Burmese Harp, The (1956)

Director:  Kon Ichikawa
Cast:  Rentarô MikuniShôji Yasui, Tatsuya Mihashi
Plot:  In the War's closing days, when a conscience-driven Japanese soldier fails to get his countrymen to surrender to overwhelming force, he adopts the lifestyle of a Buddhist monk.

Genre:  Drama / Music / War

Awards:  Won OCIC Award  San Giorgio Prize, Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice).  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Foreign Film. 
Runtime:  116min&
Rating:  PG

“Why must the world suffer such misery?  Why must there be such inexplicable pain?”

Kon Ichikawa led a long life.  He passed away only four years ago at a ripe old age of 92.  His body of work was extremely diverse, yet he was most remembered for a handful of films such as Fires on the Plains (1959), The Makioka Sisters (1983) and The Inugami Family (1976), which was remade by Ichikawa himself in his final film Murder of the Inugami Clan (2006).

But the film that launched him into international reckoning and established him as an important Japanese filmmaker, though not quite in the same breath as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, was The Burmese Harp.

Lyrical, musical, and poetic all at once, The Burmese Harp snatched a couple of awards at the Venice Film Festival more than half a century ago.  Although it is often regarded as Ichikawa’s most acclaimed film, I feel that the film is slightly overrated for a number of reasons.

However, it remains to be a powerful anti-war film, and considering the fact that it was made only a decade after Japan’s defeat in WWII, The Burmese Harp is apparently a strong statement of intent by a native filmmaker to reflect on the sheer human loss as a result of his nation’s instigation of war.

Musically rich with many scenes of choral singing, The Burmese Harp centers on a platoon of Japanese soldiers stationed in Burma, who has surrendered to the British forces a few days after the end of WWII.  One of the soldiers, Mizushima (Shoji Yasui) plays a kind of Burmese harp while his fellow mates sing along.

When tasked to persuade a group of Japanese soldiers to surrender, Mizushima fails and ends up adopting the looks and lifestyle of a Buddhist monk to survive, away from his platoon mates who are kept in a prisoners-of-war camp.  Soon, he begins to be disenchanted with the war’s toll on humanity, and decides that a life of peace, enlightenment, and redemption is the best way to ease one’s and others’ sufferings.

Gorgeously shot, The Burmese Harp may sometimes feel too preachy about standing by the ideals of morality.  The frequent (and spontaneous) singing of songs do help the film to find some sort of rhythm despite the slow pacing, though there are a few instances that sees Ichikawa guilty of over-dramatization, if not through the film’s original score, then through dialogue.

The performances are excellent though, and from the film’s occasionally depressing imagery, the mood that is created is one of reflection and consolation.  The Burmese Harp can be emotionally manipulating, but its anti-war message comes across devastatingly loud and clear.

Verdict:  Gorgeously shot, this music-driven Ichikawa film is powerful, though it does it in an overstated way.

GRADE: B+ (8/10 or 3.5 stars)

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