The Burmese Harp (ビルマの竪琴 Biruma no tategoto, a.k.a. Harp of Burma) is a 1956 black-and-white Japanese film directed by Kon Ichikawa. It was based on a children's novel of the same name written by Michio Takeyama. It was Ichikawa's first film to be shown outside Japan, and is "one of the first films to portray the decimating effects of World War II from the point of view of the Japanese army." The film was nominated for the 1957 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, during the first year that such a category existed.
In 1985, Ichikawa remade the film in color with different actors.
Private Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), a Japanese soldier, becomes the harp (or saung) player of Captain Inōye's (Rentaro Mikuni) group, composed of soldiers who fight and sing to raise morale in World War II Burma Campaign. When they are offered shelter in a village, they eventually realize they are being watched by British soldiers. They successfully retrieve their ammunition, then see the advancing force. Instead of firing at them, though, the enemy soldiers begin singing. They learn that the Japanese surrender has occurred and they surrender.
At a camp, a British captain asks Mizushima to talk down a group of soldiers who are still fighting on the mountain. He agrees to do so and is told by the British that he has 30 minutes to tell them to surrender. At the mountain he is almost shot down before they realize he is Japanese. He climbs up and asks to speak to whoever is in command. He informs their commander that the war has ended and they should surrender. The commander says he shall talk to the other soldiers, and they come out minutes later stating that unanimously they decided to fight to the end. Mizushima begs for them to surrender but they do nothing. He decides to ask for more time from the British. When he creates a surrender flag, the others take it the wrong way and believe he's surrendering for them. They beat him unconscious and leave him on the floor. The cave is bombarded, and he becomes the only survivor. He steals a monk's robe so that he will not be spotted as a soldier, and wanders around looking for the camp his group was in. Finding many unburied corpses of dead Japanese soldiers, he decides to bury them.
Meanwhile, Captain Inōye and his men are wondering what happened, and cling to a belief that he is still out there. Eventually they buy a parrot (saying "Mizushima, let's go back to Japan together" over and over again) and tell a villager to take it to a monk they suspect is Mizushima in hiding. But the parrot is returned with a long letter replying that he refuses to go back to Japan with them, because he must continue burying the dead while studying as a monk, and promoting the peaceful nature of mankind. Years later however, he allows for the prospect of returning to Japan.
In 1993, film scholar Audie Bock wrote:
Screenwriter Natto Wada (Ichikawa's former wife) lets minimal dialogue carry the emotion of The Burmese Harp. Ichikawa allows the grandeur of the Burmese landscape and the eerie power of its Buddhist statuary and architecture to sustain the mood of Mizushima's conversion and the mystification of his Japanese comrades. Yet the gravity of the film lifts with the lyrical score, the light humor of a local bartering woman (Tanie Kitabayashi) with her parrots, and the genuine but uncomprehending affection of the soldiers for their missing mate.
In 2007, film critic Tony Rayns called it the "first real landmark in his career" and wrote:
Ichikawa’s film is sharper and more clearheaded than Takeyama’s book, perhaps because it reflects an encounter with the reality of Burma and the Burmese. Most details in the film are taken directly from the book, although the overall structure has been changed....It's with the dropping of one of the book’s episodes entirely and substituting ideas of his own that Ichikawa provides the measure of the film’s achievement. After Mizushima is sent on the futile mission to persuade a belligerent captain to surrender, he’s wounded in the leg by a British bullet and left to die....In the book, Mizushima is found and nursed back to health by a non-Burmese tribe of cannibals, who plan to eat him; ... Ichikawa instead has Mizushima brought back from near death by a Buddhist monk, who intones over his patient the line “Burma is Burma. Burma is the Buddha’s country.” After his recovery, Mizushima shamelessly steals the monk’s robe (his only thought is self-preservation, and he needs a disguise) and makes his way south, intending to rejoin his company, which is where Ichikawa’s story line rejoins Takeyama’s.