The Burmese Harp

 
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Product Description

Kon Ichikawa's Buddhist tale of peace, The Burmese Harp, is universally relevant in various eras and cultures, although it comments specifically on the destruction of Burma during World War II. Based on the novel by Michio Takeyama, The Burmese Harp stars a Japanese platoon stationed in Burma whose choir skills are inspired by their star musician, Private Mizushima (Rentaro Mikuni), who strums his harp to cheer the homesick soldiers. As the troop surrenders to the British and is interred in Mudon prison camp, Mizushima escapes to be faced with not only his imminent death, but also the deaths of thousands of other soldiers and civilians. Relinquishing his life as a military man, Mizushima retreats into a life of Buddhist prayer, dedicating himself to healing a wounded country. Filmed in black and white, strong visual contrasts heighten the divide between peace, war, life, and death in this highly symbolic film. Scenes in which the Japanese soldiers urge opposing forces to sing with them portray military men regardless of alliance as emotionally sensitive. Showing the humanistic aspects of war, such as the male bonding that occurs between soldiers, doesn't justify war as much as deepens its tragedy. This release includes interviews with the director and with Mikuni, further contextualizing its place in Japanese cinema. The Burmese Harp, with its lessons in compassion and selflessness, is so transformative that viewing it feels somewhat akin to a religious experience. --Trinie Dalton

Customer Reviews:

  • The Harp of Burma
    I first saw this film in the early '70's, on a PBS Japanese Film Festival, and never forgot it. I have been trying to buy this movie for years, and was finally able to find a copy here. It is very beautiful and serene. I usually describe a movie orally and in detail, so to write about it is difficult for me. The harp-playing hero wanders through a war-torn land trying to return to his comrades who are in a British POW camp. On this odyssey, he encounters the dead bodies of many unburied soldiers. A conversion begins to take place within him, and he is strongly affected by these powerful images. He begins to travel through Burma burying the dead, and becomes integrated into a Buddhist sect. By the time he sees his old comrades, he has become too changed to rejoin them. They, on the other hand, try several methods to convince him to come home with them. This is a thoughtful film, and I recommend it highly to all ages....more info
  • Buddha's Coutry
    At the beginning of this long film the audience sees a spectatcular view red dirt and red mountains of Burma, which is very significant because, if one is familiar with Buddhist tradition, the dust symbollizes the mortal world of suffering and it represents what one wants to brush off if one desires to follow the path of the Buddha. After seeing the bleak terrain, the audience is introduced to a small contigent of soldiers led by Captain Inoue a former music teacher. In order to keep his troops spirits up, the Captain teaches his men how to sing with varying degrees of success. His most gifted soldier is Mizushima, who has taught himself how to play a Burmese Harp which he has mastered quite skillfully.

    Trudging along the harsh landscape, The soldiers find shelter and food in a small village. The villagers feed and shelter them, but when the soldiers want to perform a song for them, the villagers turn their backs on the troops. Later they learn that Japan has ceased fighting. Captain Inoue and his men peacefully turn themselves over to the British. However, other pockets of Japanese soldiers are still fighting. Captain Inoue asks Mizushima to inform one group of soldiers to stop fighting and give themselves up. After talking with the British Colonel, who gives Mizushima thirty minutes to make peace with the Japanese, Mizushima speaks with the commander of the Japanese forces, but instead of giving up, they fight to the bitter end and are completely wiped out by the British.

    Mizushima survives, but is seriously injured. He is discovered by a Buddhist monk who nurses him back to health. One day, while taking a bath, Mizushima's clothing is stolen, so he dones the robes of a Buddhist monk and also shaves his hair. He travels around and is given food by devout Buddhist people. At this point Mizushima's main goal is to reach Mudon and be reunited with his unit, but after seeing hills made of the bodies of deceased Japanese soldiers and funeral ceremonies performed by the British for fallen Japanese soldiers, he takes a new path to bury the bones of his fellow soldiers. However, his old friends have not forgotten him...

