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The Burmese Harp
Remind Me
Burmese Harp, The

The Burmese Harp

In Burma toward the end of World War II, a Japanese platoon surrenders to British forces and is placed in a prisoner-of-war camp until transport home can be arranged. Mizushima (Shojj Yasui), one of the most popular men in the regiment and an accomplished harp player, volunteers for a dangerous mission - to try and convince a garrison of Japanese soldiers holed up in a hillside cave to lay down their arms and surrender. The unit refuses and in the bloody battle that follows Mizushima is severely wounded. Nursed back to health by a monk, he experiences a spiritual transformation and takes to the road, disguised as a holy man, intent on honoring his dead comrades by giving their corpses a proper burial.

Kon Ichikawa had already made twenty six feature films by the time he began work on The Burmese Harp (Japanese title: Biruma no tategoto, 1956) but it would prove to be his first major critical and box office success in Japan and one that would bring him international acclaim. "That was the first film I really felt I had to make," Ichikawa later admitted to author and film scholar Donald Ritchie.

Based on a popular Japanese novel by Takeyama Michio, the original novel offered a meditative and humanistic response to the psychological and emotional suffering the Japanese people had experienced in the war's aftermath. Ichikawa was completely taken with the story but felt that it was closer, in style and tone, to a fairy tale for children. With the author's permission, Ichikawa and screenwriter Natto Wada (Ichikawa's wife), transformed Michio's novel into "a very realistic drama about the front line in Burma." Strangely enough, Michio had never visited Burma, "yet he wrote this beautiful story that takes place there," Ichikawa recalled. "He told me it was originally to be set in China. But remember the scene where the American and Japanese soldiers sing together? They don't have those kinds of songs in China. Anyway, he heard some things about Burma and wrote The Burmese Harp."

The novel was told from the point of view of an unidentified soldier and prisoner of war who relates the curious tale of a company scout, Mizushima Yasuhiko, who disappears in the jungle and later re-emerges as a Burmese holy man. Ichikawa's film splits the narrative into two stories; one which follows the journey of Mizushima's character from soldier to pacifist and one which follows the fate of Mizushima's regiment and commanding officer, Captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni). A sequence from the novel involving an encounter with cannibals was left out of the screenplay but the subject of starvation, disease, dementia and killing fellow Japanese soldiers for food in the final days of the war became the focus of Ichikawa's other acknowledged masterpiece three years later, Fires on the Plains (Japanese title: Nobi, 1959).

The Burmese Harp was originally intended as a color film. Ichikawa recalled, "Daiei studio was using Kodak Eastmancolor film but Nikkatsu [studio] was using Japanese Konicolor stock which required one strip of film for each primary color. I was told to shoot with that." Unfortunately, the camera required for Konicolor film was so large that transporting it to Burma would have been too expensive and risky if there were technical problems. So Ichikawa was restricted to using Japanese locations such as Yasui, Hakone and the Izu peninsula. "Since Burma is tropical," the director stated, "I was trying really hard to convey the intense heat of a tropical land through composition and framing."

Shoji Yasui, who was cast in the role of Mizushima, was still considered a novice actor and had only appeared in two previous films. Ichikawa said, "His shoulders were a bit of a problem because they were a bit fleshy. I asked him to lose a little weight since he was to play a starving soldier. He really conveyed the sincere nature of this character which was essential."

Rentaro Mikuni, who plays Mizushima's commanding officer in the film and later became a director himself, recalled how much he learned from observing Ichikawa on The Burmese Harp: "Creating the right mood was very important for other directors. Ichikawa didn't really care about that. What he wanted was acting that matched the length of time calculated on his storyboards. He stayed very close to his storyboards, which he shot, almost down to the second of the timings he'd worked out."

Regarding the collaboration between Ichikawa and his wife Natto Wada, Mikuni noted, "In Natto's script, the characters were precisely drawn and the lines were written in such a way as to work with the visuals to delineate each she was very concerned with how Ichikawa shot it since she couldn't tag along to the actual shooting. She made suggestions while watching the rushes....Just she and Ichikawa were in the [editing] room for hours. And there were always reshoots after she watched the rushes. It was an ordeal to maintain continuity in those reshoots."

Certainly one of The Burmese Harp's most powerful and essential components was the music score by Akira Ifukube (who is probably most famous for "Godzilla's Theme" which was first introduced in 1954 in Godzilla [Japanese title: Gojira]). Because Ifukube was a lifelong musician, composer and instructor (he later became president of the Tokyo College of Music), he had very set ideas about the score and he and Ichikawa would clash often over musical choices for the movie, particularly the distinctive sound of the harp that Mizushima plays. Ichikawa would later say in an interview with Mark Shilling, "Music is a very important element in films. It's been that way for a long time, but in Japanese films, not a lot of money is spent on music. The reason is that music is the last stage in the filmmaking process...But by this time the budget is very tight...Films cost a lot of money to make - and music gets the leftovers. But as the budget gradually gets smaller, the music gradually gets worse. The composer will cut some corners. But if you want proof of how important music is, look at foreign films - the theme from The Third Man [1949] or The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]. If those films hadn't had that music what would they be like?..."Colonel Bogey's March" in I>The Bridge on the River Kwai. When the soldiers whistled that song, it made the film. You could have never gotten the same emotions from that scene without that music."

According to film scholar Tony Rayns in his liner notes for The Criterion Collection's DVD of The Burmese Harp, "The "big idea" underpinning this story is that music is a salve for the soul: its uses in combat (to send coded signals and to keep up morale) are trumped by its inherent beauty, its capacity to build bridges between opponents, and the way it can express feelings that cannot be stated in words...Hence the which Captain Inouye's company surrenders without bloodshed to Anglo-Australian troops after both sides have sung the song. Homesickness is universal, it asserts, and so is the power of music."

A huge success in its own country and throughout the world, The Burmese Harp was nominated for an Oscar® for Best Foreign Language Film. It also was awarded the San Giorgio Prize at the 17th International Venice Film Festival, the Lisbon International Film Festival Judges Special Award, a third place prize from the Tokyo Movie Press Association and a fifth place prize from Kinema Jumpo (Japan's premiere film magazine).

Although Ichikawa is best known outside his own country for his two anti-war epics, The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plains, both of these movies were actually atypical of the director's work which were contemporary dramas and satires about Japanese post-war society. Strangely enough, Ichikawa started out as a film animator, inspired by Walt Disney cartoons, but once he saw the films of Sadao Yamanaka, he became excited about the possibilities of live-action features. Among some of Ichikawa's more famous and acclaimed films, many now available on DVD in the U.S., are Odd Obsession [1959], Being Two Isn't Easy [1962], An Actor's Revenge [1963]), Tokyo Olympiad [1965] and I Am a Cat [1975].

TCM will be showing the 116 minute version of The Burmese Harp although in Japan, the film was released as a "roadshow" attraction in two parts. Tony Rayns in the Criterion Collection liner notes wrote, "Part one (running 63 minutes) opened on January 21, 1956 and part two (80 minutes) opened on February 12, both with B features. The total running time of 143 minutes was cut to the current 116 minutes when the two parts were combined for rerelease and export - reputedly to Ichikawa's dissatisfaction. In 1985, Ichikawa himself remade the film in color. The new Burmese Harp, financed by Fuji TV after Toho turned it down, was rather obviously influenced in tone and visual rhetoric by Oshima Nagisa's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, released two years earlier...It pleased young filmgoers enough to become the top-grossing Japanese film of 1985, but didn't repeat the international success of the original."

Producer: Masayuki Takaki
Director: Kon Ichikawa
Screenplay: Natto Wada; Michio Takeyama (novel)
Cinematography: Minoru Yokoyama
Production Design: So Matsuyama
Music: Akira Ifukube
Film Editing: Masanori Tsujii
Cast: Rentaro Mikuni (Captain Inouye), Shoji Yasui (Mizushima), Jun Hamamura (Ito), Takeo Naito (Kobayashi), Shunji Kasuga (Maki), Akira Nishimura (Baba), Keishichi Nakahara (Takagi), Toshiaki Ito (Hashimoto), Hiroshi Tsuchikata (Okada), Tomio Aoki (Oyama), Nobuteru Hanamura (Nakamura), Sanpei Mine (Abe).

by Jeff Stafford

Kon Ichikawa, edited by James Quandt (Cinematheque Ontario)
Kon Ichikawa: A Guide to References and Resources by John Allyn (G.K. Hall)
The New York Times, Kon Ichikawa obituary, Feb. 14, 2008
The Criterion Collection DVD of The Burmese Harp, liner notes by Tony Rayns, interviews with Kon Ichikawa and Rentaro Mikuni