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BURMESE HARP, THE (Biruma no tategoto)(director: Kon Ichikawa; screenwriter: Natto Wada/from the novel by Michio Takeyama; cinematographer: Minoru Yokoyama; editor: Masanori Tsujii; music: Akira Ifukube; cast: Rentaro Mikuni (Captain Inouye), Shoji Yasui (Mizushima), Jun Hamamura (Ito), Takeo Naito (Kobayashi), Shunji Kasuga (Maki), Akira Nishimura (Baba), Keishichi Nakahara (Takagi), Toshiaki Ito (Hashimoto), Hiroshi Tsuchikata (Okada), Tomio Aoki (Oyama), Nobuteru Hanamura (Nakamura), Sanpei Mine (Abe); Runtime: 116; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Masayuki Takaki; Janus; 1956-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)
“This is the pic that brought international acclaim to Ichikawa.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Powerful, lyrical and haunting antiwar film of the time, but its simplistic storytelling hasn’t aged that well even if it still remains offbeat and memorable. It’s shot in black-and-white and directed by the great Japanese filmmaker Kon Ichikawa (“Fires on the Plain”/”Odd Obsession”/”47 Ronin”), a former cartoonist, and scripted by his wife Natto Wada, who based it on the novel by Michio Takeyama. This is the pic that brought international acclaim to Ichikawa.

It’s set during the final days of WW II in Burma, where a close-knit Japanese platoon that has as its leader a sensitive and musical Captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni) and a group that likes to sing nostalgic songs of the homeland to the accompaniment of the harp playing company scout Private Mizushima (Shoji Yasui). When the captain learns that his country surrendered, he peacefully lays down his arms to the British as each side serenades the other with a song. The captain then sends Mizushima on a peace mission to tell the Japanese platoon trapped by the Brits at Triangle Mountain to surrender and live to rebuild their country. But the Japanese commander refuses and his men vote unanimously to continue the fight. As a result they get wiped out and Mizushima, who was trapped with them, is injured but nursed back to health by a Buddhist monk. Mizushima is now so overtaken with the needless suffering of war, that he has a spiritual transformation and remains in Burma even after his platoon begs him to return home with them. The harp player becomes a monk–stating he won’t return home until he buries all the Japanese soldiers properly who died in the battlefields of Burma. Since that’s quite a chore, one can expect the Japanese monk to be there for the rest of his life.

It was remade in color by Kon Ichikawa in 1985. This was one of the first and more impressive pacifist films made by the Japanese after the war. The director gives it an eerie folk-tale quality that even a child can understand the humanistic message and the director also allows the music to be a way to address the hurt souls of the fighting men on both sides, as it’s shown that certain things are universal such as a love of music, family, country, camaraderie and getting homesick when in a foreign country.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”