Movie Mirrors Index

The Burmese Harp

(Japanese 1956 b 116')

En: 6 Ed: 7

Based on Michio Takeyama’s novel, at the end of the war in Burma a Japanese soldier who plays the harp is separated from his unit and finds many dead soldiers. He finds a Buddhist temple, helps to bury them, and decides to stay in Burma as a wandering Buddhist priest.

         In July 1945 in Burma the Japanese army was retreating. Mizushima (Shoji Yasui) plays his harp, and the men sing. They walk on a dirt road. Mizushima out of uniform goes ahead to scout in the bushes. Three Burmese men see him, and one has a gun. The squad hears him playing “All Clear,” and they advance. Mizushima says some thieves cornered him and took his clothes, leaving him some banana leaves. They worried about food and stop in a village. They eat. As they are about to sing a song of gratitude, the villagers leave the large room. Captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni) tells them to sing, laugh, and clap their hands. They are concerned one shot will cause the ammo boxes to explode. They come out of the building dancing and singing. They push a cart carrying the ammo boxes. They go into a building. Then they hear singing in English, “Home Sweet Home.” That night they learn that the war has been over for three days, and they surrender their arms.

         The next day Inouye tells them their country has been bombed and is in ruins. There is no use in fighting any more. He says they will stay together and return home or die there. The soldiers talk about going to the Mudon prison camp. Inouye tells Mizushima that a Japanese unit is holding out on a mountain, and he has permission to send one man to talk them into surrendering. Mizushima agrees to go. Inouye says the rest will walk south 200 miles to Mudon.

         The English officer tells Mizushima he has thirty minutes to persuade them. The Japanese notice that the British stopped shooting. The Japanese stop too, and Mizushima climbs up to them. He asks to see their commander. He says the Japanese have surrendered, and resistance is useless. The officer says surrendering insults those who died. He says they will fight to the death. Mizushima tells them to work for their country. The officer does not want them to live with the humiliation, and he calls Mizushima a coward. He tells him to leave, but Mizushima refuses. He says dying in battle now is meaningless. He tells the captain he is responsible for their lives. The captain says he will ask the men. Mizushima says they have three minutes left to decide. The captain says it is unanimous to fight. Mizushima makes a white flag and tries to wave it, but they stop him. The shooting begins again. Mizushima wakes up and sees that the others are dead. He staggers away and rolls down hill.

         At Mudon prison camp it is raining, and they are in buildings. A woman brings in a basket of food. She trades some for a broom made of leaves, a bamboo flute, and socks. They beg her to ask about a man from another unit in the hospital. She leaves, and they say it has been ten days. Some are grateful to be locked up there.

         The next day they rehearse singing while standing outside. Japanese men work on building a bridge across a river. They see a monk with a parrot on his shoulder. It starts raining, and they run into a building. A woman says it is her house. Inouye asks her what they said about Mizushima. She says the men on Triangle Mountain were fighting and probably died. She says her husband sold a parrot to the monk. They give her gifts in thanks for the information. A parrot sits on Inouye’s shoulder.

         At a Buddhist temple the monk feeds a wounded soldier. The monk says that Burma is Buddha’s country whether the British and Japanese fight or not. A soldier sees a man bathing in the river and takes his clothes. Mizushima walks with bare feet and starts to limp. He kneels down and says he is starving. Three farmers see him, and two give him food. He asks the way to Mudon and walks on. Mizushima now has sandals and a bag over his shoulder. He comes across dead soldiers and vultures. He starts a fire and salutes the grave he made. Then he salutes the other dead bodies before walking on. In the forest he sees another dead soldier and finds a photo of his family. He walks in mud by a river and sees more human remains. A man with an umbrella gets out of a little boat and asks if he is going to Mudon. Mizushima mentions the dead, and the man says many Burmese are dead too. He invites him to get in the boat, and the boatman takes Mizushima down the river.

         At night Mizushima stops at a temple near Mudon. He hears a youth playing a harp, and Mizushima asks to play it. The boy says the English will pay him, and Mizushima offers to teach him. The boy says a Japanese must have died. They see English women singing at a funeral. The boy asks if he is going to the prison camp, and Mizushima remembers the dead he has seen. He leaves the temple as the boy says the camp is the other way.

