Biruma No Tategoto (AKA: The Burmese Harp) – 1956
Starring – Shoji Yasui and Rentaro Mikuni
Director – Kon Ichikawa
The Burmese Harp marks the first non-english language film that I’ve watched for the first time since starting this little endeavor, and as a fan of Japanese cinema of this period, I have to say that I was a little let down. I fully understand that this may be my film school bias kicking in. It is after all not either a Kurosawa or an Ozu film, therefore it was never really on my radar before I picked it from the list. This criticism isn’t meant to imply that the film was bad, it simply didn’t have a history with me the way some other “classic” Japanese movies did (like The Seven Samurai for example). As a result, the film didn’t have the effect on me that I was hoping for.
The story of the Burmese Harp centers around a troop of Japanese soldiers stationed in Burma in the last days of World War 2, actually one of the first major occurances is that the war ends. Japan has surrendered to the allies, and our main characters give up there arms to a battalion of British soldiers, and are to be escorted to a holding area to await re-patriation. Despite their home country’s surrender, not all ofJapans soldiers in Burma have given up fighting. Thus introduces the main catalyst for the rest of the film. It is because of this, that main character, Mizushima, is assigned to go and tell his countrymen the news of the surrender and negotiate a peaceful end to the fighting. This is an important and time sensitive mission as he only has 30 minutes in which to carry it out.
Needless to say, it is not as easy as just walking in and exchanging some rational words. He is called a coward, and is labeled by his colleagues as being disloyal to Japan. Mizushima does his best to talk some sense into the rogue outfit but, in the end he runs out of time, and the British renew their shelling of the mountain encampment. The rest of the movie deals with his long trek back to the re-patriation camp where his unit is being held, all the while dealing with his conflicted emotions surrounding the atrocities that he sees along the way. His only link to his outfit, and his way of maintaining some semblance of himself is through the music he creates with his Burmese style harp.
In principle, this movie works. It has all the right elements, and they are put together in a pleasing sort of way, but in practice, I had a hard time staying really interested. By the end I liked the movie, and I was glad that I had seen it, but it was a long journey (maybe not quite as long as Mizushima’s, but long none the less). It had a very obvious wounded nationalism aspect to it, and I can understand how it’s impact may have been greater in the mid 50’s when it was released. Japan was trying to rationalize to itself it’s new position in the world. It’s self image had to have suffered since the war ended, and was probably very different than it was 10 years previous. This idea of an entire place and population searching for itself is an interesting one, but mine was not a perspective that they had when it was released. Shame and fear of dishonor were quite real, and through Mizushima’s quest for atonement the Japanese had a way of celebrating their heros again.
Still…something didn’t quite sit right. Not having ever been at all swept up in the fervor of nationalism, patriotism, or even sensationalism, I would have liked to have seen a little more individualism. The unit operated as a unit, each had the same end goal, with of course the exception of Mizushima, who was acting in the best interest of Japan. Maybe I am just a product of my time, but I would much rather have seen a unit comprised of men who were different. Who had different goals, motivations, and struggles, and through it all came to work together. That would require that each person sacrifice something for the end goal, but since no one wanted anything different, no need to sacrifice. Ultimately the film, like a lot of war-time films, was a rallying cry. This was meant (and maybe it succeeded) to get the whole country of Japan back in line, and back into the world. I suppose, maybe the fact that I am such a product of my era, results in this movie feeling a little more antiquated and thin on premise. Not bad by far, but not nearly as good as some of the films to come out of Japan in the same time frame.