War movies typically come in two distinct categories: Heroic war movies (good against bad guys) and anti-war movies (war is stupid and terrible). Since the seventies these two categories have fused into a third category, the heroic anti-war movie in which the protagonist is heroic despite war being stupid and terrible. The other two groups are still around, but heroic war movies are now exclusively against vile aliens or Nazi pigs (Darth Vader is sort of both).
“The Burmese Harp” (Biruma no tategoto) belongs to an entirely different category, one I do not remember having seen before, the healing war movie. That makes this, at least in my experience, a unique experience.
Let me say flat out that I am mighty impressed with this movie. Not just for showing me something I have not seen before, but for the very delicate way it handles the theme. I feel a better person just for watching it.
A platoon of Japanese soldiers are fighting in Burma when they get the news that the war ended three days earlier. The British are mopping up stray units and that is touchy business as the Burmese theater is essentially guerilla warfare with very little communication. The platoon is led by Captain Inouye (Rentarō Mikuni) who has a musical background and has trained his unit as a choir. They sing as a way to keep up morale, but also as a bonding agent and for signaling. It is exactly through singing that a touchy encounter with a British (or actually Indian) unit is resolved peacefully instead of a useless blood bath. The singing is a civilized counterpoint to the barbary of war.
One of Inouye’s soldiers, a Private called Mizushima (Shoji Yasui) has taken up the Burmese harp and accompany the singing of the platoon. The harp is also used for signaling and so he has become the scout of the platoon as well as its mascot. It is noted early that in Burmese cloths he blends in completely. When a Japanese unit entrenched on a mountain refuses to surrender it falls on Mizushima to tell them the war is over.
This turns out to be a life changing experience for Mizushima. The unit refuses to surrender and it is instead massacred, leaving only Mizushima alive. He is saved by a Buddhist monk and decides to pose as monk as a way to return to his unit. On the way he is witness to what the war has left behind. Countless of dead soldiers left around to rot. Pointless death. Demeaning death. A desecration of life. He is so overwhelmed by this combined with his experience in the cave that he decides that his life mission is to clean up after the war. So he goes about burying the corpses, giving them the proper rites and in the process he is transformed to a real monk.
His platoon keeps looking for him and in a number of encounters they believe they see him, but it is the Captain who finally realizes what has happened to Mizoshima and comes to terms with it when they finally find him.
All along the harp is the healer, or the symbol of healing. Mizoshima is a virtuoso on the instrument and therefore also at healing the souls. It is as if his skill marks him for this mission. There is a conflict in him between the call and returning to his friend, but hard as it is he is committed.
It may not be clear from my clumsy writing, but this movie is extremely good at communicating its sensibilities. The German word gefühl is a very precise descriptor for “The Burmese Harp”. Despite my lack of understanding of Japanese culture I can feel the healing Mizushima provides for the dead soldiers, but also the catharsis the Japanese must go through after the war, not unlike what happened in Germany. The soldiers are in a strange limbo after the war and the trauma is never far away. The singing is medicine, but Mizoshima takes it a lot further and in the process lifts a weight from his fellow comrades in arms.
I admit that I know nothing of director Kon Ichikawa. I never saw anything from his hand before, but if this movie is symptomatic for his production, then I can add another director to the growing list of Japanese greats. There is intuitive understanding here that only marks the truly great directors.
Technically this is also a master piece. Although the movie is in black and white Ichikawa has an eye for the tableau that makes the scenes a feast for the eyes. Or a horror. I believe you would understand this movie without subtitles simply from the imagery itself.
Only drawback I can see is that he suffered an acute lack of western actors. Several actors are obviously reused in different roles and in places British soldiers are played by Japanese actors with dreadful accents. It is a minor thing, a mere curiosity, and it does not detract from the overall picture that this is a brilliant movie.