    This movie is based on Takeyama Michio's 1946 novel of the same name, which has come under some serious criticism because of its portrayal of the Japanese soldiers as a basically happy bunch victimized by the Britsh, when in fact the Japanese brutalized Burma, China, Manchuria, and several other countries. However, this film was created some ten years after the novel and was directed by Ichikawa Kon, a humanist director. So, when you watch the film take it with a grain of salt, but don't let the salt get into your eyes and keep you from enjoying this film.
    ...more info
  • ONE OF THE GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME
    I have seen this film about thirty times over the past forty years and it never fails to impress me like no other movie. I rate it number two of my all time favourite films (after 'Rocco and his brothers')There has never,I repeat never been an anti war film like it. So powerful is this masterpiece that it is impossible to ever forget it.If you fail to add this dvd to your collection then you have no real appreciation of cinema ....more info
  • Deeply moving!
    There are many good reviews here so I won't go into the plot. I just want to add my vote of 5 stars (wish I could give it more)to this beautiful film. This is a movie that isn't just well made, but the sentiments are important. In an interview that is included on the disk, the director says that he felt it was a mission, like a divine imperative, that he make this film. He answered the "call" magnificently and has produced a work of art that will touch hearts for a long time.

    The two main actors are wonderful to watch. They are both physically beautiful and have a simplicity and sincerity that is precious (and rare).

    Despite the fact that the story takes place in the midst of human misery, there is the saving grace of beauty, in the splendid devotional art of the Buddhist culture and the music! The singing of the men, in their deep Japanese voices and the gentle sound of the Burmese harp, are incredible. (I'm running out of words to express my reactions to this film.)

    The plight of the isolated soldier who undergoes a different kind of suffering than his "brothers" do is almost exquisitely painful...the decision he faces, to return to everything and everyone he has loved, vs. his perceived duty to bury the dead is really agonizing. I was voting with the parrot, "Let's all go home together."

    My only wish is that it could have been made in color.

    I found the interviews with the director and one of the stars to be a wonderful extra treat. They are both in advanced years and show a sweetbess and gentleness that is an extention of the spirit of the film.

    I was reminded of another heart felt film, Les Choristes, in which the dismal, painful setting of a French boarding school for delinquents, is transformed by one man who teaches them to sing. If you like this, check that out! ...more info
  • A wonderful, quiet film.
    I saw this movie many years ago, an antiwar movie made by a Japanese director in the 1950's. Recently, it had began to come to mind over and over. An image here, an idea there. I wanted to see it again and, since I could not rent it anywhere, I bought it. After so many years, I found it to be even better than I had remembered. Grainy black and white film. Flickering subtitles. Perhaps overly sentimental and melodramatic in parts. But beautiful and uplifting. They don't make movies like this anymore. The technology now is too good, the ideas in the film are too simple and straightforward. It is a wonderful, quiet film....more info
  • Perspective on war - Burmese Harp
    I first saw this as part of a collection of classic Japanese films shown on PBS back in the 1970s. This film was awesome - very engaging. Seeing it gives one perspective on what is involved with war and its impact on humanity and a way to rise above it....more info
  • Poignant neo-propaganda
    The Burmese Harp is beautifully produced and acted. That earns any film, even Leni Reifenstahl's work for the NAZIs some admiration. This is in the same genre, that of a nation that committed unspeakable acts of brutality passing off what happened in the war as a tragedy - to them.

    Both German and Japanese films of this genre, Look What Happened To Us!, allow these two fascist nations to look away from what they did, and instead reflect with sorrow on the travails of small units of their forces with whom they can identify.

    Hollywood does that for Americans who think, as do the Germans and the Japanese, that our only fault in Vietnam was to lose the war. American forces did unspeakable things in Southeast Asia, as did the Japanese before them. Who was it said, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

    The children of nations great and small are taught to obey, not to think for themselves. That is the function of national school systems. The nationalistic bureaucrats who imprison the children of the world in schools for six hours or more daily seem genuinely surprised when a small percentage of kids show the courage to rebel because they intuit the score, inchoate as they may be otherwise.

    Most of the nation's children become, thus, pre-positioned culturally for their nation's use in The Next War. No one likes to hear this. This review will garner negatives from both liberal and fascist ends of the political spectrum. We are not trained to do the hard work of thinking for ourselves, of doing the very hard work of freeing ourselves of the numerous deceptions foisted on us by those with political, religious, social, and intellectual agendas.

    Every work of art, such as The Burmese Harp, is a lie. We don't know Truth. We only know Maya, illusion. Some illusions tug at our hearts. This did for me. So did the German film, Stalingrad. These are films produced by the nations that were responsible for the estimated sixty million deaths of World War Two.

