Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Burmese Harp (Ichikawa. 1956)

"Let's return to Japan together."

Last Thursday night I was sitting in a tiny Amtrak station in Bloomington, Illinois waiting for my train to take me to my beautiful girlfriend in Chicago. As I sitting there, I was joined by a group of stereotypical sorority girls from Illinois State University. For almost an hour I was subjected to their countless stories about meaningless sex, Lady Gaga and the "pounding of shots" that they were so excited to soon be doing in the windy city. By the time we boarded the train, I had realized that I was alone in the car with these five exhausting females. I scurried to the far back to make sure that I could secure a seat by myself and far away from these strangers.

My efforts were in vain because one of them spotted my fraternity letters and found it necessary to try and sit next to me. "You're a frat boy, you may enjoy some of my stories". I could not think of any other way to make her leave me alone, so I whipped out my laptop and started watching my next film from the 1077. "What 'cha watchin'" she asked. I answered - "a black and white Japanese anti-war movie made in 1956". After hearing this, it did not take her long to jump out of her seat and rejoin her group of woo-girls. The Burmese Harp saved the day.

Little did I know that this movie would not only save me from two hours of annoyance, but it would also be an extremely rewarding viewing experience. Though I was watching it on my laptop, I was still in awe of the Criterion DVD quality and the flawlessness of the hushed black and white. The cinematography is simple and the landscaping of Burma is vast and magnificent looking. It was easy to see that the filmmaker was not interesting in a mass amount of dialogue. It was the striking subtlety in the visual style that properly denoted the overall theme of the movie.

The Burmese Harp is about a Japanese soldier stationed in Burma during the days immediately following the end of World War II. He has developed a love for playing the harp and uses it to signal danger to his troop. His playing is also used as a way to raise moral in the lonely mountains of Burma. Music, whether instrumental or vocal, plays a major role in the film. In fact, it seemed like the majority of the communication was presented through song. The sound of the harp is soothing and easy on the ears. It is a beautiful instrument that compliments the smooth visuals.

The story is also vividly entertaining in is simplicity. After retreating to the British, the soldier - Mizushima - is sent to try and convince another Japanese troop to surrender. He fails in doing this and the entire troop is eventually killed by British forces. This leads to Mizushima, and his harp, being separated from his fellow soldiers and he is now left to roam the countryside of Burma. As we walks, he meets a spiritual leader and realizes the devastatingly high amount of Japanese casualties caused by the violence of World War II. He sees the bodies of thousands of soldiers with his own eyes. He is traumatized and dedicates his life to giving them a proper burial.

The Burmese Harp is the first film by Kon Ichikawa to be seen outside of Japan. It is also one of the first Japanese movies to receive critical acclaim in the United States. What really makes it stand out is that it was the first example of an anti-World War II statement being made by the Japanese through cinema. We forget that everybody is hurt by war, and that the lines are not always as clear as good versus evil. The men in the Japanese army had families, kids and dreams of their own. They just wanted to return home - though they would find that home hardly existed as they knew it before the war.

Yes, I may be in debt to The Burmese Harp for saving me from the incoherent ramblings of a loud and proud party animal, but I also legitimately enjoyed it on almost every level. This is a great movie and could serve as an outstanding introduction into Japanese, Asian or world cinema. I am a big fan. I immediately bought the Criterion DVD. You should borrow it sometime...

The Burmese Harp: A

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