Review By: David Austin
The Burmese Harp
AKA: Biruma no tategoto
Country and Year: Japan (1956)
Director: Kon Ichikawa
Starring: Shoji Yasui, Rentaro Mikuni, Jun Hamamura, Tanie Kitabayashi
Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (very good)
Fires on the Plain
Country and Year: Japan (1959)
Director: Kon Ichikawa
Starring: Eiji Funakoshi, Osamu Takizawa, Mickey Curtis
Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (very good)
The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plains make a fascinating matched pair. Both were lensed by mutable master Kon Ichikawa within the span of several years, and both were based on famous post-war novels (by Michio Takeyama and Shohei Ooka, respectively - both available in translation from Tuttle) and adapted by Ichikawa’s wife Natto Wada. Both follow the travails of Imperial Army soldiers in the closing days of World War II, as they ran desperately low on food and supplies. However, while Burmese Harp focuses on the possibility of hope and redemption growing out of the devastation of war, Fires is the exact flipside – a series of unrelenting horrors leavened only by the blackest of gallows humor. Despite the differences in tone and conclusions, the similarities ensure that the two will always be linked together in the collective film-going consciousness. Accordingly, when I first watched these years ago, I watched them one after the other, and now Criterion has released the two simultaneously.
Of the two, Burmese Harp is by far the most optimistic. More a fairytale than a work of realism (apparently, the source novel has even more children’s story elements than the movie), Burmese Harp tells its story in a simple and effective manner. The film follows a company of Japanese soldiers in Burma at the end of the war. Their leader, Captain Inoue (Rentaro Mikuni) has held them together through song, and the group peacefully surrenders to the Allies after Emperor Hirohito’s famous radio broadcast ends the war. When the British need a volunteer to talk a more recalcitrant group of soldiers into surrender, Inoue sends Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), a sensitive soul who plays the local version of the harp and, as his fellows constantly point out, can pass for a native. When he fails in his mission, and the men he came to save are slaughtered, Mizushima’s life changes forever. Mizushima becomes a monk, self-charged with the mission of caring for the countless Japanese dead strewn through out the land.
While Burmese Harp constantly teeters on the edge of mawkishness, Ichikawa’s consummate craftsmanship transcends the nature of the material. With its focus on music and its power to heal, Burmese Harp manages simultaneously to be a dirge and an elegy. Inoue and his men are clearly good people. Their time in a POW camp is not too unpleasant - they befriend a local woman (Tanie Kitabayashi) and pass the time waiting for repatriation by singing and searching for Mizushima. However, Mizushima’s sacrifice is eventually understood and appreciated. Mizushima, whose name interestingly translates into the pacific “water island,” has devoted himself to literally burying the past.
Everything that Inoue’s men are, the soldiers in Fires are not. While Fires is similarly set during the final days of battle (though on the Philippine islands, after MacArthur’s promised return crushed organized Japanese resistance), the soldiers in Fires are an aimless, greedy, starving, murderous mob. The protagonist, Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi), is cast out of his unit because of his tuberculosis, told to report to the hospital and to kill himself with a hand grenade if not accepted. Things have reached such a chaotic state that when the hospital is bombed, doctors abandon their charges, the wounded try to drag themselves to cover, but others actually rush into the buildings - their hope of finding food is greater than their terror of the enemy’s artillery.
In a series of set pieces, Tamura wanders through a blasted, hellish landscape, encountering the hopeless, the depraved, and the damned. Scrounged yams are the currency of the land, and cannibalism is an ever-present option. Tamura eventually falls in with the wounded Yasuda (Osamu Takizawa), and Nagamatsu (a cadaverous Mickey Curtis), who live off of “monkey meat” that Nagamatsu hunts with the pair’s remaining rifle. Even Tamura proves himself a killer when necessary.
