Captain Inouye leads a battalion of soldiers during the Burma Campaign in the Second World War. Among his group is Private Mizushima, a man fluent in Burmese who plays a harp (saung) to raise morale for his fellow troops. They are offered shelter, but quickly realize they are being watched by the opposing British and Indian soldiers. Spying the advancing force, Captain Inouye tells the men to sing to give the enemy the impression that they are unaware of their presence. To their surprise, the British soldiers begin singing the same melody. Shortly thereafter, they learn the war has ended with their own country having surrendered. Despite this, a group of soldiers secluded in a nearby mountain insist on fighting the war to the last man. A British captain asks Private Mizushima to convince the soldiers to stand down. Though he couldn’t have known it at the time, this simple mission will cause Mizushima to go on a spiritual journey of enlightenment.
The Burmese Harp began its life as a children’s novel written by Michio Takeyama. It was first published in 1946 shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War. Its aim was to give young readers hope after the country’s defeat and to emphasize the traditional Buddhist ideal of altruism – all of these traits were embodied by its protagonist, Mizushima. The narrative caught the attention of director Kon Ichikawa, who expressed interest in introducing a realistic, gritty tone to what was originally presented as a fairy tale.
Indeed, as you watch The Burmese Harp, you will have a difficult time believing the source material was a children’s novel. The opening sequences do not pull any punches when it comes to showcasing the horrors of war. The Japanese soldiers stationed at the mountain not only fire upon Mizushima as he approaches, but when the private pleads with them to surrender, they unanimously decide to continue fighting to the last man. The cave is subsequently bombarded by the British, and the entire squadron is eradicated.
The film does an excellent job capturing the trauma Mizushima suffers. He awakens to find the corpses of the Japanese soldiers; he had spoken to these men mere hours ago and every single one of them is gone, having forsaken their lives for naught. Even when he leaves the caves, death seems to follow him everywhere. He cannot go a significant stretch of his journey without seeing a buzzard feeding on the carrion of what were once his fellow countrymen.
As one would expect, this experience goes a long way in fundamentally transforming Mizushima’s character. A monk helps the private recover from his injuries. One day, he steals the monk’s clothing and shaves his head so he wouldn’t be recognized as an imperial soldier. What begins as a simple act of self-preservation eventually causes Mizushima to become the mask. Tellingly, when he is offered the opportunity to cross a river and be reunited with his brothers in arms, he declines. He instead wishes to go back and give every single one of the fallen soldiers a proper burial. The former private is so dedicated to his new mission that he walks right by Captain Inouye and his troops and doesn’t even acknowledge them.
Meanwhile, Inouye and his company come to realize the monk they passed was in fact Mizushima. Though they recognized his face, his demeanor had been so fundamentally altered that they dismissed him as a random monk. When they suspect he is Mizushima, they go to great lengths to reach out to him, but he dutifully avoids speaking with them. At first, they try to reach out to him through music. When that doesn’t work, they buy a parrot and train it to say “Mizushima, let’s go back to Japan together”, enlisting the help of an old woman from the village to deliver it to him. She returns the next day with another parrot that says “No, I cannot go back”.
She also gives the soldiers a letter from Mizushima, which Inouye reads to his subordinates on the return trip. Mizushima has decided to stay in Burma, feeling obligated to bury the dead while studying as a monk and promoting the peaceful nature of mankind. Only when the fallen soldiers have been all been buried will he consider returning to Japan.
This ending demonstrates just how many emotions a talented director can stir up in their audience without resorting to killing off a character. You get the sense of how dedicated Mizushima is to his mission, yet at the same time, it’s clearly not easy for him to walk away from his comrades. In fact, despite his great determination, he does want to return to Japan with his friends more than anything. This makes it all the more heartbreaking when he chooses to stay. Seeing the tears of his former squadmates seems to bring up all the difficult questions before they’re even asked. How do they break the news to his family? Will he ever return? Are they doomed to never see him again? That the film elects not to answer any of these questions and leaves the situation ambiguous amplifies the scene’s pathos, ensuring it will stick with you long after it has ended.
Being the single largest conflict in human history, there were many interesting works inspired by the Second World War. For understandable reasons, the West tended to focus on the Allies’ efforts to stop the spread of fascism. In light of this, The Burmese Harp showcases a perspective most Western filmgoers didn’t get to see – that of the soldiers fighting under the Axis alliance. It does a great job humanizing a faction that doesn’t usually receive such treatment in Western media – certainly not from around the time in which the film was made.
Otherwise, what I find to be the most interesting aspect about The Burmese Harp is how despite the fact that Mr. Ichikawa transformed a children’s story into a gritty war drama, a strange innocence permeates the narrative. It allows the emotional moments to have much more of an impact than if he had gone with a more conventional approach. In many ways, it also comes across as a loose retelling of Siddhārtha Gautama against a World War II backdrop. The protagonist’s journey is spiritual in the purest sense of the term, and it’s one worth experiencing for yourself.
Final Score: 7/10