Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 116 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono Japanese/English
Review Date: March 1, 2007
The cruelty, inhumanity, and wastefulness of war has been portrayed in many films but perhaps never as poetically or with as stirring a combination of imagery and music as in Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp. It’s one of the true glories of Japanese cinema made during a decade when many other Japanese masters were also turning out impressive features by the handfuls.
Three days after the surrender of Japan that concluded World War II, Private Mizashima (Sojhi Yasui) is sent by his captain (Rentaro Mikuni) to inform a Japanese regiment in the hills of Burma that the war is over and they should surrender to a British regiment which has them in a hopeless position. Separated from his unit and thought dead by them after the refusal of their countrymen to surrender, the private is found by a monk and nursed back to health while his unit is sent to a prison camp to await transferal to Japan.
On his way back to his unit (a two hundred mile trek) and disguised as a monk so he can traverse the terrain without arousing suspicion, Mizashima is transformed by the sight of hundreds of his dead countrymen left as food for the vultures. He undergoes something of a conversion in which he renounces his life as a soldier and wishes only to spend his remaining years burying his dead and meditating on the futility of war. But his unit wishes him desperately to return, his beautiful playing of a Burmese harp symbolizing all that is good and pure within him and something they urgently need to keep up their own morale.
The images that director Ichikawa fills his film with are breathtaking, sometimes revolting but always evocative. He uses a mixture of close-ups and long shots with the skill of a painter, and his studies of faces etched by war’s costs to everyone will linger in the mind long after the film has concluded. There are amazing vistas photographed with a telephoto lens, images of a single figure trudging across seemingly endless flatlands, piles of bodies that bring to mind some of the films of death camps shown at Nuremberg, dozens of white crosses in a churchyard, and all of these moments complemented by both a stirring musical score and several outbursts of choral music (perhaps just a shade too professional, very much like the too perfect choral singing of the miners in the 1945 The Corn Is Green) that are genuinely moving. And after all of that, we get the final letter read by the captain to the men which, if one can sit through this scene without shedding a tear, then he’s a better man than I.
The black and white 1.33:1 image is presented in its original aspect ratio and slightly windowboxed as is the custom with most Criterion full frame discs. For ninety per cent of the movie, you couldn’t ask for a clearer or more accurate rendition of the stunning photography. But there are occasional flaws: a scratch or two that break up the pristine image about forty minutes into the movie, some definite debris that seems to have been missed as certain scenes fade out. In the main, however, the shadow detail, black level, and contrast couldn’t be better. The white subtitles are very easy to read. There are 23 chapters in this presentation.
The DVD presents a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track in mostly Japanese but in occasional English as the British speak among themselves once the Japanese are captured. The track is overly loud, so much so that I had to lower the volume level on my receiver considerably to prevent distortion. Apart from the audio levels, though, the track is free of hiss or any other age related defects, all the better to enjoy the lyrical harp playing and the magnificent choral accompaniment that runs throughout the picture.
There are two interviews on the DVD. The first is a 2005 anamorphic widescreen interview with the director in which he reveals many of the decisions he made while preparing and shooting this masterpiece including casting, the use of black and white rather than color, his views on war and pacifism, and location shooting.
A 2006 interview with actor Rentaro Mikuni in anamorphic widescreen is a tad less interesting but certainly worthwhile. As he was top billed but had a role that was decidedly less important than Shoji Yasui, I’d have liked to hear a bit more about their working relationship. He does offer some tidbits on shooting the climactic letter reading out of sequence, a real surprise since the editing and continuity of that scene are remarkably on point.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs about three and a half minutes and is included even though it’s in much rougher shape than the feature. (Clips from the film used in the interviews are also in rougher shape than the film as we see it on the DVD.)
The enclosed booklet contains an outstanding essay “Unknown Soldiers” by Tony Rayns about the film, and, as usual with Criterion, some most welcome stills from the film.
Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp is one of the most poetic films ever made about the folly of war. As such, this DVD is an easy recommendation for anyone wishing to see such a theme explored in a most elegiac and graceful way.