    Whenever you feel an emotional pull from works like these, put some perspective on it - think....more info
  • burmesian harp
    The service was ok, but the DVD doesn't work in Germany ... (there was no information about this)...more info
  • The Spiritual Rebirth Of A Japanese Soldier In Burma
    Director Kon Ichikawa, known for his harrowing and gritty portrayal on the brutality of war in the film "Fires on the Plain," which took place on the Philippine Island of Leyte, during WWII, has given us a truly great look at the defeated Japanese army in Burma at the close of the war. "Burmese Harp," not unlike "Fires on the Plain" deals with the defeated Japanese army. However, where "Fires on the Plain" shows the viewer the despair of Private Tamura, the film "Burmese Harp" gives us a look into the spiritual awakening of one Japanese soldier towards the end of World War Two. The soldier and main protagonist is named Mizushima (Shoji Yasui).

    Moreover, unlike Ichikawa's later film "Fires on the Plain" this film is not so much about the hellish nighmare of fighting a war, as much as it deals with the hellish aftermath of the Burma Campaign, and how the horror of this tragic campaign weighs heavily on the conscience of one Japanese soldier. For those of you who are not familiar with WWII, or the Burma Campaign; it was in Burma where the Japanese Imperial army suffered the greatest loss of life in World War II. In the film, Mizushima agrees to go to a fortified mountain stronghold, where the last remnants of Japanese soldiers are holed up, refusing to surrender. He is to inform them of the surrender of Japan, and for those inside to lay down there arms in order to return to Japan. However, something goes terribly wrong as the company of Japanese soldiers refuse to surrender.

    Narrowly escaping death himself, Mizushima decides not to return to his company, or Japan. For something has changed. He is nursed to health by a priest, and steals the priests clothes: That of a Buddhist Monk. As he proceeds across Burma, he sees nothing but the unburied corpses of dead Japanese. Mizushima is affected by seeing these unburied dead of his fellow Japanese countryman, and in a symbolic death and rebirth, he assumes the role of a monk and decides not to return to his unit in the POW camp, or even to return to Japan until ALL of his fellows soldiers are buried.

    He begins the task of burying any and all Japanese dead that he comes across in his journey across Burma: A very formidalble task indeed! Mizushima's horror at seeing the bodies of the unburied dead have had a profound affect on him, and he has become a different person. This is a truly profound and poignant film. And considering that this film was released in 1956, a mere 11 years after the end of World War Two, makes this a classic film which must rank right up there with some of the greatest antiwar films of all-time. This film predates "Fires on the Plain," by a good 3 years. For an early film dealing with this war, I believe this is one of the greatest films to come out of Japan dealing with the trauma of WWII. Especially considering is was directed by a Japanese, and released in Japan. A must see, and highly recommended....more info
  • The Difficulty Of Being A Good Buddhist
    Many people, when they think of Buddhism, think of blissful meditation and serene contemplation. This movie graphically depicts the other side of Buddhism;i.e., hard work in the real world, in the real transformation of oneself and in one's efforts to help other beings, no matter how difficult or horrific the circumstances.
    The film concerns a Japanese soldier separated from his unit in Burma, at the very end of WW II and its immediate aftermath. As he journeys to find his unit in a POW camp, he is confronted, at every turn in this wasteland of war, with dead and unburied fellow Japanese soldiers. At first, he disguises himself as a Buddhist monk (knowing that the Burmese respect and feed their monks). When he comes across British hospital staff burying an unknown Japanese soldier, with a formal Christian burial service and great respect, he is transformed. He recalls the hundreds of dead and unburied Japanese soldiers he had seen in his journey, he becomes a true Buddhist monk, and makes a singular and difficult vow; he will not return to Japan until he has buried all of the corpses he had seen. So he goes back, and begins his work.
    Hardly blissful meditation, this. But he personifies what the Buddha taught; the purpose of Life is to be happy, but true happiness can only come from serving others. This soldier/monk, in devoting his life to active, difficult and gruesome work, is more a true fulfillment of the Buddha's teachings than is one who meditates on the weekend and wears prayer beads because it is "cool."
    Sorry to sermonize, but this movie is not only a wonderful work of cinema, it is a Buddhist teaching in itself. Compassion MUST be coupled with the very difficult work of serving others....more info
  • Come Japan, come England, Burma is Buddha's country
    At the beginning of this long film the audience sees a spectatcular view red dirt and red mountains of Burma, which is very significant because, if one is familiar with Buddhist tradition, the dust symbollizes the mortal world of suffering and it represents what one wants to brush off if one desires to follow the path of the Buddha. After seeing the bleak terrain, the audience is introduced to a small contigent of soldiers led by Captain Inoue a former music teacher. In order to keep his troops spirits up, the Captain teaches his men how to sing with varying degrees of success. His most gifted soldier is Mizushima, who has taught himself how to play a Burmese Harp which he has mastered quite skillfully.

