Director Kon Ichikawa plucks the fruits of Eastern spirituality throughout a film that at once condemns the horrors of war and celebrates the spontaneity of life.
The Burmese Harp resonates with optimism. It is a song that champions the individual and honors the collective in a style uniquely East Asian in philosophy. Or made available to those who have experienced the trials of war themselves. Ichikawa was no stranger to life under severe scrutiny having worked throughout the postwar U.S. Occupation Force, navigating the tedium of censorship. In fact, Ichikawa’s sensibilities echo postwar narratives of compassion. They highlight the dangers of intransigence. They waste no time in mourning – for life under occupation was unlike anything the Nation had hitherto experienced. This was the age of Japan’s democratization. After the near-decade of U.S. Occupation. The military all but dismantled. The technology boom in its infancy. The Emperor had denounced his role as godhead. Up was down, down up. But there was a radiance that shimmered encouragingly as Japan rebuilt. The Burmese Harp is an embodiment of everything all at once. A hyperlink between 1940 and 1954. A decade of feelings. Of politics. Of conflict. Of resolution.
These values can be seen in other humanists at the time – a movement to which Ichikawa undoubtedly belonged. According to Isolde Standish, artists offer a “counter-aesthetic” to the stark realism employed by such directors as Ozu. “They proffer the possibility of change based on an individual’s choices and therefore they offer hope.” (pg. 237 2005)
Ichikawa’s brand of humanism observed the world through an eye of Iki 粋/いき (refinement), carried an air of Yugen. The slow-burn of The Burmese Harp is a one-two-punch of the Jo-ha-kyū (序破急) whereupon a case is opened, constructed, and executed in condemnation of war. A raw critique of colonial aspirations. Indeed, the Japanese Colonial Empire is at its most fragile in this film as we follow a Japanese platoon through the trials of life as POWs. The armed conflict has come to an end but the real struggle for identity begins as units of soldiers are once again individualized and separated into their component parts. Each and everyone a self of their own accord. We follow Mizushima’s pilgrimage throughout the film as his life works in tandem with the then-contemporary institutionalized “dotoku kyoiku” movement – seeking to re-educate and reform Japanese youth identity in relation to nationhood. To reconfigure moral obligation. A delicate task. Mizushima’s loss as a soldier and rise as free-agent strikes a resemblance to those Japanese nations who experienced the war from the mainland, who committed themselves to the cause without question and were left to pick up the pieces when all was said and done — in this case, all was lost.
The Burmese Campaign as depicted in the film is a theatre of senseless violence pitting humanity against the state. And yet within every sector of the state, there stands an individual. And once isolated from the group, they are likely to proceed with kindness. Captain Inoue’s unfailing commitment to Mizushima, the British soldier’s respect for their captives. Collectively Soldiers become martyred in blind faith or captured in defeat. Whereas the individual moves throughout the world. Uneasily, sure, but with a sense of self and service. This miracle work of an individual’s volition – to dance a line between one’s needs and sacrifice for others — is the key ingredient to a truly prosperous nation.
Standish, I. (2005). Cinema and Transgression. In A new history of Japanese cinema: A century of narrative film (pp. 220-269). New York: Continuum.