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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Updated: Mar 30, 2023

The Problematic Tune of Kon Ichikawa’s Burmese Harp

Director: Kon Ichikawa

Cast: Shôji Yasui, Rentarô Mikuni, Jun Hamamura, Taketoshi Naitô, Shunji Kasuga

Related films: Kokoro, Fires on the Plain, The Human Condition, Black Rain

Studio: Nikkatsu

Year: 1956

Verdict: 3.5/6

Initially, The Burmese Harp was presented as an anti-militarist film, but Ichikawa put a problematic spin on history when victimizing Japanese soldiers.


Introducing The Burmese Harp

Although The Burmese Harp is labeled a Japanese classic, it was not successful upon its release in Japan. It was criticized for its biased depiction of Japanese soldiers in Burma, which was not unwarranted.

It is no secret that the Japanese army did monstrous things when occupying Burma during WWII. The Burmese Harp never mentions this when telling the story of a Japanese troop that was attacked and captured by British soldiers in 1945.

The soldiers in this film were perfect gentlemen with honorable intentions. The only hint of Japanese indiscretions was the somewhat cryptic choice of the protagonist when he decided to leave the army and stay in Burma to practice Buddhism.

Why he made this choice wasn’t clearly explained. Instead, the film fed us many horrific images of fallen Japanese soldiers. The movie-watching experience was impactful for sure, but it was hard to look past the one-sided story angle.

Lopsided logical choices and plot holes certainly didn’t aid the storytelling. Still, The Burmese Harp was impactful, thanks to Ichikawa’s strong cinematography and overall film-technical skills. But, a history lesson is in place before diving into the film review and analysis.

The Historical Context of The Burmese Harp

In 1942, Japan invaded Burma (now Myanmar) as part of its World War II imperial expansion. The Japanese occupation of Burma was marked by extreme brutality and oppression.

One of the most notorious actions of the Japanese army in Burma was the making of the so-called «Death Railway». This infamous project included the forced labor and conscription of tens of thousands of Burmese men to build the Burma-Siam railway.

According to the National Archives and Records Administration, approximately 13,000 Allied prisoners of war and 80,000 to 100,000 Asian laborers died during the railway construction due to the harsh conditions and brutal treatment.

Additionally, the Japanese army imposed strict economic policies and destroyed infrastructures. This hindered economic development and contributed to post-war poverty in Burma.

The Burmese people were forced to work for Japan's benefit while left with severe shortages of food and other essential goods as a result. On top of this, the Japanese military committed numerous atrocities against Burmese civilians, including rape, torture, and murder.

Japan was still coming to terms with its defeat in World War II when Ichikawa made The Burmese Harp. At the time, a growing sentiment was that Japan needed to take responsibility for its actions during the war.

The Burmese Harp was one of the first Japanese films to deal with the theme of reconciliation. Unfortunately, it didn’t hit the mark, but nonetheless, it played a considerable part in the country's post-war cultural development.

Sympathy for the Wicked | The Story of The Burmese Harp

The Burmese Harp was based on a novel of the same name by Michio Takeyama. It told the story of a Japanese troop stationed in Burma during World War II. In 1945, they learned that Japan had surrendered while on retreat in the Burmese mountains.

Among the Japanese soldiers was a talented musician named Mizushima (played by Shoji Yasui), who could play the Burmese harp. So whenever his troop felt down, they turned to Mizushima’s playing to raise their spirits.

Mizushima also served as a scout and translator for the troop led by Captain Inouye (played by Rentaro Mikuni). Before giving themselves up to the British forces, Mizushima was sent on a mission to convince another Japanese troop to surrender.

He failed, however, and as a result, the second company was massacred by the British when they refused to admit defeat. Only Mizushima was left alive and captured. After that, he managed to escape and was taken in and nurtured back to health by a Burmese monk.

During his recovery, Mizushima contemplated the horrors of war and the countless lives lost. Finally, he decides to don the robes of a Buddhist monk, taking a vow to assist the spirits of the deceased by burying the remains.

From that point, Mizushima's connection to the Burmese people was solidified. Then, to a steadily increasing degree, the futility of war dawned on him and profoundly changed him.