         Mizushima with a parrot crosses the bridge as the prisoners are going the other way. One soldier recognizes him. Mizushima walks on and says to himself he cannot go back. He goes to the river and buries bodies in the mud with his hands. Soon several men are using shovels to dig graves. Mizushima finds a Burmese ruby, and one man says it must be the spirit of the dead.

         Soldiers visit a town with beautiful temples. They hear harp music, and Inouye says that is how Mizushima plays. They run toward the music, but the British shout at them to line up. At night inside they discuss why Mizushima would not talk to them. One says he must have taught the boy. One man tells Inouye that Mizushima is dead, and it is better not to offend his spirit. An English soldier invites them to attend a ceremony for the British who died.

         English soldiers, Burmese people, and Japanese prisoners stand and watch the Buddhist monks pass by. A Japanese soldier talks to his parrot about returning to Japan. At headquarters Inouye asks the British authorities to check one more time. They say they have done all they can, and they assume he is dreaming.

         In their room Inouye says they saw the monk carrying a box of ashes, which is a Japanese custom. He is training the bird to see if he is right, and he asks them to bear with him. Mizushima prays in the repository of the British war dead. An English officer instructs Captain Inouye to remove the urns of ashes. He sees a box wrapped in a white cloth, and he speaks to Mizushima without seeing him. Mizushima weeps. Inouye opens the box and sees the gem inside. He wraps it back up and runs out.

         Outside Japanese prisoners sing by a statue of a reclining Buddha. Inside Mizushima hears them and begins playing his harp. Inouye turns around. A soldier says it is Mizushima and is coming from the Buddha. They run to it and knock to get in. Mizushima recognizes their voices and sees them walk away. He finishes digging a hole and puts the box in it.

         Burmese girls perform a ceremony with candles. The prisoners learn they are leaving in three days to go home. The parrot talks about going home. They discuss how to get the monk to go with them.

         At the barb wire the prisoners sing, but some say he will not come. They run over to the old woman with the basket and say they will remember her. She says they call her the Japanese Granny. They ask her about the wandering monk and want to know where he is. She says she will help and leaves.

         At night the men say they have sore throats from singing. They are told the monk is outside, and they run out to the fence and see Mizushima standing by the boy with the harp. The parrot says, “Let us return to Japan together.” They are in doubt and start singing “Home Sweet Home.” The boy accompanies them with the harp. Then Mizushima takes the harp and plays. The men shout and then sing louder. Mizushima bows and walks away, and the boy comes up to the fence.

         The old lady brings fruit for free. She shows them a parrot that says, “No, I can’t go back.” She says he told her to bring them that parrot, and she hands them a letter. Inouye comes in and says it is time to go. They show him the letter from Mizushima. He says Mizushima has decided not to go and puts the letter in his pocket.

         The men are lined up and march off. The Japanese soldiers are on a ship. Inouye says he will read Mizushima’s letter. He says he understood when he saw the white box. The letter says that he misses them and wanted to be with them and to return to their war-ravaged country; but he cannot leave behind the dead bodies he found by the river. When he saw them on the bridge, he had already decided to stay. He decided to hurry north. They hear the parrot saying it cannot return. As he buried the bodies, he wondered why the world must suffer such misery. He realized we cannot understand, but our work is to ease the suffering, to have courage and strength to create peace. He has found a teacher who has accepted him into the priesthood. He is staying to help the souls of the many young find repose. Maybe later he will be able to return to Japan, or he may die in Burma. The parrot they sent him still says the words about returning to Japan together. He played a song of farewell to them, and he thanks those who still think of him. He will wander through Burma. When he is lonely, he will play his harp. He thanks them and prays for their happiness. The men are silent, and the sun is setting. Then they begin to talk of what they will do at home. One soldier hopes that the captain will be able to explain about Mizushima.

         In the final scene Mizushima is walking on a plain in Burma.

         This spiritual drama carries a powerful anti-war message by showing that so many lives of the young are wasted in war. Most futile are those who die fighting after the war is over. About a year after this movie was released when I was a boy, my grandma died in a car accident. Grandpa stayed at our house for a few days. One morning I was practicing the piano, playing “Home Sweet Home,” when my mother came in and told me to stop because Grandpa was crying. Now I understand that the spirit of my Grandma was probably using me to communicate to him that she is home.

Copyright © 2010 by Sanderson Beck

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