The problem facing many films that wish to depict the high cost of war is that film often makes war-making look exhilarating and fun. The motion pictures are suited to capturing the intensity and exhilaration of war far better than lingering on the carnage and aftermath. Even films that strive to brutally depict the reality of war often fall back on making the sequences exciting to watch (see Saving Private Ryan).
The Burmese Harp circumvents this by being a war film about the immediate aftermath of the war. The Japanese squad faces the prospect of peace after a tense encounter with British forces. Mizushima (Shôji Yasui), one of their group, known for his skill on the harp, takes it upon himself to bring the news of the war’s end to a Japanese platoon still fighting in the caves of Burma. But when the platoon refuses to surrender, Mizushima is caught in the crossfire.
This scene climaxes in one of the film’s many haunting sequences of the carnage of war. Any thrill of battle is denied, all the audience is shown is the bodies strewn, piled atop each other, that litters the cave by the battle’s end. The devastation and carnage of war is all that is on display, none of the heroics, none of the spectacle, none of the thrills. Even the camaraderie of war is threatened and fragmented in the latter sections of the film.
The film isn’t interested in what the war is buying; it is only interested in demonstrating the cost. The shelves of cremated British soldiers and the bodies of Japanese soldiers rotting and being picked apart by carrion are the price of war. And there’s never any lecturing, never any point where the film tries to hammer home this high cost of life. It simply shows the devastation.
As depressing and grim as these moments are, the film is also filled with a number of beautiful scenes. The Japanese squad is led by a musician and the group sings a number of songs beautifully. In the film’s finest moment, the platoon sweetly sings “There’s No Place Like Home” while they slowly put their combat gear on, hoping to deceive the British soldiers they’ve spotted outside their shelter. And, in a surprising twist, the British soldiers join in the song.
The Burmese Harp is devastating and beautiful. A lesser film would lecture, over-moralize and judge. This film simply shows. Some of the moments it shows are beautiful, others are revolting, all of them are haunting.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing