Ichikawa Kon’s The Burmese Harp is one of the films that promoted Japanese Cinema to the world in the 1950s. I’ve been waiting to see it for almost 40 years and it’s not available in the UK (although I discovered that it had been shown on BBC4 in 2002 – presumably when I was on holiday). It’s been available on a Criterion Region 1 DVD since 2007.
Taken from a novel written only a year or so after the events it covers, the film offers a beautifully photographed and sensitively played narrative about the moment of defeat and humiliation for the soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army in 1945. The novel by Takeyama Michio was intended as ‘young adult fiction’ and first serialised in a literary magazine. This might explain the fairy tale/folk tale style of the narrative.
Plot outline (possible spoilers!)
A company of Japanese soldiers are first seen crossing Northern Burma in an attempt to reach Siam (now Thailand), a Japanese ally (but actually occupied by the Japanese). This unusual company is led by a captain who is a draftee from a music school and who has taught the men to sing as a formal choir. One soldier, the company scout Mizushima, has learned to play a Burmese instrument, a saung or traditional harp which he carries on his back. The singing helps to keep up morale.
When the company reach a Burmese village, they seek shelter but are surprised by the approach of an Indian Army company. The Japanese sing to cover their preparations for the expected attack, but they are surprised when the Indians and British respond with the same song ‘Home Sweet Home’. Conflict is averted when the British inform the Japanese that the war has ended. The Japanese company are taken to a holding camp but the Captain persuades the harpist to undertake a mission (approved by the Brits) to try to get a Japanese company holed up in mountain caves to surrender. When they refuse, they are all killed in a final British assault and the harpist goes missing. He survives and is nursed back to health by a monk. Taking the monk’s robes he later decides to look for his comrades. His search and his comrades actions in trying to find him (they seem to have a fair amount of freedom in the camp) take up the rest of the narrative.
Here’s the trailer for The Burmese Harp:
The film is generally discussed in terms of Ichikawa Kon – as his first film to be seen in the West – and as a possible anti-war film in the context of 1950s humanist cinema (the dominant mode of international art cinema at the time). I’m not going to rehearse all of these arguments as there are some excellent reviews out there already, not least the two Criterion essays by Japanese Cinema experts Tony Rayns and Audie Bock. Of the two the Rayns is far more useful, I think – though that may be because it is more recent and attuned to the possibilities of internet publishing.
I want to develop some points that aren’t covered so much in these essays. Despite Rayns’ essay, there are relatively few British commentaries on the film and this intrigues me as the war in Burma and the experience of the Japanese occupation of Burma and Siam was more of a British than an American affair. The Errol Flynn film Objective Burma! in 1945 caused more offence to British audiences than most Hollywood films. It appeared at a time in 1945 when the ‘forgotten 14th Army’ in Burma were still fighting (or had just got leave in India). There is a long discussion on IMDB bulletin boards. I can’t remember if I’ve seen the film, but I’ve certainly been ‘warned off’ it. As far as I can see it is a quite legitimate film about an American Special Forces Group (cf. Merrill’s Marauders (1962)).
My point here is not to criticise Hollywood but to explore the hurt felt by British commentators and audiences in 1945. The history of the Second World War in this South/South East Asian sector is perhaps the least known of all the major campaigns and the British in particular were humiliated by the early losses to the Japanese. 130,000 British, Australian and India troops surrendered to the Japanese in the three weeks of fighting in which British forces suffered their biggest ever military defeat – losing Singapore and Malaya and then most of Burma with the Japanese advance finally halted in North-East India.
The experience of British POWs was terrible and is represented in several films, most famously perhaps in The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957) but more interestingly perhaps in A Town Like Alice (UK 1956) and the TV series Tenko (1981) – both of which deal with European women held in Japanese prison camps. The notorious film of the period was Hammer’s The Camp on Blood Island (1958) and the ‘revised’ view came in the intriguing UK/Japanese production of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983) directed by Oshima Nagisa and starring David Bowie. In all of these films (and implicitly in a number of other action films and melodramas with a similar setting) there is a potential clash between British and Japanese culture. It manifests itself in several ways – the different military traditions, attitudes to colonialism, the position of women in society, attitudes towards religious beliefs.
