Thursday 11 February 2010

A disarming perspective on war

The Burmese Harp , directed by Kon Ichikawa (1956)

There are many paths to greatness for a film, and Kon Ichikawa’s 1956 black and white The Burmese Harp (aka Harp Of Burma, and Biruma No Tategoto), which runs just under two hours long, chooses the simplest path. It is not a film that is a dazzling cinematic experience, nor is it suffused with symbolism (although great shots and symbolism can be found within),; it is a film that takes a great and unique story idea and eloquently lets it play out. It also makes an interesting choice in its mix of oddly unreal situations (the breaking out into song by assorted armies in the midst of war) and scorchingly real images of death. The screenplay, by Ichikawa’s wife Natto Wada, wisely remakes the children’s novel, by Takeyama Michio, as a more realistic take on the lead characters of the novel.

The tale is simple: in the closing days of the Pacific Theatre of World War Two, a ragtag bunch of Japanese soldiers take to buoying their spirits with song. One of their own, a private named Yasuhiko Mizushima (Shôji Yasui), takes a fancy to a local musical instrument- a Burmese harp. He is quite skilled, and becomes beloved by his fellow soldiers, as well as his unit’s leader Captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni). After a series of misadventures, the troop ends up in a Burmese village that is surrounded by British and Indian forces. Both sides start singing the song Home, Sweet Home. It turns out Japan surrendered three days ago. The troop likewise surrenders. In the prisoner camp of the Brits, they ask for a Japanese volunteer to climb Triangle Mountain, where a holdout Japanese unit is still fighting, to tell them of the surrender and to come out peacefully. The captain initially wants to go, but Mizushima volunteers, and is told he only has a half hour to convince his countrymen. After that mission is completed, he will join his troop at the town of Mudon.

The other Japanese troop, in the mountain caves, rejects Mizushima’s claims, and tell him they will fight on. They accuse him of treason. He wants to ask for more time, for he feels it’s the only way to fulfill his mission. He attaches a white flag from his harp, in order so he’s not shot by the British, but the other soldiers fear he is surrendering for them. They attack him, and throw him down a ravine, planning to kill him, but the Brits start their bombardment, and he is forgotten. When he finally wakes up, he sees the holdout troop is all dead. He spends days being nursed by a Burmese Buddhist monk. When the monk goes to bathe, Mizushima steals his robes and escapes. He also cuts his hair all away, and blends in with the locals, whose language he knows. Earlier, his own troop had commented on how Burmese he looked, especially when in local garb. As he wanders about, trying to get to Mudon, he is struck by all the unburied corpses of war- especially those of his countrymen, and decides to do something about it.

His troop, meanwhile, inquires if Mizushima in their internment camp, as they are haunted by various aspects of their comrade- glimpses, music, etc. An old lady who barters goods with them, gives them information about a local monk whom they think is Mizushima. It turns out it is Mizushima, but they are not sure, despite passing him on a bridge, and hearing a peasant boy play the harp in the same style as Mizushima; whom he in fact learnt the style from. Captain Inouye encounters urns of the ashes of the dead in a British repository, and is told to clean it. There, he sees an urn that Mizushima was carrying, opens it, and seems to conclude something the viewer is not aware of, when he spies a Burmese Ruby. In a soliloquy, Mizushima- hiding behind some shelves, overhears he captain, and learns that he understands Mizushima’s reasons for leaving his past behind. The rest of the troop, however, does not, and they try to persuade Mizushima with a parrot they bought from the old lady, and teaching it an entreaty for Mizushima to return to Japan with them. Instead, a day before being repatriated to Japan, Mizushima and the peasant boy show up, outside the camp, and play tunes that make it known that he is, indeed, Mizushima. Later, the old lady returns with a second parrot trained to say that Mizushima will not return. He also has a letter delivered to the captain. He waits till the troop is on their return ship to read it.

While a bit sentimental, it never veers into mawkishness, and the full five or so minute reading is one of the great humanist documents in cinema, perhaps even greater than Charlie Chaplin’s speech at the end of The Great Dictator. Mizushima claims his new mission in life is monkdom, and helping to bury the war dead, and promote peace in the world. The film then makes an interesting decision, and one virtually uncommented on in any of the criticism of it I’ve read. After the letter is read, the film’s narration (which opens the film, and is rather sparse) begins again. All along, viewers have been led to believe- via closeups of the captain’s face during other narrations, that it is he who has been telling this film’s story from some indefinite time in the future. But, no; the speaker, as the camera move sin, turns out to be a wholly anonymous member of the unit; one who had no prior scenes nor close-ups.

