The Burmese Harp (1956)

Kon Ichikawa’s career was plodding along somewhat quietly until he made this, his 27th film, and suddenly everything changed for him. Though it arguably wasn’t as massive a transformation as that undergone by Mizushima, the central character of this film. He’s part of a Japanese army unit in Burma who don’t know WW2 is over until they’re captured by a British squad; they accept their fate with notably greater equanimity than another Japanese unit under siege near the POW camp, and when Mizushima is sent to try and convince them to join his fellow squaddies they vow to fight to the end. Which they do, and Mizushima’s squad think he fell in battle with them. But! We, the audience, know better; we see him helped back to health by a monk whose robe he later steals to disguise himself while he keeps a promise to rejoin his squad. On the way, however, something snaps in him as he discovers that perhaps the real horror of war is surviving it to witness the aftermath, Mizushima’s squad don’t know what’s happened to their comrade and don’t understand why he hasn’t rejoined them, and indeed we don’t really know either until the end. Interesting that this appeared on Criterion at the same time as Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain (which I’ll get to here eventually); this is much the kinder and gentler of the two films. Where Fires basically says “war is hell, and here’s just how fucking nasty it gets”, Burmese Harp says “war is hell but there’s room for humanity when it comes to picking up the pieces afterwards”. It’s been accused, somewhat wilfully I think, of whitewashing Japanese atrocities, but it’s not like those atrocities were known then in the way they are now (and still denied by many), and in any case such a reading ignores Ichikawa’s evident contempt for the “no surrender” mob; his sympathies are clearly elsewhere in this rather splendid film.

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