The first thing to note when reading Harp of Burma by Michio Takeyama is that this isn’t a war novel. Certainly there are aspects of war involved, but to call it either a war or anti-war novel would be too lazy, since it is not really either. The novel contains some of the most idealized versions of both the Japanese forces and anti-war, for fighting itself is not sensationalized in any way. Instead, the thrust of the book is more of gentleness and peace, rather than the actual brutality that went on (although parts of that are mentioned.)
There are scenes, for example, that are not realistic even for a novel. That’s not a flaw of the book per se, since readers are being told the tale through the lens of the narrator. The company of Japanese troops often sings their way to happiness while they fight. There is even a harp involved (hence the title) where in one moment, when the Japanese are encountered by the British troops, instead of firing guns, a harp is played and they all sing together. There is another moment where the harp is being played despite having bullets gliding by forcefully. As someone with an open imagination, I can accept this, yet I do realize that any Pacific War veteran would likely laugh at such a notion, since the West portrays the Japanese as brutes, not peaceful chorus singers. The opening begins with:
“We certainly did sing. Whether we were happy or miserable, we sang. Maybe it’s because we were always under the threat of battle, of dying, and felt we wanted to so at least this one things well as long as we were still alive.”
Corporal Mizushima ends up abandoning his troop, and the remaining soldiers are wondering what happened to him. Believing he is dead, they press onward, until they encounter a Japanese solder who is disguising himself as a monk. He wanders through Burma and manages to be regularly fed by villagers, and meanwhile, the soldiers cannot help but to notice the similarities between this wandering monk and their beloved Corporal Mizushima.