The Burmese Harp
Director: Kon Ichikawa / Script: Natto Wada (from novel by Michio Takeyama) / Editing: Masanori Tsuji / DP: Minoru Yokoyama / Score: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Rentaro Mikuni / Shoji Yasui / Jun Hamamura / Tatsuya Mihashi / Tanie Kitabayashi
The soil of Burma is red. And so are its rocks…
The Burmese Harp begins with a bold epigraph over a dusty, wind-blown plain: ‘The soil of Burma is red. And so are its rocks.’
Already, we know this will not be a run-of-the-mill war picture. Quite the opposite, as it turns-out.
We’re in Burma. July, 1945. An isolated Japanese infantry company is in full-retreat, hoping to reach Thailand before the British catch-up with them. Holding things together, is Captain Inouye, played here by Mikune Rentaro, one of the Nikkatsu studio’s leading contract players of the time. He breathes life into the character, as a man with a cultured pre-war past, as a music teacher at a prestigious academy. It’s this background that has shaped him into a soulful figure, given to see-out the war and brave an uncertain future.
The Burmese Harp was originally a novel, published just a year after the war ended, so its pacifistic tone is all the more poignant, given how autocratic and militaristic had been Imperial Japan’s mis-adventure. Written by Takeyama Michio, it was intended to inspire Japan’s ‘lost generation’ of children, traumatised by years of war, to remember the traditional values and Buddhist-led compassion their elders had forgotten. Moreover, it instilled the notion that, if there were to be anything of value in their ‘new’ post-war society, it would only be due to their efforts, both in rebuilding and reconciliation.
Inouye’s luck runs-out one evening, having taken refuge in a Burmese village. After dining with the locals in their ‘long-house’, he’s about to have his men sing their gratitude when the villagers melt-away. Someone sees movement in the surrounding forest and he realises the British have found them.
At first, Inouye’s all for making a stand, but realises that their ammunition still sits on an (unguarded) cart, in what passes for the village square. He has the men surge-out, laughing & singing and casually wheel the cart back before any observers realise what it contains. This is a powerful scene, as we glimpse Inouye’s first crisis of leadership. He now has the ammunition with which to fight, but he’s tired of it all.
In his heart, he knows all is lost. Then something magical happens…
Inouye’s company had been singing a Japanese version of the standard ‘Home, Sweet Home’ and, at the point they’re about to attack, we hear the British soldiers given their own rendition. Ichikawa then cranes-up his camera, to give an overhead shot, as the British encroach en-masse upon the long-house, singing all the while. The sequence then ends, with a shot of moonlit clouds to echo the idea that ‘we are all singing with one voice, under the same sky’. Ichikawa closes-out, with a poignant V.O. informing us, that they duly surrendered having learnt that the war had ended three days earlier…
As if to underline the shift in their fortunes, the next day sees village chickens scratching for food around their discarded weapons…
Although I’ve dwelt on Inouye to this point, he just happens to represent only one of three states of being: the pragmatic PRESENT. One of his men, is about to emerge as the embodiment of a more enlightened, compassionate FUTURE.
When we first see Private Mizushima (ably played throughout his spiritual journey, by Yasui Shoji), he’s just another member of the company, albeit with one singular distinction: time in Burma has allowed him to learn the ‘Burmese Harp’; a handheld harp with a curving wooden neck and body, that he carries slung over a shoulder. He accompanies his comrades when they sing, and takes it with him into the forest when undertaking reconnaissance; playing different tunes for each outcome he encounters.
After a comedic episode in which local tribesmen steal his clothes, Mizushima’s first inkling that things are about to change for him, comes when Inouye asks him to visit a nearby mountain, on which there’s another company who’re refusing to surrender. The group is to be moved to a P.O.W. camp in Mudon, two-hundred miles to the South and the plan, is for Mizushima to re-join them after his mission. Why Inouye chooses Mizushima for the job, I can’t say, but I think the Captain sees Mizushima as a kindred spirit; almost an extension of his conscience, if you will. If he can’t go himself, sending Mizushima is the next best thing.
What follows next is significant, for Mizushima arrives at the mountain and, during a lull in hostilities, is allowed to enter a series of caverns. The Japanese troops here, led by an un-named officer played with bug-eyed fanaticism by Mihashi Tatsuya, are all fanatical and would rather fight to the death, than surrender. They view Mizushima and his unit, as cowards; a ‘disgrace’ to the Emperor and to all who have fought – and died – in his name. And that’s why they’re not going to let him go: if they’re going to die, then they’re taking Mizushima with them…
It’s a powerful scene and reminds me of Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima (2006); a Hollywood rarity in itself, being a war film that takes as its viewpoint, the ‘other’ side. Eastwood, too, had his players make various last-stands in caverns, in a vain attempt at either reversing the tide or achieving glory. Mizushima encounters a similar futility here. Epitomised in their headstrong leader, such attitude represents collective subjugation to a militaristic jingoism. In other words: it’s the PAST.
We already had the PRESENT, so all we’re missing is the FUTURE…
The British resume their assault on the cavern, leaving Mizushima as the last man alive in a cavern of horrors, in an image that reminded me of a Mediaeval painting depicting Hell or Judgment Day. Ichikawa achieves an eery effect in his lighting choices, as much as from his set-dressing. The picture was originally planned to be shot in colour, but Ichikawa believed the camera wouldn’t be tough enough to withstand the rigours of a shoot on location in Burma. Choosing Black and White instead, meant a different, smaller and lighter camera, but it also allowed him to play with contrasts and lighting to a degree not possible in colour; the sequence around the mouth of the cavern is a great example of this self-imposed artistic choice, as we see the light of salvation around the cavern’s mouth, being shunned by the denizens within, who prefer the comforting certainty of shadows and gloom.
