The Greatest films of all time: 50.The Burmese Harp (1956)(Japan)


Another masterpiece from Japanese cinema, but this time not of subject of samurai or its subdued culture after the war, but a sentimental anti-war film that is not happening in Japan, but in Burma.  One of the most unrecognized films of all time, “The Burmese Harp” based on a children’s novel of the same name, was directed by Kon Ichikawa with the screenplay by his wife, Natto Wada. The film that in Japan was released initially in two parts on different dates, and later on as a double feature with B movies totaled 143 minutes, but its international release was cut into 116 minutes. Perhaps due to its initial split release in Japan, the film was not received well, but its remake in 1985 again by Ichikawa, became the second largest Japanese box office hit up to that time. It was praised internationally, nominated for the best foreign language film at the academy awards, and won ovation of the audience at the Venice Film Festival and its San Giorgio Prize.


Happening in the Burmese jungle during the second world war, a clash between the two invading Japanese and British armies, the film unlike many other anti-war features portrays the futility of any war in the best sentimental and humane way. While showing the casualties of the war on the Japanese, with a long history of her east Asian invasions, now facing another foreign occupier with oppression, the film reaches the human souls for interconnectedness and not interruptions. Although showing scenes of mass killings and casualties of the war, the main theme of the film is music that connects the souls more than words and show humans have no reasons to kill each other.


In the search of Peace:

The film revolves around Mizushima, a Japanese soldier who plays harp and sings to raise the morale of the soldiers. Like the government of Japan holding back on the surrender in the war until the disastrous atomic bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a group of Japanese soldiers in a cave refuse to surrender to the British and decide to continue fighting. Mizushima trying to convince them of the ending of the war and the futility of continuing to fight, out of national pride and stubbornness, is attacked and knocked down by his comrades. The finale is the massacre of everyone in the battalion by the British bombardment, except Mizushima who’s already passed out on the ground.

Witnessing the mass casualties of his soldier friends in totality in the cave changes the life of Mizushima. He seeks asylum and refuge in hiding away from all the brutality of the useless war that at the end no one wins, and everyone at least the people, the real subjects of the war, all lose. As he walks all around the island, he witnesses more dead bodies of Japanese soldiers and takes on his duty not to leave them behind so their flesh rotten or eaten by vultures, but bury them all. Staying in Burma, a land of Buddha and detested of the war and in the search of peace, he chooses the life of becoming a monk.


The rest of Japanese soldiers, all prisoners of the war under the British while in the labor camp, start hearing the music of Mizushima’s harp, playing first inside a big statue that they desperately trying to get inside and find out if it’s him, who thought would be dead. The mystery follows with the music of the harp in hiding more, until one day a monk with a local boy, a harp in hand, shows himself in front of their camp, while all the soldiers watching him behind the wire barbs. In disbelief him being Mizushima, until he plays the harp that excite them to the point of yearning to climb up the wires and reach him. From then on the soldiers’ hope to see him again, ends when on the boat departing back home to Japan, a letter received from Mizushima is read to all, by their captain. He consoles and more so saddens them all with his final words of regret not to be and leave with them for the homeland, as feeling his duty to stay behind to bury all his killed comrades and for himself to find a peace within. The tough captain cannot hold his tears running down on his face while reading the letter.


A cinematic experiment:

“The Burmese Harp” is a unique anti-war film experiment. It is an example of telling an interesting, eye-opening and perhaps entertaining story in a unmatched cinematic style. The casualties of war are shown well with the mass killings and the heaps of dead bodies everywhere, with only one showing of a brief bombardment in the whole film! The damage of the war goes beyond the physical casualties but reaching the hurt souls of the soldiers and the wonder of the local Burmese reading in their silent eyes the meaningless of the war and their land occupation, specially to a such peaceful nation. 

The film with its powerful cinematography by Minoru Yokoyama, camera work, close up shots of faces conveying the emotions, and long panoramic shots sowing the beauty of the nature in the Burmese jungle and above all, the power of music through the Burmese harp is a blow to the futility of any war. The film convincingly more than any other anti-war film, conveys that as humans, we have more to share, for example through songs and music than to kill each other. “The Burmese Harp” is also a cinematic experiment and a genius of story telling by putting a harp and its music in the center theme and the title of the film. It is one of the best way to show how an object could connect and overcome humans’ feelings and souls. Showing humans’ emotional connectedness through music, singing and beautiful visual work at the time of war, the film is stronger than any anti-war lectures.


The scene of Mizushima, the monk despair of hunger stranded in a vast desert when he is given food by the two local Burmese is another symbol of human solidarity, aside from any racial differences. The sorrow of Mizushima observing the massacred bodies of his comrades in multitude everywhere even on a beach, where they could spend happy moments, and him trying to bury them, saving them all from being eaten by the surrounding vultures, shows the despair of the war. When there is no harp music, the score of the film by Akira Ifukube, beautifully conveys the sorrow, the despair and all the feelings within the subjects of the film and the audience.


The film elegantly ends with the look of the captain staring to the horizon of the ocean, then with the look of a Japanese soldier after a talk about Mizushima’s letter to the horizon of the sky, and finally ending with Mizushima walking to the horizon of a Burmese desert, leaving the war, Japan and his friends behind.


In closing remarks “The Burmese Harp” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality:“The Burmese Harp” is original in its own genre of an anti-war film and unlike other similar films by showing not much of atrocities and ugliness of the war scenes, but its aftermath and the impact on the bodies, souls and mentalities of its subjects. A first prominent anti-war Japanese film, from the standpoint of a nation with aggressive and invasive attitude at least in the far east, with such a gentle fabric is not only original, but genius and innovative.
  2. Technicality:The technicality of “The Burmese Harp” is not in its different elements of filmmaking singularly, but as a whole in its ability to portray the futility of the war and beyond conveying the humans connections through shared ideas, feelings and tastes particularly in the universal liking of music and search for peace. The uniqueness of the film also lies in the “harp” as an object to connect hard fighting soldiers to introspect beyond the differences, patriotism or national pride to respect Mizushima’s cause, who left them, and could easily be labeled as a defective, long for him and wish to be in his place.
  3. Impact Factor:The influence of “The Burmese Harp” has been mostly in his homeland, Japan so that its remake of 1985 was the box office hit that year and the second most viewed in the history of Japanese cinema until that day. But the impact of the film could and should be on any other anti-war films with the emphasis on the sentimentality and introspection of humans and perhaps the governments to stop creating wars at the expense of innocent lives for their own limitless greed.
  4. Survival:“The Burmese Harp” has survived well to this very day in its message content still holding so much truth, and in its beautiful delivery on the screen, and lastly and not the least in its gentle stress on the role of music in connecting the humans’ minds, feelings and souls across the nations.



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