    Trudging along the harsh landscape, The soldiers find shelter and food in a small village. The villagers feed and shelter them, but when the soldiers want to perform a song for them, the villagers turn their backs on the troops. Later they learn that Japan has ceased fighting. Captain Inoue and his men peacefully turn themselves over to the British. However, other pockets of Japanese soldiers are still fighting. Captain Inoue asks Mizushima to inform one group of soldiers to stop fighting and give themselves up. After talking with the British Colonel, who gives Mizushima thirty minutes to make peace with the Japanese, Mizushima speaks with the commander of the Japanese forces, but instead of giving up, they fight to the bitter end and are completely wiped out by the British.

    Mizushima survives, but is seriously injured. He is discovered by a Buddhist monk who nurses him back to health. One day, while taking a bath, Mizushima's clothing is stolen, so he dones the robes of a Buddhist monk and also shaves his hair. He travels around and is given food by devout Buddhist people. At this point Mizushima's main goal is to reach Mudon and be reunited with his unit, but after seeing hills made of the bodies of deceased Japanese soldiers and funeral ceremonies performed by the British for fallen Japanese soldiers, he takes a new path to bury the bones of his fellow soldiers. However, his old friends have not forgotten him...

    This movie is based on Takeyama Michio's 1946 novel of the same name, which has come under some serious criticism because of its portrayal of the Japanese soldiers as a basically happy bunch victimized by the Britsh, when in fact the Japanese brutalized Burma, China, Manchuria, and several other countries. However, this film was created some ten years after the novel and was directed by Ichikawa Kon, a humanist director. So, when you watch the film take it with a grain of salt, but don't let the salt get into your eyes and keep you from enjoying this film. ...more info
  • A "must see" movie, thoughtful and affecting, but with a BIG blind spot
    It is August 1945. Bands of Japanese troops are retreating before the advance of the British Fourteenth Army. One company of soldiers led by Captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni), resting in a Burmese village, realizes it is surrounded. As the troops scramble to meet the expected attack, they sing folk songs to hide their fear and conceal their preparations from the British and Indian troops. They are singing "Home, Sweet Home" in Japanese, and the enemy sings back in English! The war has been over for three days, and the unit surrenders with no further loss of life. This perfect, moving scene begins "The Burmese Harp."

    One Japanese soldier, Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), is sent by the British to encourage a unit of holdouts to also surrender. That unit, however, is still in the grip of the bushido code. They refuse to surrender and are killed by British artillery. Mizushima survives and wanders through the countryside alone and disoriented. He encounters Japanese dead at every turn. Becoming an itinerant Buddhist monk, he takes on a personal mission to find and bury the dead. Though his former comrades are eager that he rejoin them so that they can return to Japan together, in a moving final scene he refuses so that he may purify his own soul by confronting the horror and suffering of the war.

    The choral singing (Captain Inouye had been a music teacher before the war) is moving. The cast is uniformly strong. The scenes of Burma and its people are fascinating. A few now-passe photographic techniques do not diminish the high artistic standard of "The Burmese Harp." Although it is an anti-war movie, it is not heavy-handed.

    The film's plot and viewpoint, however, have a glaring weakness, a blind spot that must be noted. Mizushima grieves for the Japanese dead, but there's no sign that he also regrets what the Japanese Army did in Asia in the years before the plot opens in 1945. There's no aggression. No brutality. No death marches. No beheading of allied POW's. No comfort women. And we never see Mizushima grieve for the allied or Burmese dead.