Gravely injured, Mizushima is nursed back to health by a kindly Buddhist monk, only to repay the kindness by stealing his saffron robes, evidently believing he’ll stand a better chance of reuniting with his comrades down in Mudon, if he pretends to be a monk.
It’s what he sees on the journey that now unfolds, that will change his life and re-cast him as the FUTURE.
His first revelation, is the selfless donation of food, from peasants out in the field. Mizushima is starving at this point, and wolfs-down the offering of rice, yet the peasants revere him unquestioningly, because of his robes. Even here, I wonder if he’s beginning to consider the possibility that ‘clothes fit than man’; whether, by just wearing the garb of a monk, he might end-up becoming one…
For that to be a possibility, he must face a number of trials. The first, is to be confronted by numerous – unburied – fallen colleagues. Aside from those in the cavern, he comes across a ravine full of crow-ravaged bodies left to decompose. Then, in the forest, a lone soldier sat propped against a tree and now guarding the trail like a silent, skeletal witness. The last – and to Mizushima – the most disturbing of all, is a large pile of Japanese dead on a muddy riverbank. He can’t even look at them and runs past, shielding his eyes from either shame or embarrassment, we can’t tell. It seems as though he has failed his first trial…
He then obtains passage to Mudon aboard a small boat, but can’t yet bring himself to reveal his presence to the men. Instead, he takes refuge in a monastery close-by the POW camp, in which he comes across a young boy playing a more ornate harp than he had before. The tune the boy’s playing? ‘Home, Sweet Home’ and it raises conflicts in Mizushima’s mind, over which way he should turn.
His mind is then set, when the boy leads him to a graveyard adjoining the local British military hospital. Its nurses are holding an outdoor service for a Japanese patient who they’ve just buried. In that moment, Mizushima can see the dignity of the British, contrasted to that of his own people and is both ashamed and horrified at realising, perhaps for the first time, that the people he and his colleagues have been indoctrinated to hate are, really, just as civilised – if not more so – than his own people. Overwhelmed by what he’s seen, the next morning, Mizushima begins a return journey back to the riverside, where he intends to bury the dead.
Mizushima is acknowledging to himself, that he’s now on a different path – literally and spiritually – to the one he set out to follow. He returns to the pile of bodies and begins the selfless job of burying them, watched all the while, by a knot of curious locals who, one-by-one, eventually help him. Towards the end of the task, the mud reveals a giant, natural ruby: a sign the locals interpret as the embodiment of thanks from the souls he’s putting to rest.
Accepting this interpretation, Mizushima returns to the monastery and, within a giant, hollow statue of a reclining Buddha, he buries the ruby as an offering of humility: but not before Inouye has seen the jewel as well and soliloquised about what it represents. Inouye understands what is motivating Mizushima – they are counterpoints of each other’s souls, it seems – and recognises the jewel as a totem, rather than as a source of revenue. Now that Mizushima has been accepted for official training as a monk by the monastery, the monetary value of the stone means nothing to him. He’d rather bury it than have it corrupt his new purpose. This is his second trial and it seems he’s passed. The FUTURE, then? Mizushima is a selfless, altruistic soul looking to heal spiritual wounds through blind acts of love.
One of the last scenes, has Mizushima meet his comrades the day before they’re due to be shipped back to Japan. They’re behind the wire; he’s outside and free. Without speaking a word, he accompanies their singing one last time, using the boy’s harp, then plays a sentimental folk song from back home, before disappearing back into the forest along with the boy. In that moment, Inouye knows he’s failed to bring all his men home, just as Mizushima himself, failed to persuade the fanatics back in the caves, to surrender.
But remember, they were the PAST: the PRESENT & the FUTURE get to unfold in their own ways. In walking back to the jungle to continue his transformation into a genuine adept, Mizushima therefore passes the third trial. He has chosen to forgo a return to the ‘easy life’ back home; that is no longer his path. It is enough for him to see his friends one last time and then say good-bye. Remember that last-but-one ending of Return of the King, when Frodo leaves for the Grey Havens? It has a similar emotional component, but you only have to sit through less than two hours to get there, as opposed to three and a half…
Problems with the film? Although I accept limitations imposed from running-time or inadequate source material, I was frustrated a little with the lack of Mizushima’s inner motivations for leaving behind, not just the men, but Japan as well and all that he might have waiting for him there, e.g. family. I felt as though his character never rounded-out with sufficient authority for me to believe it. that’s not to say it didn’t work for me, but that, on reflection, I had to struggle a little. The various members of the company were also left as mere sketches, though I’m sure this had more to do with running time, than with anything else.
The last scene, has Inouye read a letter from Mizushima to the men, as he explains his decision to stay. It’s a movingly acted piece, with Inouye expressing Mizushima’s intention as he reads, but I can’t help but feel, that there’s something of their connection playing-out here, too. As if, in his carefully chosen words, Mizushima is summing-up the end of the war and the beginning of something new and fresh for everyone.
It also signals a change in the company’s dynamic. To that point, they’d existed as a mutually-supportive unit, which is why Mizushima’s absence was so keenly felt. Now he’s definitely not joining them – they’re on the troopship remember – their thoughts turn to individual expressions of what each man will do ‘once home’.
It’s the end of their adventure: and the beginning of Mizushima’s.
The films ends with a repeat of its opening epigraphy: ‘The soil of Burma is red. And so are its rocks.’
Now, I see it. Now, I understand. In going with Ichikawa on this humbling journey, I have come to see anew, the breadth of life’s connections; the universality of certain truths that we all hold to be self-evident.
And when was the last time, you watched a movie that did that?
You hear a certain way of playing – a few notes floating upon the breeze – and it’s enough to make you think a dead man is alive.