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The Burmese Harp (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on February 8, 2013

Captain Inouye’s (Rentarô Mikuni) platoon is stationed in Burma.  A music scholar, he’s trained his men in choral singing to boost morale.  One of the men, Mizushima (Shôji Yasui), accompanies them on a native harp.  He has no training, but a natural gift for the instrument and a distinctive style of playing.  After the soldiers learn the war has ended and are in placed in an Allied P.O.W. camp, Mizushima is given a dangerous mission: find a Japanese platoon hiding out in the mountains and persuade them to surrender.  When he doesn’t return, Inouye and his men believe him dead.  Until they hear the strains of a harp coming from the distance…. and tales of the mysterious monk who plays it.

I doubt anything will ever supplant Revenge of a Kabuki Actor as my favorite by Ichikawa (and one of my all-time favorites), but Burmese Harp is a very strong contender.  It’s a dramatically different film, with none of the comedy or wild stylization, but exceptionally special in its own way.  Mizushima is psychically damaged by the senseless death he witnesses, and crafts his own form of spiritual healing.  It is not so much an anti-war film (though it definitely is that as well) as it is a film about coping with tragedy and the emotional scars it leaves behind.  Mizushima’s transformation is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting.

I still think there is perhaps a bit too much time spent on the soldiers trying to figure out if the monk is Mizushima, but it’s fairly negligible.  I don’t know if it adds a whole lot to the movie, but it does resonate with the dual themes of the living reaching out to the departed and to each other.  The former is done through solemn death rituals, which are displayed from Japanese, British and Buddhist perspectives.  The latter is done with music.  One of the film’s most glorious scenes is when Inouye’s troop, knowing that Allied soldiers are moving in on them, sing a Japanese folk song to trick their enemy into believing they’re unaware.  The Allies pick up the tune, which is a variation on their own “Home, Sweet Home”.  The men, apprehensive of each other, are united through song.

It’s an achingly beautiful moment, one of many in this film that is so moving and so sorrowful.  Ichikawa’s direction (he had dozens of films under his belt by this point, but this was his first major critical success) is sure-handed, with eloquent framing and movement.  Besides the wonderful diegetic music, the scoring is quite lovely as well, and employed at the right times.  Yasui and Mikuni are heartfelt and genuine in their performances, and there is some nice support from Jun Hamamura (as the sergeant who is just as vehement when trying to reunite with Mizushima as he is when telling everyone to forget about him) and Tanie Kitabayashi as the local trading woman.

A thoughtful, beautifully realized film that touches my heart.  Rating: Great (91)


2 Responses to “The Burmese Harp (rewatch)”

  1. Anonymous said

    i love your reviews Martin, your taste is exquisite

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