    In this regard, the movie prefigures Japan's postwar failure to face its aggression and war crimes during World War II. That failure still troubles Japan's relations with China, Korea, and the other nations that experienced Japanese brutality at first hand. A cultural historian might judge that the omissions in "The Burmese Harp" helped shape the dominant postwar narrative, portraying Japan as the victim in the war. Director Kon Ichikawa sidestepped a true look at the war.

    This is indeed a fine movie, well worth seeing for both its artistic and moral content. The viewer must, however, enlarge its message about war and peace, tragedy and suffering, and atonement.

    -30-...more info
  • The most impressive movie that I've ever seen
    This is a story of a Japanese soldier 'Mizushima' in a Japanese party in Burma at the end of the World War II. They knew from the British troop that the war had ended just a couple of days ago. They promised that every one of them would go back to Japan alive, for the reconstruction of the nation. Mizushima left the party he belonged to on a mission to persuade another Japanese party that was still fighting in the Triangle Mountain to surrender. He had only 30 minutes to persuade them, but he did not success. As a result, they were attacked by British Military. Only Mizushima survived. Mizushima was rescued by a Burmese priest. He then traveled to the town of Mudon where his party was staying, waiting to go back home. The comrades in his party were waiting for him, with the hope of going back home together. Mizushima, on his way to Mudon, saw lots of dead skeletons sacrificed in the war, and he decided he would have to do something for the dead people. He met his party in Mudon just a few days before leaving for Japan, but he decided to stay in Burma as a Buddhist priest. This movie is abundant with songs and tunes of harp, that may express that what everyone hopes is peace. In fact, I watched this film in Yokohama around 1982 when I used to go to senior high school. It was the most impressive film that I've ever seen. This time I found this video in Amazon.com and got it to watch this impressive movie again. I recommend this film to Japanese people, especially in the younger generation, who have not experienced war. This film really tells us how dreadful war is, and the importance of world peace. Since this video is in NTSC format, it can be viewed by Japanese video players. I would like to recommend this to my British friends also, and I really hope there should be a version in PAL format also....more info
  • One Scene Stands Out
    I won't restate what was said by those earlier reviewers who found this to be an amazing film. I agree and it has always been on my "Top Ten" list. I would add only one thing. The climactic scene in which the converted monk sits at night talking to his former fellow soliders who are behind a tall chainlink fence (they are now in a POW camp waiting to be shipped home to Japan) is one of the most moving moments I've ever experienced. This once scene captures exactly what it means for the individual to follow his (or her) own destiny....more info
  • The Difficulty Of Being A Good Buddhist
    Many people, when they think of Buddhism, think of blissful meditation and serene contemplation. This movie graphically depicts the other side of Buddhism;i.e., hard work in the real world, in the real transformation of oneself and in one's efforts to help other beings, no matter how difficult or horrific the circumstances.
    The film concerns a Japanese soldier separated from his unit in Burma, at the very end of WW II and its immediate aftermath. As he journeys to find his unit in a POW camp, he is confronted, at every turn in this wasteland of war, with dead and unburied fellow Japanese soldiers. At first, he disguises himself as a Buddhist monk (knowing that the Burmese respect and feed their monks). When he comes across British hospital staff burying an unknown Japanese soldier, with a formal Christian burial service and great respect, he is transformed. He recalls the hundreds of dead and unburied Japanese soldiers he had seen in his journey, he becomes a true Buddhist monk, and makes a singular and difficult vow; he will not return to Japan until he has buried all of the corpses he had seen. So he goes back, and begins his work.
    Hardly blissful meditation, this. But he personifies what the Buddha taught; the purpose of Life is to be happy, but true happiness can only come from serving others. This soldier/monk, in devoting his life to active, difficult and gruesome work, is more a true fulfillment of the Buddha's teachings than is one who meditates on the weekend and wears prayer beads because it is "cool."
    Sorry to sermonize, but this movie is not only a wonderful work of cinema, it is a Buddhist teaching in itself. Compassion MUST be coupled with the very difficult work of serving others.
    ...more info
  • The Burmese Harp
    I don't usually make a lot of blind buy especially concerning Criterion discs. All I can say is The Burmese Harp is a damn good film from director Kon Ichikawa a director whose films I've never seen but hope to fix. Its melancholic, beautiful, and truly one of the best war films ever made without all of that fuss people consider great in war movies, mainly overly hyped battle scenes that are meant to distract from cliched plots and what goes for characters.
    Thats one of the refreshing things I suppose in the movie. Most movies dealing with the horrors of war seem to focus on mans inhumanity to man with characters who fit into that good and evil state. In Harp the Japanese soldiers surrender without firing a shot. The captain of the platoon works with British soldiers sending a willing soldier to a lone mountain where another group of soldiers is hold against against British forces willing to fight to the last man despite the fact that Japan had already surrendered. Even in these scenes the movie doesn't focus on the fact the evil of the men but the sadness of watching men focused on dying over something that doesn't exist anymore. The soldier, Mizushima is hurt in the ensuing shootout between British and Japanese forces found by a monk. While he's reported dead to his captain dressed in Monks robes Mizushima marches back to his troop, horrified that along the way thousands of dead men lie rotting in the sun. He gets to the prison camp but after witnessing British burying a dead a dead Japanese soldier goes back out into the Burma countryside making it his mission to bury the soldiers.
