A tender almost-musical about the horrors of war and the obliteration of identity, Kon Ichikawa’s collaboration with his screenwriter wife Natto Wada portrays spiritual disquiet without ever actually leaving a comfort zone. It may be one of the most warmly enveloping films ever made to include scenes of decayed bodies being burned. Ichikawa’s film is a portrait of the aftermath of WWII from the eyes of a Japanese soldier stuck, along with his unit, in Burma. Traversing through Buddha’s country, they repeatedly sing a Japanese version of “Home, Sweet Home” to the accompaniment of the soldier’s harp, which he taught himself to play. Whether they suspect they are being ambushed by enemies, or whether they are receiving word that Japan has surrendered and they are to report to an internment camp until such time they can return home, they sing the song in near-perfect harmony. The Burmese Harp may be a one-song film, but it isn’t one note—its use of a simple piece of exaggerated Western corn is at once uplifting, mournful, mystic, and worldly. After the unit’s harpist, Pvt. Mizushima, disappears and is presumed dead following a failed mission to try and persuade an isolated hold-out unit (hell bent on going out guns a blazing) to surrender, his fellow soldiers begin hearing Mizushima’s harp materializing out of thin air. Ichikawa presents this seeming miracle from perspectives of both the soldiers and Mizushima, who it turns out did not die with the rest of the renegade unit. After being nursed to health by a Buddhist monk, Mizushima escapes to traverse the Burmese countryside wearing the monk’s robe (perhaps taking a cue from his captain’s comment that, in a pinch, he could easily pass for a Burma native). Before he can cross paths with his unit, though, he comes across a ravine littered with the ropey, decomposing soldiers’ corpses. Overwhelmed, he realizes his second chance at life is inherently intertwined with his mission to help the souls of those who were not as lucky come to a peaceful rest. Thus, the man who swiped a monk’s outfit gradually becomes a man of the cloth. So, interestingly, while the soldiers have every right to believe that the music could very well be coming from the spiritual realm, they insist on taking its transitory presence as proof that Mizushima is alive. Conversely, while Mizushima is aware of his own escape from death and recognizes his one-time camaraderie with the unit, he plays “Home, Sweet Home” and mournfully realizes that the old Mizushima may as well be dead. The Burmese Harp, just as the titular instrument suggests songs without filling them out, is a slight film that suggests the heavy human toll of war without actually presenting it.
Criterion continues to demonstrate their devotion to the windowboxed format. I trust everyone who actually cares about such things will have already made up their minds whether to purchase or merely Netflix this title based on that. Those who aren’t deterred by the practice of shrinking the image down to compensate for TV overscan may still want to consider this disc’s occasionally blotchy black-and-white picture. While nowhere near as distracting as the pulsations of Criterion’s Ozu titles, the vertical streaking and alternately faded and saturated patches are clearly visible on high-end sets. You can practically visualize the film as it runs thorough the projector. Contrast is otherwise strong, and the film looks pretty good considering it may have been one of the more heavily shopped-around Japanese films of its era. The presentation of the omnipresent musical interludes varies. If there are vocals present, the sound is over-modulated and shrill. If the harp is playing on its own, it sounds delicate and well balanced.
Tony Rayns provides a nice introductory essay, but all Criterion fitted this surprisingly spare disc with otherwise is a pair of interviews, one with Kon Ichikawa and the other with actor Rentaro Mikuni. Ichikawa begins his interview by admitting his love for Disney’s films, which says something about The Burmese Harp’s mickey-mousing approach to musical leitmotifs.
A fittingly not well-stocked DVD for a reserved portrait of WWII in miniature.