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DVD Review: The Burmese Harp

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Kon Ichikawa gets the Criterion treatment as two of his most popular films in the western world, The Burmese Harp and Fires On The Plain, get widespread release through the prolific distributorship.  This means that you will finally have that flawlessly remastered DVD you always wanted at the cost of not being able to impress hipster friends with that bootleg PAL copy you've had for years.  Such is the yin and yang of having superior tastes in everything.

The Burmese Harp is an anti-war movie.  Not really, people just like to say that.  It is more of a humanistic drama that takes place in the wake of a war, making it seem inherently anit-war.  In the same way Bergman approaches existential dilemmas through the middle ages in The Seventh Seal, so does Ichikawa approach spirituality and morality through World War II.

Ichikawa's mouthpiece is Mizushima, a soldier in a worn down regiment plodding through the jungles of Burma.  Their musically inclined Commander encourages them to sing to keep spirits up.  Mizushima has taught himself to play the harp on an instrument he picked up along the way.  Eventually, the troupe comes to find out that the war has ended several days earlier and begrudgingly surrenders.

Mizushima is asked to go on a mission to convince another platoon to do the same.  However,  this other group of soldiers would rather die fighting and Mizushima gets caught in the crossfire.  When he doesn't return his comrades take him for dead.  Mizushima, however, has been taken in by Buddhist monks.  He dresses as a monk for protection and heads out to find his unit (who have been transfered to the Mudon POW camp, some 200 miles south).  The carnage that Mizushima sees along the way deeply affects him as his fellow troops hold out on the belief that he may still be alive.  Mizushima's journey of spiritual enlightenment causes an internal conflict of whether he can leave the dead of Burma behind for his home in Japan.

It is strange to think of this film as being a war film as their is only one battle scene and it takes place after the war has effectively ended.  On the other hand, it is hard to see it as an anti-war film because Ichikawa paints his themes in broad strokes that, while subtly hinting at the pointlessness of war, are more general in scope.

Indeed, like many great directors, Ichikawa takes a period piece and makes it timelessly relevant.  World War II, while hard to believe, acts as a stage for more important things.  The journey of Mizushima stares death, cruelty, and human suffering in the face and asks why?  Mizushima's gradual transformation takes place over his own physical and spiritual tribulations on the course of his journey.  His quest to find his friends becomes an internal quest to know why the world must suffer so greatly.

While attacking deep-seeded human issues the film never loses a certain sense of sentimentality, almost to a fault according to some.  It does have a certain theatrical aspect and some almost sappy moments.  However, most of this is not hollow in its purpose.  If the viewer looks closely enough they will see the message coming through.  The English soldiers putting down arms and singing with the Japanese demonstrates both sides sense of loss and need for healing.  The Japanese platoon's synchronized movement in nearly every situation seems campy at points, but hints at the group mentality of practicality that they follow whilst Mizushima remains on a solely individual journey.

And the film speaks on this idea as well.  How the group, the general population, stresses practicality.  For Mizushima's troupe it is the practicality of surrendering with the chance to return home and rebuild Japan.  For the soldiers who refuse to surrender, even if that decision means death, it is the practicality of dying honorably.  Initially, Mizushima cannot see much point in the latter.  He knows that their deaths are now meaningless.  However, the practical concerns of surviving for the better of his country begin to lose meaning too.  As he wanders the Burmese country side he sees scores of other pointless deaths.  He knows that even when the war was winnable the deaths still meant little.  As he finds personal mementos on soldier's bodies he begins to envision the scope of destruction and the network of lives that are deeply affected by it. 

Thus begins Mizushima's struggle.  His love for his fellow soldiers and homesickness propel him to seek out the POW camp, to possibly return to Japan one day.  The things he sees make him realize that their is no answer for the world's pain, only an opportunity to mitigate it.  He believes he can stay on in Burma and somehow help in the spiritual healing of the people there.  The film has a poignant ending where the viewer finally sees what Mizushima's choice is and why he made it. 

Ichikawa treats a difficult subject with utmost humanity.  The film toes a line between sentiment and reality, but does so in a way that perfectly demonstrates that our world needs both.  The healing is just as real as the suffering.  The characters remain real people with their own faults.  Their individuality exposes a number of choices that we can makes when put against the harshness of the world.

Ichikawa also captures all of this brilliantly from a technical standpoint.  He moves from quick, frentic cuts and pacing to slow, long takes that capture the essence of the scene, drawing the viewer in.  He also makes great use of pulled back, wide shots showing the natural beauty of Burma contrasted to the carnage around it, to show the individual lost in a big and uncertain world.  On the other hand, he gets the camera close into the individual's face, showing the wear eyes, the hard-lined faces and the glimmer of hope.  Ichikawa moves about brilliantly from scene to scene taking each one as a microcosm to represent the whole of his objective.

This Criterion edition of The Burmese Harp benefits from the typical remastering and cleaning of the original film, but also features improved translation, interview features with Ichikawa (amongst others) and a 21 page booklet with an essay by critic Chuck Stephens (infinitely better than the one you just read).

Hopefully the wider release of Ichikawa's films will give him the kind of popular acclaim Kurosawa and Mizoguchi enjoy from the western world.  The Burmese Harp remains one of the most moving unconventional war films, but hopefully it won't remain one of the more under appreciated.

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