When I was a child in Blackpool in the 1950s, I was particularly conscious of all of this as many young men from the town had been captured in Malaya/Singapore as part of the 137th Field Regiment and the stories about the Japanese prison camps were well-known. What did Ichikawa Kon know in 1956, I wonder? As Tony Rayns points out, the author of the original novel, like most Japanese in 1946, would not have been aware of what went on in the camps in Burma/Siam/Malaya. And it’s fair to guess that even by 1956, unless they were particularly interested in Western literature, most Japanese might not have realised the extent to which the Imperial Army misbehaved (the films over the next couple of years presumably created some sort of reaction in Japan). But surely by 1985 when Ichikawa re-made The Burmese Harp in colour, he would have realised how strange the film felt (he was using the same script-adaptation of the novel by his wife Wadda Natto)? The film was clearly shot partly on location in Burma (which in 1956 was a free nation and no longer part of the British Commonwealth – and not under the control of the military as today). Whether it was a second unit or Ichikawa himself, the shooting of temple scenes can be seen on the trailer. If he was in the country, Ichikawa must have learned more of what went on – I’d be surprised if the Burmese didn’t say something.
What we see is a Japanese company of soldiers presented like any other group of ordinary men pressed into military service. The only ‘fanatical’ soldiers are the Japanese that Mizushima attempts to persuade to surrender. The British, Indians and Australians seem remarkably composed, tolerant and almost bemused by the behaviour of the singing soldiers. The re-patriation of Japanese soldiers from the holding camp is orderly (and seemingly swift). In reality, many soldiers took months to get home and the British authorities had many other issues to deal with that were perhaps more pressing.
So, the narrative of this film feels almost like a fantasy. This doesn’t mean it has no relevance to what was happening in 1956 when it was released. But it might explain why some readings focus more on the spiritual undertones and the discourse of comparative religion. Burmese Buddhism is clearly different from the Buddhism in Japan, so that Mizushima’s adoption of a Burmese Buddhist perspective on the war and its aftermath is different from those of his comrades. At the same time, one of the most moving scenes in the film comes when Mizushima observes a Christian burial attended by a group of British nurses, seemingly for an unknown soldier. On his travels through Burma, Mizushima discovers the rotting corpses of Japanese soldiers in many places – in the mountains, by the river, in the forests. The local Burmese seem impassive, but do help bury the dead when Mizushima leads by example. We don’t see any British/Indian dead.
I’m trying to think about the Japanese films that are set abroad and specifically those that deal with the colonial/imperial relationship. I’m stuck really. I can remember a Naruse melodrama with scenes set in Indo-China where the protagonist is working for the Japanese Forestry service and there are some films which show the Occupation of China, but in neither case do I remember anything about the interaction between the Japanese and colonised peoples – e.g. in Korea, Manchuria, Formosa and then in Siam and the conquered territories in 1942-5. In this sense, The Burmese Harp stands out. Come to think of it, I haven’t really seen any Japanese films about being Japanese outside Japan in a peacetime situation. Anyone any ideas about films I should explore?
Tony Rayns points out that The Burmese Harp was released in two parts in 1956 with each part forming part of a double bill. The film was then cut down from 148 mins across the two parts to a single 120 minute film (which explains why it carries the Nikkatsu 1957 credit) for export. It would be interesting to know a) what was in the missing 25 minutes and b) what the films were paired with on release. I will look out for Ichikawa’s Fires On the Plains (about the war in Manchuria, I think). He is one of the most interesting Japanese directors of the post-war period and went on making films until 2006 – he died in 2008 aged 93.