Criterion Sunday 379: ビルマの竪琴 Biruma no Tategoto (The Burmese Harp, 1956)

After the bleak nihilism of 1959’s Fires on the Plain, the pairing of it by the Criterion Collection with this earlier film by Kon Ichikawa comes as something of a surprise. It’s not that The Burmese Harp (which Ichikawa remade in the 1980s) is not another stark anti-war tale, and it’s not that unlike the later film it features far more in the way of specific wartime horror (piles of Japanese bodies rotting on the Burmese beach is just one, for example). No, what surprises me is the gentle sentimentalism, of the sort you can imagine in British films about World War II, as the soldiers and medics on both sides frequently burst into song, and there’s some to-do about some parrots as well. It makes some sense, of course, given that this is a film not so much about the horrors of war as about the gentle consolation of Buddhism, which our hero Mizushima (Shoji Yasui) turns to religion after failing to convince his compatriots to surrender. It’s hardly a bad film, but I find the overall tone jarring, despite some lovely moments that have already imprinted themselves on my brain, like the monk disappearing into mist outside the temple.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kon Ichikawa 市川崑; Writer Natto Wada 和田夏十 (based on the novel by Michio Takeyama 竹山道雄); Cinematographer Minoru Yokoyama 横山実; Starring Shoji Yasui 安井昌二, Rentaro Mikuni 三國連太郎; Length 116 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 12 December 2020.


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