Ranking: #36/111

Director: Kon Ichikawa (Japan)   

Genre: War Drama

The Burmese Harp is the most touching, evocative and profound war drama I’ve seen.

Towards the end of World War 2 and the Burma Campaign, a harp-playing Japanese soldier, Private Mizushima, goes missing after he’s sent on a mission to persuade a group of die-hard soldiers holding out in caves in the mountains to surrender, the war being effectively over. Mizushima’s music and character have had such an impact on the rest of the company that they miss him and long to know whether he is still alive.

The zealous Japanese militants holding out in the mountains decide to fight to the death, calling Mizushima a coward, beating him. After a bombardment from British forces, he escapes from this scene of destruction as the only survivor. This traumatic experience causes him to go on a spiritual journey. As he wanders around, he is soon overcome by the sheer scale of death around him. He decides to serve his country by burying the corpses he finds with honour. Later, he seeks refuge in a Buddhist monastery and eventually becomes himself a monk.  Meanwhile, his company have surrendered to British forces and are held prisoner in a POW camp.

His former commander, Captain Inouye, often leads the company in song and, like the rest of the men, yearns to find out what’s happened to their beloved harp-player. They believe he is still alive. They buy a parrot and teach it to say: “Mizushima, let’s go back to Japan together”. An old Burmese woman and trader takes the parrot to a monk they believe is really Mizushima, having once seen him walk past them. When the old lady returns, the parrot she brings says: “No, I cannot go back”. She also hands Inouye a letter from Mizushima explaining that he will not go back to Japan with them. He has found peace burying the dead. Once he has buried all the dead, he says, then and only then might he return to his homeland.

It is not just the themes and the beautiful black, white and grey photography which elevates this war drama into a timeless, Buddhist parable, but also the powerful acting by Shoji Yasui as Private Mizushima and Rentarō Mikuni as Captain Inouye. The two men develop a deep mutual affection and respect, even though they choose different courses of action in response to the realities of war.

Ichikawa has created a psychodrama which traces the steps in the psychological and spiritual journey Mizushima undergoes, which, in turn, affects Captain Inouye and the rest of the company of soldiers. By contrast, the nationalistic militarists who refused to surrender when the war was effectively over, were shown to be too fanatical.

There is a very moving scene near the end of the movie when Mizushima, now a Buddhist priest and man of peace, visits them near the barricade of the POW camp, with two parrots on his shoulders. He keeps his distance but somehow the love between the company and their lost comrade resonates in the haunting harp music he plays for them.

On the boat going home from Burma, Captain Inouye reads out Mizushima’s farewell letter to his comrades.

In the eyes of the director, it is music and spirituality which can speak in a universal language of harmony to attempt to heal the divisions, destruction, death and hatred of war.  The Burmese harp has, in the end, humanised the whole company, making them ready for the life of peace after the war. Only Mizushima’s life of sacrifice, though, will finally redeem the curse of death in Burma, through honourable burials for all who fell in the war.