This year’s LA LA LAND made us all reflect on the genre of musical and its cinematic history. Various references to both American (SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, WEST SIDE STORY) and French (especially Jacques Demy’s) works in Chazelle’s flick created a cinephile’s homage to one of the most forgotten and archaic film genres. For a long time (actually, until I got to see LA LA LAND) I considered musicals as some flashy, bland and artificial works which had no real substance. Perhaps my view on them was spoiled by the likes of CAMP ROCK or HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, which were the biggest rave in my primary school years. Nevertheless, I could not tell any difference between musicals (obviously apart from their catchy scores). To produce an ingenious musical seemed to me an impossibility. Yet, I’ve changed my mind few days ago, when I saw Ichikawa Kon THE BURMESE HARP.
To think of a Japanese anti-war film from 1950s as of a musical may initially seem a bit risky. Yet even its title suggests that the sounds may play a crucial role within the film. The story revolves around a Japanese army regiment stationed in Burma. World War II has just finished and soldiers had to surrender to the British. Private Mizushima is sent on a mission to persuade another regiment to give up as well. Hence we can see the clash between rational practicality of the first regiment and Japanese traditionalism of the second one. Soldiers’ pride disallows them to be imprisoned, therefore not only Mizushima fails his mission and ultimately becomes the only survivor of the British attack, but he also becomes a monk in order to commemorate the senseless casualties taken in Burma.
The film at many points asks the question about the nature of defeat. How does one define loss? How does a soldier come to terms with it? As Keiko I. McDonald contends in her essay “Character type and psychological revelation in Ichikawa’s Biruma No Tategoto”, there are two ways Japanese could respond: “There is the way of dust: acceptance of the flux of time as a necessary condition of human existence. And there is the way of the mountain peaks: a repudiation of time as a thing extrinsic to human existence viewed in another light.”
Enough about the plot, which is quite simple yet often very harrowing. What I would like to focus on is the way in which Ichikawa Kon constructs an entire system of communication between soldiers on the basis of songs they perform. Mizushima plays a pivotal role in the entire process, as he is the one who plays the harp. In many scenes soldiers communicate with the protagonist throughout the songs they chant. I believe it adds a quirky sense of grotesque to see grown, imprisoned men scream their lungs out in order to relieve the grief. Nostalgic lyrics only emphasise the suffering and homesickness of them, thus drawing the audience into soldiers’ predicament. Yet, apart from the grim sadness, their performances also give away a sense of optimism. Their choral unity remains quite upbeat, perhaps signifying the unity Japan will need in order to recover from the wartime wounds.
The opening sequence brilliantly sets up music as a main mean of not only communication, but also meditation on the defeat: “Mizushima’s company learns of their defeat in unusually amicable circumstances. The song, ‘Home, Sweet Home’, which they sing, brings them together with the enemy British soldiers in a mutual acceptance of the futility of the war and an expectation of safe return to their respective homelands. Thus, the song reconciles them through the commonplace of hope.”
Perhaps, the most haunting sequence is the one in which soldiers teach a parrot they got from an old vendor to say: “Mizushima! Let’s return to Japan together!”. Later they convince the vendor to give the bird to the protagonist. This message-in-a-bottle kind of communication again relies on the sound message parrot conveys.
It is difficult to think of Ichikawa Kon as of an auteur. He never really developed a concise style or set of themes he dealt with over his prolific career (consisting of over 90 films!). Yet, I reckon it is safe to say that the THE BURMESE HARP is his magnum opus, work which boldly melds anti-war message with musical grandeur. It is one of those forgotten gems, which can get you off guard and surprise by the emotional load they convey.