Kon Ichikawa’s deeply humane, spiritually resonant masterpiece The Burmese Harp is routinely but reductionistically described as “pacifist” or “anti-war,” terms also applied to his subsequent Fires on the Plain.
The description is apt in the case of the horrific Fires on the Plain, but in The Burmese Harp war is the occasion for the central theme, not the theme itself, which is nothing less than the intractable mystery of suffering and evil, affirmation of spiritual values, and the challenge to live humanely in evil circumstances.
Both films were based on postwar Japanese novels, and made within ten to fifteen years of the end of the Pacific war. Both depict weary Japanese troops struggling in the backwash of a war already lost, though that loss is not yet declared in Fires on the Plain, and not fully acknowledged in The Burmese Harp.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Michio Takeyama, The Burmese Harp’s simple, almost fable-like narrative follows a division of exhausted Japanese soldiers stationed in Burma, who struggle to keep their spirits and humanity alive by singing — not just simple choruses but complex harmonies. The universality of the soldiers’ melancholy circumstances and simple longing is emphasized by the one tune to which they return again and again, Hanyu no Yadu or “There’s No Place Like Home.”
Contrasted with this simple nostalgia is the harder wisdom of the proverb “You can’t go home again,” a lesson learned by one of the soldiers, a talented harpist named Mizushima (Shôji Yasui) who undergoes a spiritual transformation after being separated from his unit and disguising himself as a Buddhist monk. Burying the dead, one of the seven corporal works of mercy in Catholic tradition, plays a key role in an elegant parable of reparation and individual conscience.
Although the story dwells on war-related horrors, above all the countless unburied bodies of the slain, The Burmese Harp’s message is not simply that war causes suffering. Nor, despite its Buddhist milieu, does the film endorse the Buddhist doctrine that suffering (dukkha) is caused by desire (tanha).
Instead, the film declares, like the Book of Job, that we mortals do not know why suffering happens. Rather than diagnosing a cause, The Burmese Harp emphasizes the importance of compassion, humility, and spirituality in facing up to the disease.
Along with Fires on the Plain, The Burmese Harp is newly available on Region 1 DVD courtesy of the Criterion Collection. Presented in a newly restored digital transfer with improved English subtitles, the film comes with a number of extras including a video introduction by film scholar Donald Richie, a featurette including interview footage of Ichikawa and actor Mickey Curtis. The one-disc release also includes a 21-page booklet with an essay on Ichikawa and the film by critic Chuck Stephens.
Unlike Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp, which preserved the overt Buddhist milieu of the original book, the film version of Fires on the Plain eliminates the religious, in this case Christian, dimension of its source material. While both films may be called “anti-war” or “pacifist,” The Burmese Harp has a larger humanistic perspective on the riddle of suffering and the place of human values amid inhuman circumstances that goes far beyond a simple deploring of war. Fires on the Plain doesn’t transcend the “war is hell” genre in the same way, though the aesthetic rigor of its descent into hell is about as exacting and definitive as such a thing can be.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.