    I didn't mean to give a plot synopsis, and really theres more to the plot than I described. The film is at times delicate with one scene I could describe as heavy handed. The acting is generally good with a standout being Rentaro Mikuni as the captain of the soldiers a man who at first wants to find the missing soldier like his men, but in one instance understands what is happening to the man and gives up trying to find out if he's alive. And the direction and writing is amazing as well.
    Criterion does well with the DVD presenting a beautiful transfer. I'm not one who sings the praises of black and white photography but then I find something like this film that blows me away with an amazing use of shadow light in scenes. Its a beautiful film well represented. And also worth noting is Akira Ifukube's magnificent score which is epic and beautiful. I don't know how much he worked with but as music plays large part of the films story with the soldiers being led in songs many times for a variety of reasons there are times where it adds to the story as well as the viewing experience.
    One small caveat. I understand from the liner notes that director Ichikawa did a remake using the same script (he even had the same actress that plays an old woman trading with the Japanese soldiers in the prison camp)of the film in 1985. Sure it would have made the disc more expensive, but as Criterion has put out discs featuring two versions of the same story (Floating Weeds/The Lower Depths) it would have been interesting to see this film provided. Sure it would probably be a lesser work compared to the original but I'm interested in seeing how the same director redoes his own masterpiece. ...more info
  • New Harp
    This is a superb reissue of an absolutely core movie. I have seen several prints - film and VHS - over the last 35 years but none as clean as this crisp digital version, which recaptures Ichikawa Kon's original tonal subtleties. The sound quality, so essential to the film's message, is also excellent....more info
  • Haunting Japanese anti war film!
    At the end of the WW2, a survivor of a Japanese Command, follows his bliss when he takes a decision: to disguise himself as a monk . He will make a reflexive tour, a powerful insight act, a soul searching journey soul searching back to those places where his fellow comrades met the death. This redemption fact once more completes the mythical cycle of the life: birth and innocence, maturity and experience and finally wisdom and redemption.
    If you haven' t seen yet this acclaimed film, it's time for you to make it, because this is a milestone film about the existence ' sense, and the finding of a superb gem: an original film that you will never forget in the rest of your life.
    It's useless to tell this is one of my beloved films in my personal collection. Ichikawa was the same director of Fire on the plains.
    It's absolutely unbelievable this film has not been released yet on DVD format.
    ...more info
  • The burmese harp
    This movie is a very interesting look into Buddhism. however this movie tend to dwell from specific reality of the religion such as the time it takes for enlightenment and the true facts of the religion. It's however very foreshadowing in regards to the use of the music. Before reviewing this flim, i would recommand opening a book on the basics of the religion....more info
  • A downright beautiful story
    I have seen this movie several times on videotape and am eagerly awaiting the Criterion Collection issue, which it richly deserves.
    The movie is set in Burma (now Myanmar)at the end of WWII, just after the armistice. A troop of Japanese soldiers have created very tight-knitted solidarity among themselves through the efforts of Captain Inuoe, a music teacher. One of his soldiers, Muzashima, has built and mastered a Burmese harp and plays it when the unit sings in chorus.
    Captain Inoue's troop surrender to the British, and Muzashima offers himself as a negotiator to persuade a rogue unit of Japanese soldiers cornered in a cave to give themselves up; they refuse and are bombarded and killed; Muzashima, however, escapes and disguises himself as a buddhist monk. The movie becomes very touching because as he tries to unite himself with his unit, he is treated with honor as a moank, and he begins to behave like a monk--he starts burying with proper rituals the orphaned, exposed corpses of Japanese soldiers. He eventually finds his squad; he stands outside the fence of the prison compound; the soldiers, who believe he has been killed, recognize him even though they can see he has become a very different person. He is serenaded with their haunting music, and he replies wordlessly by playing The Fareweall Song on his harp--but he cannot become one of them now, because he has found a mission: to give a proper burial to all the Japanese war corpses in Burma.
    I cannot justly articulate how deeply touching it is to see this man, a Japanese, renounce his homeland and his tighly-knit company of men he has shared the deepest of experiences with--and become a solitary, itinerant undertaker in a completely alien land. There is a transcendence and an abandonment of self that is breathtaking.
    I've seen many movies about the life of Christ, but oddly enough, this Japanese movie, with no theological or ideological intentions, seems to capture the spirit better than any of them.
    Just in case you missed the point, I'm standing on my tiptoes to give this movie the highest rating I can: a real masterpiece. ...more info
  • "Whatever You Do is Useless....Burma is Buddha's Country"
    Quite simply, this is one of the most emotionally beautiful movies I have ever seen. I can't entirely explain why I find it so touching. Amid the most horrific of experiences, a kind, simple young man tries to make sense of his participation in this horror.

