A Spiritual Harmony – Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp

by dropstring

11362413A good debate with zerfall_gebiet concerning film scores, and music in films in general, led us (with a considerable amount of sheer luck) to The Burmese Harp by Kon Ichikawa. And music is indeed a good starting point into this 1956 anti-war drama, one of the first Japanese movies after WWII to approach the war from a pacifist viewpoint. Shot with stunningly beautiful black-and-white cinematography, it tells the story of Mizushima, a Japanese soldier fighting in Burma. He is part of an exceptionally musical company: his commanding officer, Cpt. Inouye, studied music and teaches the whole regiment the basics of choir music; Mizushima himself is an virtuoso on the titular Burmese harp. Right after the end of the war, he alone is sent on a last mission by the British: to talk a holed-up Japanese regiment into surrender. He fails, is wounded in the ensuing attack and nursed back into life by a Buddhist monk. He steals a monk robe to disguise for the return to his regiment, but the way is (almost literally) plastered with corpses. By the time he reaches the POW camp where his company is imprisoned, Mizushima has changed. In a turn towards spirituality he takes up the life of a monk and starts to bury the dead soldiers. Finally he stays in Burma, unable to return before the war crimes haven’t been amended at least by honoring the dead.

A predecessor to the likes of Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, The Burmese Harp takes place not on the battlefield, but in the interactions of humans connected to the war. The story is set after the Japanese forces surrendered; Mizushima’s unit isn’t shown fighting, but the viewer is introduced to them via music. “This is a time to sing” says one of soldiers after a march through the jungle. It is one of the first lines in the movie, and accompanied by Mizushima’s harp, the choir sings. Yes, there is a message here, and Ichikawa pushes it hard. Bluntly put: make music, not war. The first potentially dangerous situation, some five minutes into the film, has the Japanese surrounded by the British. As a ruse they start to sing, hoping to start a surprise attack on the besiegers. But instead of the (war movie stereotypical) skirmish the British soldiers also start to sing to Mizushima’s harp. Weapons are dropped, and the end of the war is announced.

One scene, the loudest of the whole movie, serves as a direct contrast to this harmony (musical and otherwise): Mizushima’s meeting with the still fighting Japanese stragglers. He tries to talk to them, but is shouted down. It is the only scene that has people shouting at each other, which promptly leads to a communication failure. That in turn ends in disaster: the British army shells the hideout and kills almost everyone inside. Mizushima crawls out of the cave and collapses.

The contrast of harmony and dissonance introduced in the exposition is put to the test afterwards. Remarkably, the following sidestep of the film’s imagery into a metaphysical, well… spiritual realm is started by one of the very few extravagances in the otherwise formally very strict movie. The narration leaves Mizushima lying in the rubble. Without any indication the story does a flash forward and continues with Inouye some weeks, may be months later. He meets a monk with a parrot on his shoulder that looks “just like Mizushima”. The captain meets the animal’s former owner who tells him that the parrot was given to the monk as a symbol “for a good rebirth”. He then buys the bird’s sibling. It is only after this episode (introducing the concept of rebirth) that the story returns to Mizushima.

Mizushima in a dark place

Mizushima in a dark place

In a way it really is Mizushimas death, him in a dark place. His “good rebirth” happens perchance through a Buddhist monk. The mise-en-scène immediately places Mizushima in a spiritual context: the characters’ bodies mirror the arrangement of the iconographic religious statues in the background. Mizushima literally is fed by the monk, who continously chants Buddhist mantras to the injured man. It is the last on-screen music for quite a while. After the recovery, Mizushima travels the land of the dead: Burma, covered by the corpses of the foreign soldiers. It is a quiet land of despair for him.

It is the only (lengthy) sequence of him without the harp. Here Ichikawa relies on a subtle use of the orchestral score: an string adagio consisting of lengthy legato chord lines that’s mixed very low into the audiotrack. Panoramic landscape shots of stubble fields, dead bodies, the starving Mizushima with bloodied feet – all this is a glimpse into purgatory. When the music returns into the movie it is a reminder that harmony is more than just human unison. As soon as Mizushima finds a harp, the movie revives his whole musical imagery again. Just a minute later a hymn sung by British nurses over the grave of “the unknown Japanese soldier” heavily influences Mizushima’s decision to not only wear a monk’s garb, but to care for the spirits of the dead by burying the Japanese bodies. The spirit is necessary for the harmony of life and death, to make amends for thousands dying (Mizushima’s failure at Triangle mountain to keep “people from dying needlessly”, as Inouye put it to him, looms in the back of this). And while I agree with zerfall_gebiet that traumatic moments precede the decision (especially being confronted with a pile of corpses in the beach scene), it is not PTSD that makes Mizushima stay in Burma, but him overcoming his trauma of death and failure.

A last song

A last song

In other words: Mizushima and his harp become instruments in a spiritual harmony. And just as the musical harmony in the movie, often induced by Mizushima’s harp, gives shape to a human communication that transcends language, race, nationality and class, Mizushima incites other people (most notably the Burmese youth in a memorable scene on the return to the corpse-ridden beach) to join in this harmony of life and death by honoring the dead. Yet: by this notion he is set apart from his old regiment. They want to return to their lives in Japan, and Ichikawa’s script doesn’t judge them for it. Neither does Mizushima, but he cannot return. One of the most haunting scenes of the film is the last meeting of them. The regiment sang to call him until their throats were sore. But only after an elaborate trick (involving teaching the parrot to say “Mizushima, let’s go back together” and an old woman to bring it to the monk) Mizushima comes for one last time. Parted by the camp’s barbed wire, he does not speak to his friends. Instead he plays a song on his harp. It moves all persons present, but they cannot sing with him anymore.

The criticism levelled at Ichikawa that he uses the sentimentality of the melodrama is legit, but while The Burmese Harp surely plucks at the heart strings, and from time to time does so with a fair deal of pathos, it never is reduced to kitsch. Ichikawas crisp direction, the almost meditative mood created in the movie, a persistence not to flinch and look away from stark and grisly pictures, a wonderful score that fits the movie’s message – all this balances the film perfectly and makes it a memorable anti-war film that draws its cues from drastic realism and mythic fairy tale elements alike. As such it is a harmonious piece of art, in subject and execution.

PS: the Criterion restoration is excellent. It brings out the brilliance of the movie’s play with light and contrast in fantastic crispness. Recommendation!