Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Burmese Harp

"The Burmese Harp" ("Biruma no tategoto")(Kon Ichikawa, 1956) Sublime Japanese war story about an Imperial troop in Burma set during the last days of the Second World War. Led by a former choir-master, Captain Inouye, the men comfort themselves with song, and on the practical side, communicate in hostile territory through a code of music. Leaving aside the fact that music might not be the perfect sound to "blend" in the jungle, the film does make the point of it as a universal language in one miraculous scene. As the troops sit huddled in a hut in a Burmese village awaiting an ambush by Allied forces, the tension becomes unbearable. As a ruse to draw them in and trick the enemy that they are relaxing rather than poised over their weapons, the men begin to sing "Hanyu No Yado," a plaintive song of home. To their astonishment, the Allies begin to chime in, as the melody bears a remarkable similarity to passages of "Home, Sweet Home." For a time, the enemy forces combine as they perform and listen and unite. The war has ended. The Allies are there to inform the Japanese troops and confiscate their weapons, and the music's common ground has provided a demilitarized zone between cultures. No one dies that night.

But the war goes on. The Americans are having a tough time convincing die-hard Japanese soldiers that hostilities have ended. In their temporary prison camp, the troop is asked to help in bringing in the still-fighting men. Mizushima, the self-taught player of the difficult Burmese lute, volunteers and is seemingly lost in a battle to the death among British and Japanese forces. But, on their way to the Mudon prison camp, Captain Inouye passes a lone Buddhist monk, who resembles Mizushima, and speculation begins about his fate.

It's a moving, satisfying film about comradeship and duty and how the two combine and divide us. It's also beautifully composed and shot. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Kon Ichikawa was a replacement director on the project, but it was a story that he particularly loved. His troops aren't interchangeable soldiers, they are individuals who react to situations differently, dream of home and family and are frequently repulsed by the nature of their war. Ichikawa uses the jungle settings as vast backdrops that dwarf the men--swallows them, throwing them back in time amidst the stone idols that litter the landscape. Slow, stately and passionate, "The Burmese Harp" is one of the greatest war films I've ever seen.

Kon Ichikawa died February 13, 2008, one of the masters of the Japanese cinema.

No comments: