The most gentle of war dramas, The Burmese Harp (Biruma no tategoto) lyrically ventures into sentimental terrain, yet the film's earnestness rescues it from being another glib anti-war vehicle. Kon Ichikawa's 1956 black and white film would make an interesting companion piece to Letters from Iwo Jima; it may have even served as inspiration for Eastwood's 2006 film. Both significantly feature letters back home in the narrative, suicidal soldiers senselessly engulfed by their strict bushido code, and poignant portraits of Japanese soldiers who merely want to return home.
Told primarily through Japanese infantryman Mizushima (Shôji Yasui), the story is set in Burma (Buddha's country) near the end of WWII where a platoon of exhausted men are struggling to survive in the humid tropical region. Music major Captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni) frequently leads his men in song—amazing choral arrangements in three-part harmony while Mizushima accompanies them with a Burmese harp that he has taught himself to play. Whether taking a rest break or even suspecting an upcoming enemy ambush, the platoon frequently sings a melancholy and hopeful version of “Hanyu no yado” (“Home Sweet Home”). They are even joined by a British platoon one evening in an eerie and pointed sequence that firmly solidifies Ichikawa's anti-war sentiments. How can anyone even conceive of fighting after joining the “enemy” in choral worship?
It turns out that Japan has surrendered after the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so the Japanese platoon goes to an internment camp to await the time that they can return home. Another Japanese platoon remains holed up in a mountain, and Mizushima is dispatched to inform them of Japan's surrender. That group doesn't sing the same song, however. They are determined to die honorably in battle. When they are easily wiped out by the British, it is assumed that Mizushima has perished with them.
Fate has intervened of course. Mizushima is the sole survivor and is nursed back to health by a Buddhist monk, and he takes on a second life diametrically opposed to his sojourn as a soldier—a journey akin to that of Sidhartha. Seeing a vast number of corpses left rotting in remote ravine, the young harp player decides to dedicate himself to a spiritual mission—to “go native” and attend to the needs of the many souls of Japanese comrades who can never return home. Poignant and mystical connections with his former platoon buddies are made primarily through music, culminating in a heartfelt written message that the captain reads as the platoon returns home.
The Burmese Harp marks a significant breakthrough for Ichikawa, bringing him international recognition when unknown to him it was screened at the 1956 Venice Film Festival, where it won acclaim and gained a number of western distributors. Inspired initially to become another Walt Disney, Ichikawa began as an animator but soon switched to live action along the lines of mentors Yamanaka Sadao and Itami Mansaku. He polished his craft as a journeyman company director, but this was the first material that really fired up his passions.
When reading Takeyama Michio's anti-war children's book, Ichikawa knew that he wanted to adapt it to film—it was the first time he ever felt this way. Occasionally serving as a primer for Buddhism, the best selling novel was relatively vague about its setting. Michio had never set foot in Burma; he just used it to work his Burmese harp metaphor more conveniently into his anti-war theme. Collaborating with his wife/writer Natto Wada to shape the screenplay, the most critical change was to transform the narrative into an adult allegory. While some may see the film as overly sentimental, The Burmese Harp works its humanitarian magic profoundly—sewing unforgettable visual images that grow on the viewer like a lotus blossom. It's impossible to dismiss its deeply felt spiritual reality.