In beautifully composed black-and-white, lilting easily from sweeping landscape to emotional close-up, and tempered by a gentle and nostalgic choral score, director Kon Ichikawa's The Burmese Harp probes deeply into the moral chaos of war. Following the actions of a young Japanese officer separated from his battalion at the close of the Pacific War in Burma, Ichikawa shows one man's journey from the comforts of companionship in adversity to a solitary confrontation with, and eventual grasp of , mass death in the name of patriotism. Corporal Mizushima's silent conversion from warrior to Buddhist monk, and his final refusal to return home to the country that sent him into war, bear a message of pacifism as inspiring and baffling in our own time as it was to his defeated countrymen in 1945.
In The Burmese Harp, Ichikawa (The Makioka Sisters, Tokyo Olympiad, Odd Obsession) displays some of the versatility that continues to mark him as one of Japan's leading film directors. Not only has he made animated features, working-class comedies, sports documentaries, and adaptations of the rich novels of one of the most twisted erotic sensibilities in modern Japanese literature (Junichiro Tanizaki wrote both The Makioka Sisters and The Key, which is the basis for Ichikawa's Odd Obsession), but with The Burmese Harp he has made a simple story of universal humanistic appeal. Based on Michio Takeyama's novel Harp of Burma, it won the prestigious Venice International Film Festival San Giorgio Prize in 1956. It is one of a handful of Japanese films—such as Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) and Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (1953)—that were the first to call the attention of the world to the mastery of cinematic art in Japan. Like Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952), it shows one man unwittingly embarking on a spiritual quest that culminates in service to humanity.
At the close of the Pacific War, a weary unit of Japanese soldiers straggles cautiously through mountain jungles in Burma. One of them, Corporal Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), has learned to play the Burmese harp, which he uses with enthralling virtuosity to accompany the men as they keep up their spirits by singing. When Mizushima's unit is ambushed by the British, they learn that the war is over and surrender peacefully, but Mizushima is sent to convince a holdout unit of Japanese in the mountains to give up. He begs them to remember the families who wait for their return, but they decide to die for their country, while accusing him of cowardice. Knocked unconscious in the final massacre, he awakes in a different world, rescued by a Buddhist monk.
From the moment Mizushima steals the monk's robes to rejoin his unit, an inexorable transformation takes place in him—triggered by the terrible aftermath of battle. It is this very carnage that brings about his comprehension and embrace of Buddhist altruism. By the time Mizushima's comrades find him—in a chance encounter on a bridge which so powerfully underscores his newly transcendent identity that it is echoed later in the film—he has already decided not to go home with them. Toward the end, the tale turns on the contrast between Mizushima's spiritual journey and his captain's frustrated but relentless search for him from within a POW camp.
Screenwriter Natto Wada (Ichikawa's former wife) lets minimal dialogue carry the emotion of The Burmese Harp. Ichikawa allows the grandeur of the Burmese landscape and the eerie power of its Buddhist statuary and architecture to sustain the mood of Mizushima's conversion and the mystification of his Japanese comrades. Yet the gravity of the film lifts with the lyrical score, the light humor of a local bartering woman (Tanie Kitabayashi) with her parrots, and the genuine but uncomprehending affection of the soldiers for their missing mate.
Part of the mastery of The Burmese Harp lies in the subtlety of its anti-war message. Mizushima never condemns Japanese military policy for the fanatical suicide stand of an entire unit, but his decision not to return to Japan after the war is his personal attempt at redress. If the warring nations treat soldiers as mere cannon fodder, he and the Burmese peasantry would mitigate that inhumanity by cremating and burying the casualties. Inside the box for the ashes of the dead, he places a huge rough ruby plucked from the river mud. Only when the captain (Rentaro Mikuni) observes the familiar monk who carries a Japanese-style funerary box in the ceremony honoring the war dead, and later learns the contents of the box, does he understand Mizushima—he has forsaken both national identity and an opportunity for worldly wealth to show respect for those who sacrificed their lives. Accepting this, the captain too can relinquish a primary Japanese need for belonging to the group, and allow one of his men to disappear into a strange land to serve a higher spiritual purpose.