“Can’t you see that whatever you do is futile? The armies of Britain and Japan can come and fight all they wish. Burma is still Burma. Burma is the Buddha’s country.”
– Monk who nurses Mizushima back to health in Biruma no tategoto (The Burmese Harp, 1956)
The Burmese Harp ends where it begins, with a shot of an engulfing, arid wasteland and the words, “The soil of Burma is red, so are its rocks”. The film is set on this very bloodied Burmese soil, in 1945, at the tail end of the Second World War. A soldier, who is part of a platoon of starving, wearied soldiers for whom music is a panacea, narrates the story. One among them, Mizushima (performed with gravity by Shojii Yasui), a self-taught harpist, plays the instrument for varied ends. Sometimes he strums his harp to signal to the rest of his platoon while they navigate their way around the British troops, at other times he plays it as an accompaniment to choral singing sessions that prevent the soldiers’ spirits from plummeting; at one point he even ties a white cloth onto the harp and attempts to use it as a flag to indicate surrender. The film almost becomes fairytale-like when the Japanese soldiers sing “Hanyu no Yado”, the Japanese version of “Home Sweet Home”, as they non-violently surrender to a British contingent who chime in in English. Music evokes camaraderie among soldiers on both the warring sides who long to leave the bloody battlefield and return to the warmth and peace of their homes. Rather than becoming subsumed in mawkishness, a sentiment the song is most oft associated with, a tranquil spirituality permeates through as the soldiers sing in complete harmony. In the face of great sorrow and senseless killings, the land of Buddha maintains its quiescence and serenity.
The Burmese Harp is set against the backdrop of war. This background merely forms the take-off point for a quest into the incorporeal truth about suffering in the world. After the platoon surrenders they are taken in as prisoners of war. Mizushima is separated from his troop and walks, disguised as a Buddhist monk, through lands strewn with carcasses of soldiers. His long and arduous journey makes him deliberate over the mysteries of life and he decides to make giving proper burials to war casualties the purpose of his life. In a valedictory letter to his platoon, Mizushima writes:
Why must the world suffer such misery? Why must there be such inexplicable pain…. I realized that, in the end, the answers were not for human beings to know, that our work is simply to ease the great suffering of the world. To have the courage to face suffering, senselessness and irrationality without fear, to find the strength to create peace by one’s own example.
He is a Paccekabuddha-like figure. A lone Buddha enlightened by and for himself. Mizushima’s enlightenment drives his inner pilgrimage; he does not wish to preach to his fellow soldiers. Ichikawa’s protagonist is a solitary figure struggling to survive against the insanity of war and the deep, irreparable wound caused by death. He is also placed against and in relation to the tyranny of Nature. Mizushima is pitted against Ichikawa’s painterly mise en scène – the humbling mountain peaks, the immersive seashore and barren flatlands, all bathed in a spiritual glow. In his initial travels around Burma he is pitted against nature – a tiny figure placed in wide-angle shots of the landscape, wounded, starving and collecting carcasses to bury. Later in the film, as the “enlightened one”, he tells his friends he cannot return with them to Japan, walking into the mist – with two parrots perched on either shoulder – and merging with the picturesque landscape of a dense forest and a holy shrine. He is in complete harmony with nature.
Mizushima is not only pitted against nature but also against the collective will of the soldiers who try all that is within their means (as POWs) to get him back. Just before they are about to be shipped back to Japan they hear that the monk who they suspect is Mizushima is standing outside the prison fence. They appear, filmed in a high-angle shot, almost like a herd of animals running in the same direction with mindless excitement. They are framed, pinned against the barbed wire, as a collective pleading him to come back with them. But the monk stands solemnly in the open, next to a child with a harp – an image of innocence and learning combined. A quick series of silent reaction shots between them highlight their opposition, pitting the desires of the soldiers’ materialistic yearning for home against the solitary man’s self-effacing resolve to award burials to the dead. Later, this contrast is further heightened when after listening to the monk’s letter (quoted above) being read out by their Captain on the voyage back home, the soldiers speak only of worldly things they associate with Japan: the factories, the movies, their jobs and the comfort of home.
The Burmese Harp was Ichikawa’s first film to win international acclaim and was the highest-grossing movie at the Japanese box office of that year. The film has often been viewed as essentially pacifist as it neatly skirts issues of moral responsibility, the atrocities of war (the platoon is one that happily eschews the use of arms for a harmoniously sung song and the British are shown as considerate opponents, sharing the Japanese soldiers’ nostalgia for home), and Japan’s political involvement in the war. However, the film, as I have argued, is scarcely talking about war in particular. Rather, its fable-like simple plot raises questions of suffering and loss through a final mourning for the dead.
Biruma no tategoto/The Burmese Harp (1956 Japan 116 mins)
Prod Co: Nikkatsu Prod: Masayuki Takaki Dir: Kon Ichikawa Scr: Natto Wada, based on the novel by Michio Takeyama Phot: Minoru Yokoyama Ed: Masanori Tsujii Prod Des: Takashi Matsuyama Mus: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Rentaro Mikuni, Shoji Yasui, Jun Hamamura, Taketoshi Maito, Shunji Kasuga, Ko Nishimura