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The Burmese Harp


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There's already been some discussion of The Burmese Harp on the thread about Kon Ichikawa's death last year, but movies that are this good deserve a thread of their own.

In the interview with Ichikawa on the Criterion DVD, he says that the novel on which the movie is based is presented as a fairy tale fable. Doing a literal translation of the story would have limited him from making the kind of film he wanted to make, so he and his wife/screenwriter Natto Wada reworked it into a more adult story. The fairy tale elements are still evident in the film, particularly, I thought, through the "alternative communication" methods employed throughout the story (singing, the parrots, and of course the harp itself).

The Burmese Harp is simultaneously a fable and a war movie, but the tone is more gentler overall and more elegiac than, say, Pan's Labyrinth. (The only other example that came to mind.) The way the soldiers try to use music and art to break Muzishima out of his trance (as they perceive it) even make me think of Julie and the musical fadeouts in Blue.

It's also interesting to see the end of WWII from a Japanese perspective. Think Letters from Iwo Jima but more authentic. I had never considered that a funeral could be an imperialistic ceremony before watching The Burmese Harp.

Ichikawa remade the movie in color in 1985, but I don't think it's available in the US.

It's the side effects that save us.
--The National, "Graceless"
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  • 7 months later...

Just caught up with this in my exploration of 2010 Top 100.

Consider me impressed.

The film grabbed me in that first scene after the opening narration, where tired, beaten down soldiers, gasping for breath and battling hunger pains, raise their voices in song as an act of rebellion against their suffering. My favorite shot in that sequence was the widest: Ichikawa showing us the men on the hillside, barely visible amid the jungle growth, yet their voices ringing out strong and clear. What a brilliant introduction to this group of men we would follow throughout the rest of the film. Their character as a unit is clear, and barely a word of dialogue had been spoken yet. Wonderful economy.

The remainder of the film plays the same way--economical in its use of dialogue and camera with excellent use of diegetic music. I particularly enjoyed the restrained way in which Ichikawa communicates Mizushima's new found mission. It's not punctuated with pages of dialogue. Instead, he just goes and does it.

Overall, I found this a surprisingly and refreshingly quiet examination of the horrors of war. Its gentle way does not take away from the power of the film though. Instead, I think Ichikawa uses silences to his advantage, to heighten the power of his images and the situation he has created on the screen.

I had never seen an Ichikawa film before. I'd definitely like to see more.

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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I had never seen an Ichikawa film before. I'd definitely like to see more.

You'd probably like Fires on The Plain. The way it depicts the horror of war in it is much more harrowing than in Fires, though it also doesn't humanize its soldiers as much as Harp does. The reason for that isn't because of any weakness in the film, though; Ichikawa was just focused on different things in the two movies.

It's the side effects that save us.
--The National, "Graceless"
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You'd probably like Fires on The Plain. The way it depicts the horror of war in it is much more harrowing than in Fires, though it also doesn't humanize its soldiers as much as Harp does. The reason for that isn't because of any weakness in the film, though; Ichikawa was just focused on different things in the two movies.

Thanks for the recommendation. I'll definitely check it out after I get through a few more of these Top 100 films.

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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