PictureThe Burmese Harp comes to Blu-ray with a 1080p resolution encoded using the AVC codec and framed within the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The disc itself is locked to region B.
Eureka, in conjunction with the Masters of Cinema, have licensed a print from the Japanese owners, the Nikkatsu studio, which was originally intended for the domestic market. As such it contains subtitles for the Japanese audience when Burmese is spoken, which Eureka/MOC decided not to take out as it actually aids us, helping UK viewers to know when Burmese is being spoken. Also, with the Japanese subtitles being displayed down the right-hand side, they don’t clash with the English subtitles, which themselves have been the subject of a re-translation and are now improved.
There has been some restoration work, but it is pointed out that although Eureka has “digitally removed a handful of momentary instances of heavy damage”, they proceed to note that these were in the minority in “otherwise very good source materials”. As with any film of such an age, there is always likely to be damage of one sort of another, even after restoration efforts; there are still the occasional scratches, specks, lines and fluctuation, but they are far from distracting.
For a title that had already received a decent release on DVD from Criterion, the question remains whether this is a notable step up. Well the first thing that strikes you is the lightness of the image in comparison. I’m not generally a fan of the boosted look, but the Criterion release helped add a distinction between fore and background that now is slightly lessened, but that isn’t to say that it lacks depth. There is an upshot to the lightened frame however, with there being no instances where the detail is sucked out of fabrics and delicate delineation. The minimal flickering and light fluctuation also has less of an impact, as do white lines on the print.
Close-up there is definitely an extra level of detail to be found thanks to the higher resolution, but it isn’t so much startling as pleasant; clothing seems more natural and hair now has a distinct texture. However, as good as this looks, it cannot be avoided that how you rate this will depend on where you stand on the debate regarding the lightness of the image, with the overall silvery surface likely to be too much for some, acclimatised to deeper blacks, to want to update from their Criterion DVDs.
SoundThere is one audio option, that being a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track.
I had to crank up the volume a bit on this track, it wasn’t imperative, but I felt it necessary to get the best out of the score and harmonies. It is surprisingly wide for a 2.0 track and has a reasonable dynamic range, filling the room when necessary without struggling or seeming to peak. Speech is a little harsh and can border on the tinny, as seems to be the case with many period films, but at least it remains well prioritised and keeps a steady level in comparison to the music and sound effects.
Artillery fire has a good snap to it and even without a sub gets deeper than I’d expected from a 2.0 track, but it’s never likely to shake you and this was never a full-blooded war film anyway. The real acoustic treat found here is the music that is so key to everything that happens in the film. Singing swells and floods the soundstage with ease, with a rounded and obviously tuneful quality - it is quite a marvel to hear distinctly what appear to be so many layers from just two speakers. The high frequency of the titular harp is similarly well realised, with a crisp tightness to the reverberation of the stringed arrangements. I doubt fans of the film could have hoped for more, being they are given a fantastic lossless representation of some of cinema’s most heartfelt music.
Extras40 page booklet
Unfortunately this was unavailable with the check disc we were sent, but it is set to include both rare archival stills and an essay by Keiko I. McDonald.
Tony Rayns on The Burmese Harp - 1080i – 18:13
Rayns lends his almost encyclopaedic knowledge of East Asian cinema to give some background information, and his own views, about the film and its director. It may only be eighteen minutes long, but every topic is covered, from the film’s origins and Ichikawa’s involvement, to the critical reaction on the festival scene.
Original Japanese trailer – 1080p – 3:41
It’s fantastic to see such a trailer given the high-def treatment, though this ranks as less of a trailer and more a three and a half minute cut of the film as all the major points are shown in order.
VerdictThe Burmese Harp is a stunningly poignant story of the effects of war. It is at one spiritual and relatable in its depiction of a soul troubled by the things he’s seen and the characters he’s met. It ranks as one of the all-time-great anti-war pieces, containing not only the classic struggle of the militaristic against the humanistic but also a rhapsodic display of emotion, with song replacing mere speech, all against the backdrop of Ichikawa’s usual flair for imagery.
The disc is strong, if not spectacular, with the image quality likely to be the subject of some debate – some may see it as merely un-boosted, whilst others may point to it being unnaturally lightened. The audio is less open to opinion as it does just about everything you could hope a lossless 2.0 track for a period film could manage. Extras are brief but going by the standard of previous Masters of Cinema booklets, it’ll likely be substantial and the addition of Tony Rayns’ views/history lessons are always welcome.
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