After recently watching Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain, and being completely blown away by its tone and perspective on war, it was with great anticipation that I quickly sought out his other highly regarded film, The Burmese Harp. Harp was made 3 years prior, but it is vastly different in tone, look, and overall impression. Yet it is no less effective or moving an experience. In fact, it is a film of great humanism and compassion, which is almost polar opposite from Fires on the Plain’s hellish view of war. It’s fascinating that a director can make such different films on the same subject within such a short period of time.
The Burmese Harp follows a band of Japanese soldiers in Burma, late in the war in 1945, who have formed a special bond over their ability to sing songs of home and camaraderie, and who also have acquired a harp. A private named Mizushima has learned how to play it along with their renditions. After the Japanese surrender to a group of British soldiers and the war is over, the Private is sent on a short mission to convince a group of soldiers, who are hunkered into a mountain fortress, to surrender. He is unable to convince them and ends up in the midst of shelling by the British. Mizushima is thought dead, but is in fact the only survivor of the battle. He acquires a monk’s robe as a disguise, and begins a journey that will take him to spiritual enlightenment. He achieves this through a profound desire to bury dead soldiers. He is adopted by a group of monks and seems to disappear from all traces of his previous life as a soldier, until some chance encounters with his troupe bring memories and experiences flooding back.
Ichikawa’s film, although in 1.33 aspect ratio, is nearly as expressive as Fires on the Plain. Cinematography by Minoru Yokoyama contains beautifully framed moments that are arranged in montage. I often recalled Soviet cinema here and think of Eisenstein or even the work of Kolotozov who released The Cranes Are Flying right about the same time. There is wonderful use of low-angle camera shots, and soft lighting that illuminates faces in the foreground while the background is darkened. There’s also the terrific balance between close-ups, medium range, and long shots. In fact, balance throughout the film is key. There is a balance between ugliness and beauty, between pain and healing. Both the elements of the script and the visuals themselves seem to feed into these opposing features.
What I especially loved was the meditative tone, which is heartfelt, genuine and offers up some very moving setpieces. I think of the moment on the beach where Mizushima is working solo to bury a large pile of dead soldiers with a group of onlookers seemingly astonished that anyone would do such a thing. Yet his inspirational efforts cause the rest of them to pitch in. Also there is that spectacular moment near the end where Mizushima’s soldier troupe reads a letter aloud that he wrote, explaining everything he is doing and why. It is a great moment of compassion and outpouring of emotion that is thoroughly earned. Ichikawa breeds a sense of redemption and hope into this film that is vastly different from the following Fires on the Plain. In fact, this also has to be one of the most spiritually satisfying films I’ve ever seen. Rare is the film that is able to touch something of the soul in this particular way.