16 March 2013

Film review: The Burmese Harp (1956), by Kon Ichikawa, *****


A rhapsodic celebration of song, a brutal condemnation of wartime mentality, and a lyrical statement of hope within darkness; even amongst the riches of 1950s' Japanese cinema, The Burmese Harp, directed by Kon Ichikawa (Alone Across the Pacific, Tokyo Olympiad), stands as one of the finest achievements of its era.

Mizushima taught a Burmese boy to play his harp
At the close of World War II, a Japanese army regiment in Burma surrenders to the British. Private Mizushima is sent on a lone mission to persuade a trapped Japanese battalion to surrender also. When the outcome is a failure, he disguises himself in the robes of a Buddhist monk in hope of temporary anonymity as he journeys across the landscape but he underestimates the power of his assumed role.

A visually extraordinary and deeply moving vision of horror, necessity, and redemption in the aftermath of war, Ichikawa's breakthrough film is one of the great humanitarian affirmations of the cinema.

Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and honoured at the Venice Film Festival. You can watch a trailer here.


A moving film about the uselessness of war, as see by the despair of loyal soldiers who are ready to die for no reason, even after their country has surrendered. It is a highly recommended film, a masterpiece of its kind.

One man's personal attachment to his fallen comrades is the pretext to show us how human beings react in the face of  death, defeat, resignation. His harp is the link with his comrades, both fallen and alive, with the country he has fought in, with the local population and, in the end, with his inner self.

The film is a bit too benign on Japanese war atrocities. Yes, this is not its subject, and one can sense in a scene or two that there was hostility by the local population against the Japanese. Yet the film would have been more complete if it had also shown that the dispirited Japanese soldiers in 1945 had been responsible for immense harm to the beautiful country of Burma that is portrayed here. Showing their cruelty would have made their humanity stand out better. (Actually the film was mostly shot in Japan, but no matter.) The old Burmese lady who trades and exchanges gifts with the Japanese soldiers leaves one with the impression that the Japanese occupation was not so bad after all.

The film is shot in B&W, which in my view adds to its dramatic effect by giving a greater impression of decay and doom. As we are told in the commentary included in this disc, the choice of B&W was made by Ishihara after the color technology that was made available to him proved impractical for the kind of shooting over difficult terrain that was required in this film.

New, restored high-definition 1080p transfer officially licenced from Nikkatsu
Newly translated optional English subtitles
Exclusive video interview with scholar and filmmaker Tony Rayns
Original Japanese theatrical trailer PLUS: A 40-page booklet with an essay by Keiko I. McDonald and rare archival stills

You can buy the book upon which this film is based here

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