The most extraordinary aspect of the two films is Ichikawa’s use of landscape. Considering that both films were largely shot in Japan, Ichikawa does an incredible job of evoking the tropical environments of Burma and the Philippines. However, the scenery is used to different ends in each. In Burmese Harp, the Burma presented is intensely beautiful. Ichikawa treats the viewers to a succession of lingering shots of mountains, beaches, forests, and plains. The vistas are composed to inspire contemplation, and frequently are filmed with no dialogue and very little human activity. In Fires, on the other hand, the terrain of the Philippines is blasted and desolate, unwelcoming. Even forests and jungles are invested with menace. Moreover, there is rarely a lengthy shot without a dirty, sweaty soldier. Ichikawa constantly places Tamura at extreme ends of the ‘scope compositions.
The power of the imagery is increased by the use of editing. In Burmese Harp, a sequence in which Inoue’s company must retrieve their ammunition under the gunsights of the British is superbly cut – the soldiers dance and sing desperately, aware that any moment could bring a bloodbath. In Fires, Ichikawa quotes the famous forest sequence of Rashomon as Tamura enters the woods, and an increasingly morally grey world.
While watching Fires a second time, oddly, the movie that most came to mind stylistically is George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Both have an apocalyptic atmosphere, and both depict degeneration into cannibalism, but the similarities run deeper. Tamura has the thousand-yard stare of the living dead and his bow is more of an arrested collapse – he moves and acts like a zombie. So to do the hordes of dispirited soldiers shambling through the landscape. They overrun the roads and the hills, and when they drop, they collapse with the same boneless crumble as one of Romero’s flesh-eaters shot through the head.
While both films make powerful anti-war statements (an intention repeatedly confirmed by Ichikawa), they are also notable in their omission of any discussion of the rights and wrongs of the war. Unfortunately, by ignoring the broader questions of this specific war, and Japan’s role in it, Ichikawa intentionally or unintentionally falls into the larger cult of Japanese victimhood. By presenting “war” as the greater evil (a position difficult to quibble with), Ichikawa avoids taking any position on the culpability of Japan and the soldiers in his story, much like Joseph Vilsmaier in his “Stalingrad.” Similarly, by placing his stories at the end of the war, he dodges the thorny issue of the actions of Japan’s soldiers when they were in power. For example, he echoes in Tamura’s aimless trek the brutal Bataan Death March perpetrated on Allied POWs. While Fires does hint at the atrocities committed – a Filipina partisan guns down a surrendering Imperial soldier and civilians look on Imperial soldiers with fear and hatred, Seijun Suzuki’s Story of a Prostitute looked more honestly on the actions of the Imperial Army.
Recommended? Despite the unwillingness to grapple with political issues, and a clumsy bit of exposition at the beginning of Fires, these are superbly-crafted classics. Each, in its own unique way, makes a powerful argument about the horrors of war.
If you like this, you might like: Story of a Prostitute, Grave of the Fireflies, Ballad of a Soldier, Europa Europa, The Thin Red Line, Letters from Iwo Jima, Bridge over the River Kwai
DVD Production Company: Criterion Collection ( www.criterionco.com)
Criterion presents both films in their original aspect ratios, Burmese Harp in 1.33:1 and Fires in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen, with gloriously restored black-and-white photography. While neither is a special edition, Criterion has provided ample extras.
Burmese Harp includes a booklet with still photos and an essay by Tony Rayns. It also includes contemporary interviews about the film with director Kon Ichikawa and actor Rentaro Mikuni. Fires similarly includes a booklet with a lengthy essay by Chuck Stephens, and interviews with scholar Donald Richie, Ichikawa and actor Mickey Curtis.
The interviews and essays are packed with interesting tidbits. Mickey Curtis, a rock-and-roller, was chosen because he was naturally thin, and didn’t have far to go to evoke starvation. Eiji Funakoshi, on the other hand, starved himself for two weeks out of devotion to the role, became too weak to perform, and delayed production by two months. Ichikawa also discusses the changes he and his wife made to the source material.
© David Austin
Filed under: Movie Reviews and Movie Reviews: Japan and DVD Reviews and DVD Reviews: Japan and Contributors: David and Rating: Good ★★★ and DVD Companies: Criterion Collection