THE BURMESE HARP (1956) FILM REVIEW
Updated: Mar 27, 2022
A classic Japanese war film held back by history!
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
Although labeled a Japanese classic, The Burmese Harp has received some mixed criticism. It was presented as an anti-militarist film, though it is well-known that the Japanese army were far from innocent when occupying Burma during WWII. With this in mind - even though the setting of The Burmese Harp is in the aftermath of WWII - the portrayal of victimized Japanese soldiers appears too one-sided.
The soldiers in this film are perfect gentlemen with honorable intentions. Burmese oppression on the other hand is never mentioned. The only hint of Japanese indiscretions comes in the form of a somewhat cryptic and unexplained choice, when our protagonist decides to leave the army and stay in Burma to practice Buddhism. It is never elaborated on the reason for his choice. Instead we are fed lots of horrific wartime imagery, in the form of fallen Japanese soldiers.
The antiwar sentiments of The Burmese Harp is of course recommendable, and speculation about Ichikawa's standpoint really has no place in a film review blog such as this. The movie watching experience is the topic at hand. In this regard, The Burmese Harp made an unquestionable impact when it was released, but from a film-technical perspective it has got its fair share of flaws.
A Japanese company are on retreat in the Burmese mountains in 1945. When taking shelter in a small village they learn that Japan has surrendered. Before giving themselves up to the British forces, they send one man on a mission to convince another Japanese company to surrender. His objective fails however, as the second company refuse to admit defeat. As such they are slaughtered down by the British, leaving only the messenger alive. Torn and tattered he is taken in and slowly nurtured back to health by a Burmese monk.
Before this incident the messenger used to boost his countrymen’s morale by singing nationalistic anthems while trekking through the Burmese mountains. At the time the messenger had fashioned his own Burmese-style harp, and he also proved to be a talented musician. Whenever his troop was feeling down they turned to his playing and songs to raise their spirits. Cut to the prisoner camp, and the rest of the film portrays the company trying to track down their lost harp player. Meanwhile he spends his time burying countless fallen Japanese soldiers.
The settings, scenery, costumes and props make The Burmese Harp a very solid effort on the technical level. The cinematography and the effect of repeated choir songs make for a unique atmosphere that definitely speaks in the film’s favor. The acting is also convincing for the most part, though a few instances of overacting appears every now and then.
Small instances of overacting do not take anything away from the film as a whole however, but the logical flaws do. An example of sound logic is when the company is surrounded by British soldiers in the first sequences of the film. The tactic of singing out loud and laughing to make the enemy unaware that they spotted them seems like a pretty cheeky move.
Engaging in a dancing number, leaving half your troop out in the open in order to retrieve ammunition, seem downright ridiculous. Were it not for the preceding surrender, the company would have been ripped apart then and there. Later on, when the protagonist turns monk, it seems unbelievable that he as a soldier is not desensitized to the image of fallen comrades.
Perhaps The Burmese Harp should not be taken too literally, but then again, it seems to aim for realism. Or does it? The very notion of a company singing out loud whenever they feel down seems a faulty premise to begin with. Wouldn’t the sound of a loud male choir attract attention when engaging in guerrilla warfare?
The intentions might very well have been good, but Ichikawa does not make it easy for his audience when presenting a somewhat tilted view of history. If anything, this is an interesting case study. The film certainly entertains, as long as you are able to look past the happenings prior to the story at hand. Due to its place in Japanese film history, The Burmese Harp is a recommended watch, even though logically flawed and lacking in character development.
Had the protagonist’s choices been further elaborated, had the audience been given a chance to connect with the characters, rather than Ichikawa trying to force tear-jerking sequences down our throats, the film would probably have worked much better. Concerning the mixed criticism of The Burmese Harp, it is safe to say that JCA sides with the less impressed of the bunch.
Don’t let our skepticism hold you back though. Most reviews out there are more favorable than our. For collectors there are some very nice editions of this film to be found, most notably the releases from Criterion and Master of Cinema.