Biruma no tategoto (Burmese Harp) (1956)
Director: Kon Ichikawa.
Starring: Rentaro Mikuni (Captain Inouye), Shôji Yasui (Mizushima), Jun Hamamura (Ito), Taketoshi Naitô (Kobayashi), Kô Nishimura (Baba), Hiroshi Tsuchikata, Sanpei Mine, Yoshiaki Kato, Sojiro Amano, Yôji Nagahama, Eiji Nakamura, Shojiro Ogasawara, Tomoko Tonai, Tatsuya Mihashi (Defense Commander), Yfnosuke Itô (Village head).
Brits have to attack Japanese forces in Burma as late as July, 1945
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
The war has long since ended. But here is a story worth the telling. July 1945. The war has turned against the Japanese in Burma. A Japanese unit works its way to the border with Thailand in order to cross to greater safety. The soldiers stop for a rest and Mizushima is asked to play his harp that he made himself after a Burmese design. Captain Inouye was educated in music and he leads his men in choral singing. Mizushima said he will be the look-out again. If it is too dangerous to proceed he will play one tune on the harp and if is o.k. to proceed he will play another. He dresses in the Burmese longyi (a long skirt) and proceeds ahead of his unit. As he proceeds he is robbed by three Burmese thugs. They take his longyi and give him a banana leaf waist cloth.
The biggest problem the unit faces is getting enough food. They head into a Burmese village and receive some food. All of a sudden all the villagers disappear into their homes. British and Burmese troops are coming. To throw off the enemy, the Japanese unit starts to sing. They like a tune that sounds a like "Home Sweet Home". The enemy troops respond with singing. It appears that three days earlier the war ended. The Japanese give up their weapons. They weep over the news that much their country is now in ruins.
The Japanese are taken to Mudon prison camp. Mizushima is asked to walk to a Japanese holdout unit on Triangle Mountain, to tell them that the war has ended and convince them to stop fighting. He reports to the British commander there who gives him only thirty minutes to persuade the Japanese to surrender. After that the artillery shelling will begin again. Mizushima does not receive a warm welcome. The men are almost fanatical in their commitment to fight to the death rather than surrender. In fact, Mizushima is in a precarious position as some of the men accuse him of treason. The firing begins again. Mizushima is hit by some shrapnel and falls uunconscious. When he awakens, all the Japanese troops are dead. He starts to leave the cave but does not get far as he falls unconscious again.
Mizushima's home unit wants to find out about the missing harp-playing envoy. It's already been over ten days since he left. The unit starts their choral practice and it keeps busy by building of a bridge over a stream. They think that a Buddhist monk in the area looks a lot like Mizushima. They ask a fruit vender, a friendly old woman, if she would ask headquarters if they have any record of Mizushima. After forgetting a few times, she finally remembers. She tells the men that there was a man from another unit with the Japanese holdouts, but they believe he was killed. The Japanese captain notes that this was the end of their hopes for Mizushima.
A Buddhist monk finds Mizushima and heals him. While the monk bathes in a stream, Mizushima steals his clothes. He puts on the monk clothes, cuts all his hair off and starts his journey back to Mudon. Because he is in monk clothes, Burmese people help him out with food and transportation. But as Mizushima travels he finds many Japanese corpses lying unburied in ravines, the jungle and along the river. While standing on the riverbank, a boat comes over to pick him up and take him to Mudon.
In Mudon Mizushima hears a young boy play the Burmese harp. Mizushima asks him if he can play the instrument. The boy grants his request and Mizushima plays so well that the boy asks Mizushima if he can teach him how to play the way he does. Mizushima says he will teach the boy.
Mizushima sees the nurses and other hospital staff sing at the grave of an unknown Japanese soldier. He crosses over the bridge where his unit works and the men think they recognize him. But they aren't quite sure. Mizushima knows now that he cannot go back to Japan with them. He wants to stay in Burma to bury the Japanese dead. While digging a grave, Mizushima finds what is called a Burmese ruby. Captain Inouye trains a parrot to say: "Mizushima, return to Japan with us." Now his problem is to get the parrot to Mizushima.
At a statue of Buddha the Japanese unit sings. Mizushima, inside the statue, hears them and plays the harp. The men go wild trying to find Mizushima and he is a bit frightened that they just might. But the men don't know how to get into the Buddha and Mizushima is safe. After his unit has left, Mizushima buries the Burmese ruby inside the Buddha.
News arrives that the Japanese units are going home. There are only three days left. The men wonder how they can get the parrot on Mizushima's shoulder. They finally decide to give it to the "Japanese granny", the older woman vendor of goods. They ask her and she agrees to try. Later Mizushima shows up at the fence around the Japanese encampments. His unit sees him standing there with two parrots. The men sing and Mizushima plays along with the harp. He then turns around and leaves despite the calls to him from the men of his old unit.
Mizushima sends a parrot to his unit who says: "No, I can't go back." This was not the same parrot, but rather a different parrot with a different message.
The men sail on a large ship for home. Captain Inouye opens a letter from Mizushima to the unit. Mizushima wrote that he misses his comrades, but he has to stay to bury the many Japanese dead in Burma. He adds that he has been accepted into the priesthood. He mentions at the end that when his project is done, he may go back to Japan.
Pretty good movie. On the DVD the director mentioned that the novel on which the screenplay was based was meant to be a fairy tale for adults, but that he changed it to be a meaningful story for adults. I think he should have kept it as a fairy tale. The Japanese with their cruel and sadistic warrior code were brutal to those who stood in their way of conquering of Asia. They were guilty of many war crimes including rape, beatings, and the killing of prisoners of war. The Japanese soldiers killed thousands of Asians and worked thousands of others as virtual slaves. There is no way in hell that the Japanese soldiers could have been as well received by the Burmese as presented in the movie. In fact, I think the movie is a deliberate fairy tale full of misleading statements and lies. The movie does not confront the fact of Japanese cruelty, but has the soldiers singing choral music and establishing a good relationship with the Burmese woman vendor who became known as the "Japanese granny". If the movie were clearly defined as a fairy tale, it would have been a lot easier to accept. And the movie really is a fairy tale, the director just couldn't or wouldn't realize it. But 1957 was too close to World War II for the Japanese to take a close look at just how and why they were such evil-doers. If you are going to watch a Japanese movie on the behavior of their soldiers, see some of the later ones by directors who are honest enough to look reality in the face.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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