Memo To About Half the People Under 40 or So

52 Movies: Week 36 - The Burmese Harp

The Burmese Harp, a 1956 movie directed by Kon Ichikawa, is considered a classic antiwar film, but as some reviewers have noted it’s more than that because it dwells on what we do when great suffering happens, how we keep our humanity. I somehow missed it when it arrived in the U.S. in the 1960s, and only got around to seeing it a few months ago. Its gorgeously shot images in black and white will stay with you. As will the music, especially the song “There’s No Place Like Home,” sung repeatedly in the film. A few reviews I’ve read say there’s too sentimental a treatment of some aspects of the film, especially the music. I agree somewhat, but it’s pretty powerful nonetheless.

The story, based on a children’s book, is about a platoon of Japanese soldiers in Burma in the first days after Japan’s surrender. Their captain, a man who was a music teacher in civilian life, has taught the men choral singing as a way of keeping up their morale. One of the platoon members, named Mizushima, has taught himself to play a Burmese harp to accompany them, and he is the one chosen by the captain to seek out another company of Japanese soldiers who are holed up on a high mountain to tell them to surrender and not die meaninglessly. They refuse, and are then shelled by British forces, leaving them all dead except for Mizushima. Found and nursed back to health by a Buddhist monk, he then takes the monk’s robes to wear as a disguise as he makes his way back to his platoon in the POW camp. On the way, he comes across scores of dead bodies of Japanese soldiers. He stops and buries or burns many of them, but the task is too great to do all and he continues on his way, spiritually overwhelmed. When he arrives at the camp, he’s eager to meet up again with his platoon, but after watching a Catholic priest and some nurses sing a hymn at the grave of a Japanese soldier, turns away and all the horrors of the dead he has seen play over in his mind. It is at this point that he determines to stay in Burma, become a Buddhist priest, and make it his life’s work to bury all the dead.

Most of the dialogue in the movie is that of other members of the platoon; Mizushima says very little and his interior monologue is carried mostly by images. A few stills might give an idea of the movie’s beauty and emotional pull. The first shows Mizushima after he’s burned and buried some of the dead he first comes across:

Week36-Burmese Harp-Marianne_html_m5212fefd

This one shows some Burmese men watching Mizushima burying the dead before they begin to help him -- one of the scenes that captures a sense of great vastness:

Week36-Burmese Harp-Marianne_html_m383c2372

This last is of Mizushima standing outside the British POW camp watching his fellow platoon members as they plead with him to come back to Japan with them:

Week36-Burmese Harp-Marianne_html_m14adac3b

You can watch a five-minute clip of that scene here; I think it’s one of the most moving in the film.

—Marianne lives in New Zealand


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Thanks, Marianne. Very good.


Yes. That middle image is really striking.

By the way, I left this comment on the Kwaidan post several days ago, but since it was quickly pushed off the new comments list and the post has been off the main page for a while, I'm going to re-post it:

I watched Kwaidan one segment at a time over the past several days. It is extremely good. Presumably it was the version in which the Hoichi story is shortened. I'd like to see the full one sometime because that story and the snow woman one were my favorites. By a good margin, really. Also, Takemitsu's music/sound effects were excellent. By the end of the Hoichi story I was really beginning to like that chanting.

That middle image reminds me The Seventh Seal.

Re Kwaidan: Those were the best, although the first one is nicely creepy.

When I read that in the other day, I thought you said you were beginning to chant.

I think I wrote that when he gets to a certain deep note and plays around with it, it sounds just like a black blues singer.


Maybe that's why I like it (Seventh Seal).

The first one was very well done, it just didn't seem to me to be as striking a story as the next two. The last one I really didn't like all that much compared to the other three.


Yes, and the instrument sometimes sounds like a twelve-string guitar.

I always have to stop and think what the last one was.


I have fallen off my scooter and onto my broken foot. I am laid up. When someone comes I will make them put The Harp into the DVD playet



Oh no! There's an American saying for that kind of thing: "can't win for losing." Hope there hasn't been more damage to the foot.

Thanks for this, Marianne. I too like this film very much, and am probably due for a re-watch.

Re: Kwaidan, yes, the two middle pieces are the most striking, although I do rather like "The Black Hair" as a straightforward ghost tale. I think the final segment served as a way to lighten the ending with a little irony, which may partly be why it's the least memorable of the four.

Sorry to hear of your mishap, Grumpy!

On the "Kwaidan" thread Craig wrote this about Kobayashi's epic The Human Condition: "It was excellent; a very personal look at the effects of war on the life and the soul of a good man."

I finished it last night and agree entirely. Although it's considered a trilogy, in reality it's one nine-hour film broken down into six roughly 90 minute parts. Each pair of these constitutes 1/3 of the "trilogy." It's a very powerful viewing experience, not least because you go through so much with the main character, and therefore it's often quite moving. Highly recommended.

I put it on my queue though I don't know when I'll get to it. Like the 52 Authors series, this one has me feeling somewhat overwhelmed.

We need to have a film festival. We could do it here. I'm centrally located. ;-)


Sounds good to me.

Glad to hear you enjoyed The Human Condition, Rob! It's a big time investment, and I'd have felt bad if you came away disappointed.

In other news, Terrence Malick's Voyage of Time is premiering at the film festival here in Toronto this week. There are four showings during the festival, but unfortunately I can't get to any of them! I'll just have to wait until it gets a wide release.

Yes, I think it's one I'm likely to buy at some point. I find myself already wanting to see certain scenes again.

And Voyage of Time got a 10 minute standing ovation after its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. I hope we get it here, as Knight of Cups passed us by entirely.

Am I imagining it, or did Art Deco offer a piece on Le Château de ma mère?

I sure don't remember anything of that sort.

Must have my wires crossed then! It came to mind because I was toying with the idea of writing up another French film, Dien Bien Phu. (Trailer in German, for some reason.)

Possibly someone else did, though I don't remember it. But if you're wondering whether that would be an excess of French films, no, definitely not.

I just finished watching The Burmese Harp. That is really a wonderful film. If you haven't seen it, you should. I think I mentioned elsewhere how much I like seeing the post-war era from the Japanese point of view. Uzo's films are particularly interesting because he couldn't--because of the occupation--come out and say a lot about how the Americans were affecting the culture, but he manages to get in a few subtle hints now and then.

The music is so haunting. I can't believe it came from a children's book.


I just finished watching Departures, Janet. It was quite wonderful. The Japanese seem to have a superior culture than ours, but that doesn't surprise me.

I'm glad you liked it, Stu.

I don't think I know enough about the culture in general to have an opinion on that.


I feel on fairly safe ground saying that traditional Japanese manners are more graceful and dignified than ours. The traditional culture as a whole...hard to say. It has many noble and beautiful things but some pretty bad ones, too.

Not too long ago I saw a documentary about Japanese and American soldiers who'd fought each other in the same battle (Iwo Jima maybe?) meeting many years later. It was pretty moving. I was really struck by one Japanese man who had been taken prisoner, who talked about how shocked he was that he wasn't killed, because that kind of mercy wasn't part of their military ethos.

'The music is so haunting.'

The score was by Akira Ifukube, the same composer who did the music for a lot of the Japanese s/f films -- Godzilla, etc.

Just last week I watched the 1962 historical film Chushingura, and he had done the music for that as well. His music does have a recognizable sound -- the combination of eastern and western styles, and strong melodies. He was dismissive of the "modern" atonal music that became prevalent in his era.

Naxos has a good CD of his concert music, but otherwise recordings of his are hard to find, other than some of the soundtrack material.

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