#298. The Burmese Harp (1956)

I’m personally more of a book person than a movie person, better at expressing myself verbally than with some kind of visual tableaux, and so I’m often responding with a kind of bemused “Ahhh” when I read or hear some explanation of the various things a camera shot can imply, or suggest, or the way that a montage of images can communicate something more than the sum of its images.

            And so while it’s often the case that I’ll walk away from a very good book with some poignant sentence following me around, whether for its poetry or insight, I seldom walk away from a great film being haunted by a single shot in the same way.

            With The Burmese Harp, I’m having that experience.

            The movie’s about a soldier named Mizushima (Shoji Yasui) who plays the harp as a morale-booster for  his fellow Japanese soldiers at the end of World War Two. His troop surrenders to British soldiers when news reaches them of the war’s end, of their contry’s unconditional surrender—and this alone is an interesting way to start a movie: with the end of a war.

            But so it goes on from there to explore something that I’m a little embarrassed to say I’d never before thought about, which is how the people of Japan (soldiers especially) felt about the surrender. Especially since honore seems to be one of the culture’s most celebrated characteristics. And it’s explored here straightaway when Mizushima is tasked by British soldiers with entering a cave where other Japanese are holding out with their backs against the wall, refusing to surrender, and persuading them to put up the white flag, lower their guns, to come back home to Japan where (he goes on to argue) the men are badly needed in order rebuild, repopulate, recover.

            The soldiers in the cave refuse his entreaties. They’re honorbound to fight until the death.

            Eventually the British soldiers say time’s up. They bomb the cave, killing everybody except Mizushima, who wakes up, wounded, in one of the most hauntingly beautiful shots I’ve ever seen: a tableaux of death, bodies strewn and tangled all around him in the cave. All these men who just a moment ago were burning with the zeal of war. Angry and proud. You could feel the visceral energy in the cave.

            And now it’s zapped away. Nothing to show but corpses and silence. Nothing contributed, nothing gained. One imagines the immeasurable grief of families and friends who may never know that their loved one, the soldier, died for nothing (although to say that they “died for nothing” opens a splintery rhetorical/philosophical door into questions of autonomy, and whether suicide—whether by one’s own hand or that of a potentially-forgiving assailant—is a personal right).

            The shot that I’m talking about is beautiful and powerful all on its own, reminiscent of Picasso’s Guernica, but it’s made more powerful within the context of the story, the way that it punctuates this set piece that was so rife with tension and ideas and emotion. It’s a distinctly cinematic achievement.

            I’m reading some commentary about the movie and finding that, while nobody really contests its artistry, some people take umbrage with its sympathetic portrayal of Japanese soldiers and the total absence of any sort of mention to the atrocities they committed throughout the war (of which, again to my shame, I only recently learned, thanks to the List, while writing about the very puzzling Spring in a Small Town).

            The author of the novel on which it’s based, Michio Takeyama, published the book in 1946 and so, as Tony Rayns points out in his essay “Unknown Soldiers,” he couldn’t have known about the extent of those atrocities just yet.

            But director Kon Ichikawa would have known of those atrocities when he chose to take this sympathetic look at what you could call the postwar heart of the Japanese soldier.

Picasso’s Guernica

            And some viewers felt his view was lopsided.

            The movie is decidedly anti-war, though, and it’s a beautiful piece of art that explores some of the heavier and neglected themes in a historical event. The second half, wherein Mizushima is roaming the land with a shaved head and harp, embodying something of Buddhist philosophy while singlehandedly burying the dead soldiers he comes across, didn’t really sit with me so poignantly as the first half, but it’s a nice meditative way of rounding out the story and fleshing out the mournful mood of the piece.

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