is a quality film, – an anti-war/war film (I’m going to review and reflect on a few others in the next few days on this blog) and that while in many ways the subject matter and themes are distance from the Middle East magnet to which so many of us are drawn, there are still, some parallels, relevant reflexions to be made which will become clearer toward the end.

There are a number of quite fine post war Japanese films that deal with either the war or its aftermath in one way or another. The absolute-5- star-best of them – nothing comes close in my opinion – is Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain (NOT the film starring Michael Douglas). It is a tale of the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing probing the themes of how people deal with life after the bomb has been dropped. The Burmese Harp is not quite of the same caliber, but still very good.

It explores the last days of World War 2 in Burma. A Japanese platoon is on the run. They are a tightknit group led by a captain, who is of all things a musican, not one of those tight-assed Japanese military types. Respected by his men, he still seems somewhat out of character, a humane Japaneser officer. He teaches one of his subordinates, Mizushima, to play a local instrument, the Burmese harp. As the film proceeds, the Japanese surrender, the platoon is placed in a p.o.w camp from where it is waiting to be shipped back to Japan.

Most of the story gravitates around Mizushima. He volunteers to go on a mission to convince a group of soldiers holding out on a mountain to lay down their arms because the war had come to an end. Mizushima risks his life to get to their outpost but none of the men are willing to lay down their arms. As is well known there were Japanese soldiers who `stayed at their post’ and continued to fight for the emperor into the 1980s and 1990s, some on isolated islands, others in the jungles of the Philippines or New Guinea. The men of the little unit holding out on the mountain top represent this somewhat demented, all to common military spirit otherwise known as fanaticism.

The willingness of Mizushima’s captain to face reality and to shift emotional and psychological gears to the demands of peace and reconstruction is contrasted with the gung-ho militarism of the mountain side platoon who only know how to fight to the death. For them, the words `the war is over’ can never quite be absorbed and changing gears to adjust to a world at peace a form of culture shock they can not comprehend. Death comes to them quickly as the British bomb the outpost to hell and everyone in the unit, save Mizushima, dies a glorious but unnecessary death as a result.

Now alone and somewhat dazed, Mizushima picks himself and looks for his platoon that has been transferred to a p.o.w. camp 200 miles to the south. On his journey he comes across a buddhist priest bathing in a river, steals his garb to better camoflauge himself and goes on his not so merry way to find his captain. Wherever he goes, he cannot escape the horrors and ugliness of war as he stumbles into piles of contorted bodies of dead Japanese soldiers again and again. Bowing to Japanese traditions of respect for the dead, of not leaving the bodies of the dead to rot in the hot Burmese sun, he takes it upon himself to burn and cremate as many as possible, saving the ashes in classic Japanese fashion.

But the task is too much for him. Too many Japanese soldiers blown to bits, killed everywhere and Mizushima simply does not have the time, the energy to bury them all, although he very much, and at a certain point, very much needs to do just that: bury/cremate every single one of them decently and honorably. In the midst of this extraordinary sadness – a soldier coming to grips with the horror of war – we are not told exactly when, he has something of an epithany, and decides to become the monk whose clothing he stole and to dedicate his life to scouring Burma for dead Japanese comrades that he hopes to respectfully send to the great beyond. He comes to understand the savagry of war and becomes a total pacificist, stays in Burma, refusing to accompany his platoon (which he finds, but avoids) home to Japan. He’s become a man with a mission, a mission of peace.

There is something else about this film that is quite moving – the role and the power of music to touch people where words can no longer penetrate because they have become inadequate to describe the scope of the horror or the depth of the emotional pain,…it is not entirely clear that music can either, but it seems to touch something very deep. There is a scene at the film’s outset that typified this very well. The Japanese platoon enters a Burmese village only to find themselves surrounded by British troops. The Japanese, trying to feign ignorance of the presence of the British, sing blithely along, while preparing for what they think will be a rather harsh battle.

Among the songs they sing is the Japanese version of `There’s No Place Like Home’. I’ve always thought this particular song one of the more pathetlcally maudlin songs I’d ever heard. But to hear it sung to the accompaniment of a burmese harp in Japanese and with such feeling, I can never be quite so cynical about the song again. And then the British respond in chorus, their way of telling their Japanese adversaries that the war had ended three days prior. Great scene. War begins with certain kinds of songs – you know `over there, over there, send the word over there that we’re going to bomb the shit of THEM’, whom ever `they’ are..but wars end with opposing armies humbled, singing `There’s No Place Like Home’ in chorus and wanting to end it all as soon as possible.

Seen in Japan a decade after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (to which the film makes an oblique reference), the Burmese Harp raises the question: was it worth it, was it worth it for Japanese armies to romp through Asia to even far off Burma. And the answer obviously is: it wasn’t. In the way that is underlines the grotesqueness, the horror of war, the results of war, it is a powerful anti-war film. I have to wonder (and will probably research) how Japanese audiences took the film.

And yet there was something missing. I kept waiting for it throughout the film, but `it’ never happened. How would the Burmese casualties of the war, the British, Indian opponent casualties to the war be treated? Yet the subject never came up, the fact that of the Japanese occupation of Burma, its savagry – it was not kinder there than anywhere else Japan conquered in Asia – was not addressed, almost as if it hadn’t happened.

The history explored, emotionally rich and humane as it content admittedly was, was extremely narrow and selective, as if there were no Burmese in Burma and no Japanese occupation. At the end of the film, we are shown Japanese p.o.w.s building a railroad bridge over a river but the 100,000 or so – we’ll never know the exact number – of Burmese (and British, Indian and American p.o.w.s) worked to death to extend the railroad from Thailand across Burma to strengthen Japanese logistics and communications is not touched nor are the innumerable massacres of Burmese villages thought to be giving refuge to guerillas or Brits. From this film you wouldn’t know that the Japanese were the oppressors in Burma and the Burmese their unwilling victims. Instead the film presents a stripped down version: this is war..as if the two sides were equal, two adversaries neither of which has justice on their side, neither of which is oppressing the other.

The emotional drama thus unfolds in a cultural bubble – and if this film is any indication – outside of which, the real world, the horror and oppressiveness of the Japanese Occupation is virtually non-existent. Selective memory: we mourn our dead, that’s about it; the suffering we have inflicted upon others is somehow conveniently pushed aside and hardly exists, if it exists at all. If Mizushima dedicated his life to honoring all the dead in Burma he’d have to spend 10 lifetimes cremating and collecting ashes.

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