    The movie is filled with singing and harp playing. In the abject misery of defeat and desolation, the soldiers cheer and comfort themselves with song. They sing in unison to strengthen their unity and patriotism but one, the harpist, is separated. He is wounded and nursed back to health by a Buddhist monk. After he recovers, he experiences a spiritual epiphany not unlike Saul on the road to Demascus.

    He wanders alone and seperate across the blasted landscape littered with piles of war dead. In his confusion and sorrow, he assigns himself the impossible task of burying all the dead. Atonement? Guilt? Survivor's guilt? Penance? Trauma? Sacrifice? Whatever the exact definition, he acts out of a desperate need to understand the horrors he has endured and participated in. A profound change has swept over his soul and he cannot go back among his regiment, either physically or spiritually. He has cast himself out of his known world.

    The movie is hauntingly beautiful as director Kon Ichikawa refuses to let the soldier fully explain himself. His fellow soldiers and, in particular, his compassionate and thoughtful captain, strain beyond themselves to understand why he avoids them and will not return home with them. They are hurt and confused. To walk alone is the antithesis of Japanese soldierly conformity. Perhaps there is no why, there simply is. The parrots speak words they do not understand. The changed man does not even try. He just plays his harp. The final letter reading aboard the boat home is more for the audience's sake and is mildly jarring because, while the letter is beautiful in itself, the monk's willingness to express himself so outwardly incongruent with his character.

    In his deliberate exile, he is the war's last casualty, a sacrifice to allow the other soldiers to heal and continue their lives. Simultaneously a Christlike figure and a profound example of Buddhism, the harpist has managed to both assign and relieve himself of the awful burden of life....more info
  • A dishonest portrayal of war's brutality
    Despite its Buddhist trappings, The Burmese Harp is not a film about Buddhism or religion, but a film about responsibility and atonement to the _Japanese_ war dead. Director Kon Ichikawa may have wanted to make a film with universal themes, but the message that comes through is for a much narrower audience.

    The film tells the story of a Japanese soldier cut off from his unit who has a transformative encounter with death. Stealing the robes of a monk to disguise himself, Mizushima struggles through a broken landscape to return to his unit, along the way encountering one grisly corpse after another, sometimes piles of them, some being picked apart by carrion eaters. He tries to bury or cremate those he finds but there are so many he quickly exhausts himself. Stumbling into town, his life is changed after witnessing a British medical team bury an unknown Japanese soldier, a scene which crystallizes for him his duty to stay in Burma to inter the corpses of Japanese soldiers.

    In its broad themes, the film is humanistic and universal. Love of music and home is shared by all humans. We all shy from death and suffering. But look closer and you find that Mizushima sees only Japanese corpses. His primary motivation for remaining in Burma is to bury _Japanese_ soldiers whose remains might otherwise be thrown into unmarked graves by the British or Burmese. But what of Burmese corpses? British corpses? Not a one to be seen, nor commented on. To what degree can one atone for participating in war without realizing that all sides suffer, not just your own?

