The Burmese Harp

Remembering our war dead at this time of year also means remembering the sacrifices made by those who survived the horrors of war. Many war and holocaust films have inspired us with one or more people’s determination to survive during incredible hardship in times of war. These inspirational films follow the hero as he endures unspeakable ordeals and survives to tell about it, or not. 

Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp (1956), which didn’t arrive in the US until 1967, is a heartfelt and hopeful Japanese W.W. II story about a platoon of singing Japanese soldiers in Burma (now Myanmar), who surrender three days after the end of the war. While kept in a British prison camp, one of the soldiers, Private Mizushima, volunteers to help the British convince a hold-out Japanese platoon, who has barricaded themselves in a mountain, that the war is over and that they must surrender or die. He climbs into the mountain and is never seen again. 

Loosely based on a popular Japanese fairy tale for adults, which tells of an unusual singing army regiment returning from Burma after the war with tales of one member of their company who refused to return home, this is one of the most moving and inspirational war tales I have ever seen and actually has very little violence in it. The story is beautifully told through stunningly calm scenes of the aftermath of war, which are gorgeously composed and photographed in black and white. The visually breathtaking shots of Burmese landscapes clearly show the director’s early talent as a painter and animator. 

Unable to convince the fanatical Japanese troops to surrender, they all stubbornly go out in a hail of bullets and bombs. When the dust clears, Mizushima, badly wounded, climbs out from under the rubble and attempts to return to his regiment. After recovering from his wounds in a Buddhist temple he continues his trek through the Burmese mountains to find his fellow army comrades, but during his journey he’s traumatized by horrific scenes of dead bodies littered over the bomb scorched countryside. Wracked by guilt, he decides to dedicate the remainder of his life to making a spiritual quest of redemption by burying all the dead and decaying corpses in the guise of a Buddhist monk.

It’s a unique antiwar story that reinforces the importance of compassion and our humanity to each other. No matter what one’s past, we can succeed in overcoming our darker nature and be respectful of all life. I was moved by this movie because of its spiritual message in the face of great violence. One of the most captivating and serene tranquil images in the film, is that of the soldier monk with his head shaved sitting near a jungle temple with a parrot on his shoulder while playing a Burmese harp.

When he later runs into his army colleagues, who think that he died in the mountain attack, they almost don’t recognize him dressed as a Buddhist priest. From behind the fences of the British holding camp, they are never really sure of the monk’s identity and continue to call to him for any signs of recognition. The monk/soldier however is unable to bring himself to acknowledge his old war buddies or he will risk revealing himself as a Japanese soldier and be sent back to Japan. He has now rejected the soldier’s life for one of peace and feels he must sacrifice his past to stay on this path.

Don’t miss this unforgettable inspirational and artfully made classic war film that pays homage to both the fallen and survivors of war. Other inspiring war films to see include: Das Boot (1981), The Killing Fields (1984), Platoon (1986), Life is Beautiful (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Black Hawk Down (2002), The Pianist (2002), Fateless (2005), Letters from Iwo Jima (2007), Days of Glory (Indigenes) (2007), The Counterfeiters (2007), Defiance (2009), CHE (2009) and In Darkness (2011).



Shiran said...

Once again, an excellent review. I have seen this movie in some form or another a long time ago. After reading your review, I really should see it again in its entirety.

Kathy said...

This looks like a beautiful film. I will look for it!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Kathy, this looks like a great film and now I'm on the hunt to find it.

Jon Jefferson said...

This sounds really cool. But it is something I will never see first hand. Due to my time in service and war during that time I am no longer able to watch any movies that portray the realities of war or have any connection to real war.

JP said...

I completely understand how you feel Jon. Although I cannot imagine what it must be like to have experienced such horrific situations, I know that films about war can bring out a great deal of difficult emotions. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

Susan Cooper said...

Especially this time of year, we are very mindful of the men and women who have lost their lives in fighting for freedom. I really love your view of the film. I am going to look for this one.

Susan Cooper from BHB on Linked In

Tope Olofin said...

I dunno why, but I was holding my breath as I read your review. You are really talented, the way you use words to capture the message behind the films you review.

I kept saying to myself, I wanna watch this!