Imagine, as example, had Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, not opened with Call me Ishmael, and the reader only found out who the narrator was on the last page, and had to guess if the narrator was omniscient, or a member of the Pequod, only to be startled their guess was wrong. The reason this is so important, looking back at the film, is that a) the point of view change from the expected narrator to another recapitulates the confusion that the troop has over whether or not the monk they see is their comrade- thus letting the viewer ‘feel’ the confusion that the internal characters are feeling- albeit for a different reason, b) it makes the viewer question whether or not what has been shown is true or not, since we now know the narrator is not the reliable and honorable captain- a character we would trust as reliable. This ties the whole film back to the more fairy tale like quality of the source novel. The final reason, c), it forces the viewer to wonder whether or not he or she has assumed other things that were not so in the narrative, even if one accepts that all the anonymous private has revealed is true.

This is an astonishingly effective device that Ichikawa employs, and coming on the heels of the straightforward and moving missive revelation by Mizushima, the audacity of Ichikawa’s narrative sleight of hand erases any doubts over whether this film is great or not. It is as great a film as his later Fires On The Plain, which, narratively and tonally, is almost the complete opposite of this film. But, the fact that such a key element in the film has never been commented upon before shows how little most critics actually pay attention to the subjects they criticize, as well as how little they understand how even a small moment, or the slight use of a technique, can radically change the whole tenor of a work of art. This is too often because the critics approach art with their own biases in tow, rather than viewing the work on its own merits. Another moment that has gone critically unnoticed is the scene on the bridge, between Mizushima (dressed as a monk) and his troop. This occurs two times. The first time, the viewer is as confused as the soldiers are, but the second time, the narrator tells the audience it was definitely Mizushima. Thus, we know that Mizushima’s ruse will be found out, and this diverts the narrative tension from will the soldiers learn the truth of Mizushima? to how will they learn it, and will they learn why? This is not an insignificant narrative change of direction, but one, again, which never seems to have stirred critics.

On a tangent, this film is definitely a political film, in that the politics are put first, ahead of all but the art. Too often, in films like Theo Angelopoulos’s The Travelling Players, films that have political content, but content that does not achieve primacy, is labeled political art, when clearly there are other factors that supersede the politics- like psychology, history, culture, etc. Some have, in later years, criticised the film (and Ichikawa’s 1985 colour remake of it) as whitewashing Japanese atrocities in the war, by showing the Japanese soldiers as song-happy gentlemen, not pillaging, ‘comfort girl’ inducing monsters. But, this misses the point that the first singing session should have drilled home. This film, while political, is not a slice of realism. It has symbolism and allegory throughout. British racism, as example, towards natives and Indians, is never shown, but it existed. Ichikawa’s aim was to clearly demonstrate the quest for humanity, embodied in Mizushima, but aimed at the viewers. Also, as the film was made in 1956, the fact is that Ichikawa was likely wholly oblivious to the atrocities his country committed in the war, despite the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. To this day, even, Japan has been very reluctant to acknowledge, much less deal with, its past as an aggressor nation.

The DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, is well transferred- the black and white hues are brilliant. However, the DVD lacks an audio commentary- an increasing annoyance with Criterion releases ever since they went to their new C logo. There are too all too brief interviews with Ichikawa and Renataro Mikuni, who played the captain. There is a trailer, and only subtitles, again in white- another bête noir of Criterion, for white subtitles often are lost against the whites of a black and white film. Coloured subtitles are a must if no English dubbed soundtrack is to be added. The insert contains an essay on the film by film critic Tony Rayns, but it’s a rather pedestrian take on the subject. Akira Ifukube’s score is solid; the only real highlights are the delightful harp playing by Mizushima.

Overall, The Burmese Harp is a great film. It is not one of those razzle-dazzle works of art that is flashy, but it gets the job done, and invites rewatchings to elicit subtleties one viewing may miss. It also kills the old notion that all war films- even those with explicitly anti-war themes- end up celebrating war because of the battle scenes and those scenes which show individual valour. Both this film and Fires On The Plain kill that notion; the former by eliding almost all scenes of battle, and the latter by the sheer devastation of the results of war it shows. It certainly deserved its nomination for an Academy Award as best Foreign Film, as well as numerous other festival awards. Ichikawa’s reputation is that of a serviceable studio director, and that may be true; but the two films of his I’ve seen are the equals of the best films made by the titanic Japanese triumvirate of Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, and Kenji Mizoguchi. Here’s hoping he has a few more deviations from that norm others claim for him.


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The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

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National Media Museum
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