Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Burmese Harp (1956) - Directed by Kon Ichikawa

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. 


R. D. Finch said...

Jon, a lovely post on a fantastic film, one of the great antiwar movies of all time, and a great companion piece to your post on "Fires on the Plain." In the ongoing Wonders in the Dark yearly polls, I voted for this as the best film of 1956, and you explained all the reasons why. The main character copes with the trauma and brutality of war through his music and his self-appointed mission to bury the unburied and unhonored war dead. When you called this "a film of great humanism and compassion" you really hit the mark.

Whenever I think of the melody of "No Place Like Home" I'm instantly plunged into the mood of this film. I can't think offhand of another film that combines the qualities of melancholy, spirituality, asceticism, and hope the way this one does. Your post gives a good idea of what a moving experience watching this film is, and I hope it inspires your readers who haven't seen it to seek it out.

Jon said...

R.D. we had discussed this one after Fires on the Plain and I made it a point to find it. I'm really glad I did. Thank you for your kind thoughts and comments and support. You're right, there is a combination of elements here that has rarely if ever been duplicated with such sincerity. It's a special film.

Sam Juliano said...

I have promoted this film for a very long time as one of the greatest films ever made, not just one of the best anti-war films. To extend the hyperbole I consider it one of my favorite Japanese films ever, and a film that employs music by Akira Ifukube to such shattering effect that it redefines a viewer's emotional response to the film. Of course the director did again make music an aesthetic centerpiece in his later THE MAKIOKA SISTERS, when Handel was the composer of choice. BURMESE HARP is an extraordinarily moving film based on a children's novel that won a well deserved Best Foreign Film nomination in the same year that LA STRADA won. I would have voted for Ichikawa's film myself. This is a film about atonement, one of humanist cinema's most aching testament, as you brilliantly say in this astounding review "meditative and heartfelt" and with soulful power.

Jon said...

Hey thanks Sam, obviously a film you are far more familiar with than I. It's a great one for sure and I liked the way you added to the background with your comments on the music. I didn't realize it was based on a children's novel. Interesting.