Also present on a mid-1950s Oscar shortlist (for the new category of best foreign language film) was The Burmese Harp (Biruma no tategoto), a roughly two-hour, black-and-white Japanese movie directed by Kon Ichikawa and released in 1956. In contrast to The Bridge on the River Kwai, this film did not find favour with the Academy. Back home in Japan, though, it was a major hit, built on the success of Michio Takeyama’s equally important 1946 novel Harp of Burma. Indeed, so deep was the combined cultural impact of the book and the film that Ichikawa was able to remake the movie (in colour) in 1985 and register Japan’s highest-grossing title for that year.
The film opens in July 1945 with a company of about 30 Japanese soldiers beating a retreat through the mountains that separate Burma from Thailand. Learning a little later that the war has ended, they surrender to the British and are soon charged with securing the capitulation of a small Japanese force lodged in Triangle Mountain. Private Mizushima, known to us already for his skill in playing the Burmese harp, is given 30 minutes to accomplish the task. He fails in his mission, however, and is beaten unconscious by the enraged hold-outs, all of whom die in the ensuing battle. Helped to recover by a Burmese monk, Mizushima adopts this identity as a means of rejoining his company. Along the way, though, he encounters the corpses of many Japanese soldiers and decides to bury them. Before long this becomes his vocation, and in a farewell letter to his former comrades read at the close of the film he explains that he will devote his life to Buddhism and only consider returning to Japan when there are no more bodies to bury. “The soil of Burma is red, and so are its rocks,” states a message run at both the start and the finish of the film.
This is a spare, lyrical, elegiac movie purveying an anti-war message and promoting harmony among peoples. One of the loveliest scenes (close to the hour mark) sees a group of villagers wordlessly help Mizushima with his project of burying the war dead that litter the Burmese countryside. That landscape, featuring mainly mountains and temples, is beautifully shot, and the music that drifts over it, both played and sung, is haunting. As with The Bridge on the River Kwai, the soldiers all look fit and well fed (though they do say about 10 minutes in that finding food is their greatest worry). But that can be overlooked. Set the pacifism of Ichikawa’s movie against the bombast of Lean’s, and it takes little time to decide which is the greater accomplishment.