The Burmese Harp Review

The Masters of Cinema disc of Kon Ichikawa’s renowned film is reviewed by clydefro

As Japanese soldiers in Burma learn that their country has surrendered, they acquiesce to the British by entering a prison camp. One group of men occupying a mountainous area refuse to accept defeat, leading the harp-playing Mizushima to try and get them to surrender on his own. Unsuccessful, the young man then disappears after the British open fire on the unyielding soldiers. Those in his regiment wonder what has happened to Mizushima when he doesn’t return. Upon seeing a monk who bears a striking resemblance to the missing private, the men try to greet him but receive no response. Further attempts are made to determine what has happened to Mizushima, and whether the monk they saw was really him. A parallel strand of the narrative addresses the man’s fate and the reasoning behind his actions.

Central to The Burmese Harp is the film’s insistence that war and all of its cruelties can be accompanied by a spiritual reaction where men focus not on the conflict itself but on the proper path to follow in its wake. This approach doesn’t try to change what causes war. It instead addresses the realities following military action and tries to accept the violence as a given that cannot be avoided. Indeed, Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp, despite so often being labeled an antiwar movie, is actually a reaction to war rather than a protest against it. It offers guidance in the midst of a reality. Unlike Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain, this earlier picture is meditative, not angry.

Your preference, and there’s no requirement to have one, might lean in the direction of what kind of response you personally have to issues like war. The Burmese Harp opts for humanism and sentimentality and wears its heart on its oh-so poignant sleeve. Fires on the Plain is a resolutely darker, funnier film that spits in the face of war. The person who said “there’s no such thing as an antiwar film” (and it’s often attributed to Truffaut) was, in addition to being wrong, probably not acquainted with Ichikawa.

The director’s body of work is, as Tony Rayns laments in an interview on this disc, largely unseen. And of what does make the rounds at repertory cinemas and the like, just a handful of titles has made it to English language home viewers. (I believe there have been five of his films put on DVD in R1, one of which is now out of print, and three or four in the UK, including an overlap; this edition of The Burmese Harp is Ichikawa’s Blu-ray debut.) Key works like Odd Obsession, Conflagration and The Makioka Sisters are nowhere (officially) to be found with English subtitles. What emerges from watching his films is, perhaps foremost, an appreciation for his versatility. This is especially evident in the two war/antiwar pictures mentioned here because they appear to be so different in almost every way. I’ve already pointed out the variations of tone but the surface differences go much deeper still. The Burmese Harp is in Academy ratio while Fires on the Plain is Scope. One stretches a somewhat thin story out slowly across nearly two hours and the other bursts forth with a haunting, sustained tension in a shorter, by a quarter of an hour, span of time.

If nothing else, The Burmese Harp seems more easily palatable, maybe because its criticisms of war are milder. There’s also the soul-soothing message of the film. Ichikawa crafts it like a mystery at times before finally deciding on what appear to be deeper notions about dealing with loss. There’s an effort to overcome defeat with compassion here. Ichikawa and his wife and screenwriter Natto Wada were very skilled at exploring the psychology of their characters on film. The exploration may not have been exhaustive or deep beneath the surface but it often seems to at least inform their characterizations. This, for me, is part of what made the director such a notable humanist. His work is populated with people struggling to overcome their issues against a vast world of indifference or adversity. To oversimplify, the lead characters in Ichikawa films frequently tend to be headcases but he treats them with an objective detachment that masks his concern (which is nonetheless there). Mizushima, in The Burmese Harp, fits this mold perfectly, as he develops an impractical and maybe even romanticized plan to do something no one else would bother to do. He rejects the pleas from his fellow soldiers to return to Japan with them not out of choice but from a compulsion to put others at peace.

The Disc

The Burmese Harp joins the previously released Kon Ichikawa films Kokoro and Alone Across the Pacific in the Masters of Cinema Series stable. Initially it seemed that all three (which were made by Ichikawa for the Nikkatsu studio) would hit DVD but The Burmese Harp was delayed enough that it became a Blu-ray exclusive release. The UK BD is locked to players capable of playing Region B discs. In R1, the Criterion Collection released simultaneous DVD editions of both The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain a few years ago.

The MoC version, in 1080p HD on a dual-layered disc, was not sourced from the same place as the Criterion transfer. The differences are significant even aside from simple superiority of the Blu-ray’s higher resolution. The contrast is much more pronounced on the Criterion and it looks overall harsher and digitally manipulated. While the MoC seems to display vertical scratches more obviously, it’s likely the result of a dedication to try to show the film in as natural a state as possible while still taking advantage of some minor digital clean-up work. In comparing the two images, it’s easy to see that the MoC retains a significantly greyer look that works to soften the picture. That’s not an indication of decreased detail, however, as just the opposite occurs where the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray carries an obvious improvement in depth. Stability, though not perfect, also favors this Blu-ray. Both transfers are correctly in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio (though Criterion’s DVD is windowboxed).

Another difference worth noting is the presence of vertical subtitles in Japanese when Burmese is spoken in the film. These non-removable translations exist only in MoC’s version. They are not distracting and I actually prefer seeing them since they presumably existed in the original Japanese release of the picture. Incidentally, that theatrical release happened in two parts, with around twenty minutes of footage that was later cut out and, as far as anyone can tell, no longer exists. Ichikawa’s own remake from 1985 runs closer to the original reported length of his earlier film than the familiar, shorter cut.

The Japanese (with occasional Burmese and English) DTS-HD Master Audio is spread across the front two channels. The track is a good representation of the eclectic mix of sounds in the audio. The soldiers’ singing and the playing of the harp come through quite nicely here. Dialogue is likewise clear and consistent. The film at times has a dramatic swelling score, one that I find dosed a little too strongly, and it also sounds fine. There are obvious and inherent limitations to how full and rich the audio experience can be but reasonable expectations should be met and probably exceeded. English subtitles are optional and white in color. I didn’t detect any typographical errors.

The disc itself has a couple of modest supplements. An interview with Tony Rayns (18:12) actually provides more of an introduction rather than an analysis of the film. He shares interesting background details and gives a concise history as to where Ichikawa was at this point in his career. It’s a first-rate piece that can be appreciated before or after a viewing of the film pretty much equally. Also included is the lengthy original Japanese trailer (3:41).

A booklet, promised to be 40 pages, should be inside the case. I wasn’t provided with a copy of this insert but the essay by Keiko I. McDonald that is the main attraction can be read from the MoC website page for The Burmese Harp.

clydefro jones

Updated: Oct 18, 2010

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