The Burmese Harp is Kon Ichikawa’s poetic, lyrical, yet uneven, meditation on the external and internal suffering experienced during wartime. It follows a regiment of Japanese soldiers trekking deep in the Burmese jungle as they pass the time with sing-a-longs to the light, delicate pluckings of Mizushima’s (Shôji Yasui) harp.
They soon learn of their nation’s unconditional surrender and with the war officially over, they turn themselves into a nearby internment camp until they are given permission to be sent back to a Japan that, in hindsight, we know will not be anything resembling the Japan they left several years ago.
After a failed mission to persuade a besieged and isolated Japanese unit to surrender to the British, Mizushima, the only survivor of the subsequent attack, makes his way back to his regiment; passing countless Japanese bodies whose sacrifices seem so needless and tragic in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. It proves an epiphanic journey for Mizushima who dedicates himself to a Buddhist lifestyle.
Music plays a big role in The Burmese Harp. Mizushima’s harp perhaps symbolises many things but most clearly, it appears to evoke brotherhood and camaraderie – singing acts as a unifying tool but also points to the way in which ordinary people find methods of coping with traumatic situations. In one sequence, the regiment, upon realising that British soldiers are just outside their camp, sing and laugh while readying their guns. The singing and disingenuous laughter belies a fear and uncertainty – these men were born for other things, not senseless killing of one another.
The Burmese Harp, while often beautiful, also dips its toe dangerously into mawkish sentimentality which can often disservice the thoughtful subject matter. It is a precarious balance to strike correctly, it must be said, but while some musical sequences are immensely poignant, others feel a little tiresome and cheesy.
Mizushima’s transition and rebirth from soldier to saintly monk is also not as convincingly achieved as I would have hoped. His long journey through Burmese landscapes is plodding and a major plot-point involving parrots is a little maudlin.
Made just ten years after the end of World War II from the perspective of the Japanese, The Burmese Harp is slightly bloated but necessary viewing. (6)