“The soil of Burma is red, and so are its rocks”
It is surprising to find that it is still considered a novel cinematic experience, to this day, to find a film that portrays life in World War II from anything but an Allied perspective. Mainstream critical reception of Clint Eastwood’s companion piece to Flags of our Fathers, Letter from Iwo Jima was astoundingly often centred around the “brave” choice of depicting the other side of a conflict, being so well documented in the West as being straightforward. Many however were delving into this rich vein of storytelling in the intervening decades between VE/VJ Day and Eastwood’s admittedly accomplished piece, and one of those was Kon Ichikawa (Alone Across the Pacific) with The Burmese Harp (1956). Perhaps a more understandable viewpoint, given the director is Japanese himself, but it has to be remembered that for some time after the surrender of the Empire of Japan, there were few cinematic visions that attempted to come to terms with the events that shaped the nation and the cost of defeat both individually and collectively, so to broach the subject, even with a decade having passed, was opening wounds many had not considered healed or had come to terms with..
It tells the story of a young Private named Mizushima, played by Shôji Yasui (whose performance as the young student in Ichikawa’s Kokoro, made the same year, convinced the director that Shôji was capable of the role here) in the Japanese army around the time the war in the Pacific ends; his company has been rattled and they are retreating into Thailand. One of the first things Ichikawa starts to weave into the narrative is the importance of music; the Captain of the men (played by Rentarô Mikuni from Imamura’s Profound Desires of the Gods and Vengeance is Mine), having been a graduate of music school, teaches his troops the basics of choral singing in order to maintain their morale. Far from this being a piece that analyses Japan’s place within the world landscape by way of symbolising old feudal values in individuals, what we are confronted with is a very human and easily identifiable set of characters that elicit empathy. Even when the very real spectre of a confrontation with British troops is upon us, it would be hard for a Western audience not to feel gripped by the plight of the Japanese unit, and once again music is key to this – the harmonies are wonderfully melodic and the original music by Akira Ifukube is incorporated to rise with the feelings of those on screen.
The tuneful displays, like the characters, go through phases and progress in their use and the emotions they symbolise. When we first meet the men on their retreat, the harmonies are needed to keep spirits up and young Mizushima is deployed as a scout to see if the way ahead is clear, choosing to signal by the Burmese harp (obviously from which the film gets its name) that he has taught himself to play on their journey. It is here that we start to see the division between Mizushima and those he is enlisted with, as when he dresses as a native Burmese in order to be inconspicuous to any enemy troops he may meet, a fellow soldier remarks that he looks even better in his current garb, to which Mizushima quips that he really could pass for Burmese. A handy point of note with regards this release, Eureka and The Master of Cinema fellas have plumped for a Japanese print rather than an international one, which thus contains subtitles for the Burmese dialogue –this proves especially helpful for such scenes as it helps distinguish (certainly to my untrained ear) when the language is being spoken. Ichikawa uses this section to establish the three pivotal roles, Private Mizusghima, Captain Innouye and Sergeant Ito (Jun Hamamura). The Private and his Captain share a bond through the music they both appreciate, with it being clear that the former is the best student and most naturally gifted of the troop, but the Sergeant, second in command, lacks the ear to hear the difference in the tunes played or the ability it seems to appreciate them.
It is not long before once again Ichikawa is hinting at the unsuitability of such a soul as Mizushima to be in a soldier’s uniform, as he finds himself stripped of his Burmese disguise by bandits and left in a skirt made of banana leaves. The pace is relatively slow and considered and modern audiences will likely start to see more than a hint of the mixing of nature and the isolation of war that combined to such great effect in Mallick’s The Thin Red Line and it is a theme that continues throughout the film as the central character goes on his spiritual journey. Soon not only the purpose of music as a toll is established, but also the universality of it and the sentiments it evokes. When pinned down by British troops, the Japanese unit sing to keep their enemy off guard, but as another melody confronts them from the distance it becomes clear that their enemies are also in good voice. In a moment that mixes the direction of Ichkawa with the music of Ifukube to near perfection, we witness a scene that ranges from tension, through confusion, to finally rest upon sheer relief in a crescendo of harmonies, as it becomes evident that the war is finally over.
With the Japanese taken prisoners, they are to be taken south to a detainment camp while they await their fate. In a reflection of the nation’s collective bewilderment, the men seem unsure of what their future holds and this brings to an end what is essentially the first act. It is en route to the camp that the paths split and Mizushima must begin his solitary road, as Captain Innouye is informed of a remote battalion of Japanese soldiers holed up in a mountain. The British want to get word to them that the war is over and need a man to inform them and convince them to stand down. Mizushima is chosen by his Captain and ascends the rock face, being welcomed by his former brothers-in-arms, however they are far from pleased to hear of his news. Ichikawa’s anti-war message of dying needlessly is perfectly encapsulated here, as no matter how much the young Private struggles to reason with his former comrades, he ultimately fails to convince them not to throw their lives away for the sake of illogical bravado. Time runs out and the consequences ripple outwards.
In another act of symbolism, illustrating the metamorphosis of the character, once the mountain has been pounded by heavy artillery fire, Mizushima crawls from the mounds of bodies, rolling out of the mountain side to safety. The seeds of a personality affected by war are sown in this scene, as he is almost reborn from the carnage and needless bloodshed. He is soon saved by a travelling monk, but his journey to meet up with his friends at the prisoner of war camp is doomed in many ways from this point onwards. As he travels the landscape, the cumulative total of the bodies that litter the ground have a profound effect on him, and coupling this with the monk’s robes that he now wears, his path begins to deviate from that of his compatriots. Were it not such a distinctly Buddhist and karmic film, one could easily see it as a man walking through the valley of the shadow of death. There are some truly stunning vistas and wide shots used, and one can only imagine what they might have looked like in a scope format. The more Mizushima struggles on his journey and gets closer geographically to his friends, across rocky terrain and muddy rivers, burying bodies on his way, the further away he actually is emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. He becomes reborn from this second act, thanks to his semi-pilgrimage, being gestated amongst the elements as he cremates soldiers’ bodies, bloodies his feet on the rocks of the ground and traverses rivers; once again nature plays an important part and is used as the levelling factor, the constant; the mountain that is surrounded by fighting is still and as it was, once the gunfire has stopped.
The final, and most potent, act concerns the effect that Mizushima’s disappearance and possible death has upon his friends; detained and hoping for repatriation, it is only the Captain that holds out any great hope that he is still alive, in no small part out of hope because of his own guilt that he himself did not ascend that mountain. There are glimpses of a man who looks like Mizushima, and Innouye becomes convinced that he lives due to hearing a child play a harp in his distinctive style. The realisation comes too late though, as Mizushima has started down a path that he is unable to turn away from, being now almost inextricably linked to the bones that litter Burma. Feelings run high as Ichikawa portrays the unspoken emotions by way of the music and harmonies sung, hitting all the right notes (no pun intended) for heartfelt drama about the futility of war and the repercussions of senseless death. It ranks up there with Paths of Glory as a highly intelligent and accomplished damnation of war, but more than that it is an elegiac, moving and poetic journey of a human soul.
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