Missionary of Burma
The first movies to tackle a war are often about recognition and healing. They are usually one-sided and presented with a mixture of watered-down realism and overt narrative manipulations. The narrative is comforting; the war was brutal. Rather than acknowledging what the other side experienced or the damage that was inflicted on others (usually dealt with fleetingly), the emphasis is on the teller’s suffering and rehabilitation. The soldiers struggle to parse their responsibilities to their family, unit, county, and themselves.
There is potential for gross distortion in sentimentality and genre clichés, but recognition is a crucial first step in recovery and melodrama can be seen as a part of a process of shedding the political and personal propaganda that a society uses to justify war. (At their worst they merely reinforce this propaganda.) The power of these films tends to diminish over time, overshadowed by the more brutal examinations ventured by others.
This is a generalization, not a rule, and The Burmese Harp reveals how powerful a partially digested depiction of a war experience can be. The story was first written in 1946 as a serial in a Japanese magazine, Aka tombo, aimed at teenagers. According to director Kon Ichikawa, in an interview featured on Criterion’s release, the book was conceived as “a fairy tale for adults,” which the director “changed into a realistic drama.”
But the core elements in the movie version remained the same, about harp player and scout Mizushima (Shôji Yasui) who is separated from his chorale-singing unit at the end of World War II when he is presumed dead and they are taken to a POW camp. In attempting to track down his unit, Mizushima embarks on a Buddhist quest, becoming a monk who decides to “stay behind to create a place where those thousands of young souls [unburied Japanese soldiers] can find repose.”
There is still a whiff of fantasy in the movie. A troop of happy-go-lucky soldiers singing “Home Sweet Home” sounding like a cross between Sacred Harp singers and the “Climb Every Mountain” choir must have been something of an anomaly. We hardly see how the war affected the Burmese people. The unit is given a remarkable amount of leeway to roam around the environs of the POW camp where they are held. Besides suffering from severe homesickness, the soldiers exhibit fine physical and mental health. In his interview, Ichikawa says that he was partially influenced by popular directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Frank Capra and the worst portions wallow in the broad Hollywood polish of war films like Stalag 17.
But Ichikawa also successfully uses the fantasy tone to convey a post-traumatic remove and otherness that captures the longing and overpowering melancholy the soldiers feel at the end of the war. The most prominent working of this theme is conveyed through the tricky use of music. The soldiers’ singing often sounds like the mournful moaning of animals in the night. Music is their way of connecting to one another. The first scene shows the troop singing a song called “Solitary Traveler”, which foreshadows Mizushima’s journey, but also emphasizes the individual loneliness of each soldier. Later, the unit attempt to signal to Mizushima by standing in front of the camp fence and singing until they are hoarse.
The desperation with which the unit wants to establish contact with Mizushima is one of the most moving portions of the story. Part of their desire is presented as Japanese code of honor. “If we die here in Burma, we’ll die together” – and vice versa, one solider yells. Also, their longing for Mizushima mirrors their longing to regain what has been lost, primarily a home. But it also seems that the soldiers feel that they will only be whole when their unit is. There is an uneasy divide between group and individual. Mizushima is frequently framed as separate from the unit.
When the unit’s captain, Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni), understands why Mizushima will never return, he too is framed outside the group in self-aware solitude. (“I originally wanted to become a painter,” Ichikawa says and it shows in his precise, if rigid, compositions.) The irresolvable gulf of communication is most heartbreakingly epitomized by the unit’s release of a parrot that they have trained to say, “Hey Mizushima, let’s return to Japan together.” The monk sends one back that says, “No, I can’t go back.”
A complete explanation for Mizushima’s leaving comes in the form of a letter that Captain Inouye reads to the troops on the ship taking them home to Japan. While the unit struggles with longing, Mizushima suffers from guilt and shame. (He is injured and separated from the unit after being hired to “talk down” Japanese resistance fighters still holed up in a cave. They refuse to give in shouting, “surrendering is an insult to those who die,” and are killed.) As a monk he sacrifices companionship for spiritual awareness and the chance “to face suffering, senselessness and irrationality without fear, to find the strength to create peace by one’s own example.”
However, Mizushima doesn’t trade group anonymity for individuality. As Tony Rayns notices in his essay included with the disc, “In his way, Mizushima is as ‘unknown’—and unknowable—as the dead soldiers he cremates and buries.” Rather he realizes a negligible role in a nebulous spiritual whole. Early on a monk spits at him, “Can’t you see that whatever you do is futile? Burma is still Burma. Burma is the Buddha’s country.”
Ichikawa keeps the story’s resolutions from being trite by garnishing scenes with vagaries that question the characters’ realizations. When a soldier first sees Mizushima he whispers, “I’ve never seen him look so vacant.” The narrator, on a boat returning home, wonders how the monk’s family will react to his absence. A snatch of dialogue stands out on the boat, “You all really think it will be so easy?”
Watching this movie today, we know that the Japanese conquests of Southeast Asia were much more harsh than depicted in the film. But its makers seemed to know that, as well. In another interview included on the disk, actor Mikuni describes his actual experiences serving in the war, such as being ordered to stab animals and prisoners for bayonet practice. Though grisly details such as this aren’t included in The Burmese Harp, its awareness lies behind much of the action to give it a gravity and power that offers hope without denying the potentially hopeless psychological brutality of war.