The Burmese Harp (1956)
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.