    This Criterion release features an interview with Rentaro Mikuni, who plays the unit captain, in which he mentions that he was himself stationed overseas during the war and was made to take bayonet practice on live animals as well as prisoners of war. Yet nothing like this kind of behavior is ever suggested in the film. There is no whiff of the brutality visited on the Burmese by Japan's Imperial Army. On the contrary, the Japanese soldiers are portrayed as rather happy go lucky lads caught in a bad situation, which pretty much continues to be the national attitude of Japan toward its war time experience.

    The Burmese Harp is a hollow piece of work that depicts suffering without addressing the causes of suffering. For more forthcoming accounts of Japanese experiences of WWII, see Minoru Matsui's "Japanese Devils."

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  • One of the very best antiwar films ever made
    The tragedy and the devastation of war has been the theme of many films.
    Some of these films were making a simplistic attempt to glorify war and create heroes while some others made a serious attempt to recognize the war as an inevitable part of humanity however inhumane it might be.
    Some other films made an effort to condemn war and try to influence the future generations of the importance of reconciliation and the avoidance of such devastating conflicts.
    In each and every war film, the directors were always confronted with the dilemma of impartiality while trying to remain close to reality and present a believable story that can keep the audience interested.
    Some critics suggest that the Burmese Harp is the most outstanding anti war film ever made.
    I will not go to that extend but I can recognize the incredible talent and ability of the director Kon Ichikawa to present a war theme film so early after the Second World War to an audience in Japan freshly dramatized by the highs of Imperial patriotism and aggression, the suffering of the devastation at home and the realization of defeat.
    He has chosen the music as the binding force among soldiers who are already at the lowest of their fighting spirit.
    This is a story of a company of Japanese soldiers in Burma at the end of the Second World War facing the unavoidable defeat and the necessity to surrender.
    Their captain, himself a music teacher, keeps the spirits high through music and singing and demonstrates an incredible humane approach.
    One of the soldiers made and learned how to play a Burmese harp.
    He is accompanying the chorus when they sing. Once the company surrenders to the British, the harp player, Musashima, undertakes a mission to negotiate the surrender of another company of Japanese soldiers but he fails.
    In the aftermath of the battle that follows, he survives but never returns to his former company.
    He becomes a Buddhist monk and goes around the war-ravaged country experiencing the misery of war, the devastation and the suffering.
    Finally he is coming so close to his former company and yet he cannot return to Japan along with the rest of his fellow soldiers.
    His duty as a Buddhist monk was to stay there and try to burry the many Japanese soldiers left in the battlefields.
    In an emotional farewell, the monk with the Burmese harp is standing outside the fence of the camp where the rest of the Japanese soldiers are waiting repatriation.
    They suddenly recognize him although they were thinking of him as lost in the battle and they sing for him one of the well known songs while he replies with his harp.
    He disappears away from the possibility of repatriation to his new role as a monk and as the person to honor the dead soldiers.
    A very powerful antiwar film, one of the very best; I could go as far as saying the very best but I have seen The Trojan Women directed by Cacoyannis and written by Euripides at 415 BC, and that can only be the yardstick.





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  • Angels should play like this.
    I watched this movie recently; ny only other viewing was 10 years ago. It's even better than I remember it - passionately sincere and honest, the sort of thing that pacifists like myself can only strive towards from a great distance. After thinking about The Burmese Harp, I went out and made a public Japanese Garden in the village centre, bearing the Japanese symbol for peace. And this was before Sept. 11!! We need the quiet wisdom of Kon Ichikawa more than ever now....more info
  • The Burmese Harp
    Ichikawa's absorbing study of soldiers under fire was one of the first films in any country to explore the spiritual impact of war. Heightening the effect, on one hand, is his brilliant use of music, via the transporting strains of Mizushima's harp and the infantrymen's morale-building chorale singing, taught to them by Inouye. But the director also frames indelible images of war's horror, such as one famous image of corpses piled and strewn across a desolate beach. Still, Ichikawa's message is essentially a humanistic one, and "Harp" is a tender, often profound meditation on the best and worst aspects of our inner nature....more info