Ultimately, he abandoned his troop and became a Buddhist monk who helped the Burmese people. Eventually, he returned to Japan, but his experiences in Burma haunted him forever after.

Mysteriously Obvious | The Burmese Harp Analysis

The Burmese Harp was an anti-war film exploring themes of reconciliation and the sacrifice of war. To make its statement, it showed the human side of the Japanese soldiers rather than their ruthlessness.

Still, Mizushima was an anomaly among his peers who realized he had to atone for his actions. Through his interactions with the Burmese people, he learned the importance of empathy and recognized the error of his ways.

The Burmese Harp also explored the role of art in times of war. Mizushima's music helped to humanize the Japanese soldiers. As such, the movie explores the transformative power of music and its ability to transcend cultural and national boundaries.

The film also highlighted the importance of inner peace and personal redemption. After witnessing the tragic consequences of war, Mizushima’s journey ultimately led him to renounce violence and embrace a life of compassionate servitude.

The Burmese Harp focused on the human capacity to overcome hatred and violence and the potential for healing and understanding through art and human connection. The narrative delivered this message in a somewhat cryptic way, possibly meant to reflect the Buddhist concept of impermanence.

A Production to Remember | The Virtue of The Burmese Harp

Arguably, the production is the highlight og The Burmese Harp. The effect of repeated choir songs coupled with the eerie cinematography created a unique atmosphere that spoke in the film’s favor.

Ichikawa's direction and Minoru Yokoyama's cinematography was a powerful combo whose striking visuals fittingly underscored the film's themes. In addition, the black-and-white format lent a somber and timeless quality to the film.

The Burmese landscape was depicted with a sense of beauty and serenity that starkly contrasted with warfare horrors. Moreover, the settings, costumes, and props gave a strong visual expression.

Also, the acting was convincing for the most part. A few instances of overacting didn’t take anything away from the ensemble cast’s overall strong performance. Arguably, only the protagonist showed signs of character development, but from a technical perspective, The Burmese Harp stood firm. The storytelling, on the other hand, was far from perfect.

No Sympathy for Logical Flaws

Perhaps logical flaws were to be expected from a film that turned Japanese war criminals into choirboys. Maybe The Burmese Harp should not be taken too literally, but then again, it seemed to aim for realism, didn’t it?

Take one of the first sequences, for instance, when the British surrounded the company. The Japanese troop’s tactic was to sing out loud and laugh to make the British soldiers unaware they had been spotted. It was a bold move for sure, but still, it felt within the realm of possibility.

It became downright ridiculous when they took it one step further and engaged in a dancing number, leaving half their troop out in the open to retrieve ammunition. If not for the preceding surrender, the troop would have been ripped apart then and there.

The very notion of a military troop singing out loud whenever they felt down and depressed seems a faulty premise to begin with. Wouldn’t the sound of a loud male choir attract attention when engaging in guerrilla warfare?

Another improbability was the protagonist's strong reaction to violence. Granted, he might have reached his limit and grown a deep-seated distaste for the horror of war. That said, it seems farfetched that he, as a soldier, was not desensitized to the images of fallen comrades.

Furthermore, it seems implausible that Mizushima would bump into his former comrades by chance while disguised as a monk. The way he just happened to come across them while they were surrendering seemed somewhat contrived.

Final Verdict for The Burmese Harp

Ichikawa’s intentions might have been good, but he didn’t make it easy for his audience when presenting such a tilted view of history. Due to its place in Japanese film history, though, The Burmese Harp is a recommended watch.

If anything, it is an interesting case study. It played an important role in Japan's post-war cultural development. The film's themes of empathy, forgiveness, and the power of art continue to resonate with audiences today.

On the other hand, the logical flaws and lacking character development didn’t help the film much. The film would probably have worked much better had the protagonist’s choices been further elaborated.

If Ichikawa had given us a better chance to connect with the characters, rather than relentlessly forcing tear-jerking sequences down our throats, we might have given The Burmese Harp a second chance. Concerning its mixed criticism, it is safe to say that JCA sides with the less impressed of the bunch.

Don’t let our skepticism hold you back, however. Most reviews out there are more favorable than ours. For collectors, there are some very nice editions of this film to be found, most notably the releases by Criterion and Master of Cinema.


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