The Burmese Harp (1956 film)

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The Burmese Harp
The Burmese Harp Nikkatsu 1956 poster.jpg
Directed by Kon Ichikawa
Produced by Masayuki Takagi
Written by Michio Takeyama (novel),
Natto Wada
Starring Rentarō Mikuni,
Shôji Yasui,
Jun Hamamura
Music by Akira Ifukube
Distributed by Brandon Films (USA)
Release dates
(part 1) 21 Jan 1956; (part 2) 12 Feb 1956 (Japan)[1]
Running time
143 minutes (first release in two parts in Japan)
116 minutes (rerelease and export)[1]
Country Japan
Language Japanese

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,[1] 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."[2] The film was nominated for the 1957 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, during the first year that such a category existed.[3]

In 1985, Ichikawa remade the film in color with different actors.


Private Mizushima (Shôji Yasui), a Japanese soldier, becomes the harp (or saung) player of Captain Inouye's (Rentarō Mikuni) group, composed of soldiers who fight and sing to raise morale in the World War II Burma Campaign. When they are offered shelter in a village, they eventually realize they are being watched by British soldiers. They retrieve their ammunition, then see the advancing force. Captain Inouye tells the men to sing, laugh and clap, to give the British the impression that they are unaware of their presence. Instead of firing at them, though, the British soldiers begin singing the same melody. They learn that the war has ended with the Japanese surrender, and so they surrender to the British.

At a camp, an British captain asks Mizushima to talk down a group of soldiers who are still fighting on a mountain. He agrees to do so and is told by the captain that he has 30 minutes to convince them to surrender. At the mountain, he is almost shot by the hold-out soldiers before they realize he is Japanese. He climbs up to the cave and informs their commander that the war has ended and they should surrender. The commander confers with the other soldiers, and they unanimously decide 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, but when he creates a surrender flag, the others take it the wrong way and believe he is surrendering for them. They beat him unconscious and leave him on the floor. The cave is bombarded and Mizushima is the only survivor.

Mizushima is helped to recover from his injuries by a monk. One day, Mizushima steals the monk's robe and shaves his head so that he will not be spotted as a soldier. He begins a journey to the camp where his comrades were sent. Finding many corpses of dead Japanese soldiers along the way, he decides to bury them.

Captain Inouye and his men are wondering what happened and cling to a belief that Mizushima is still alive. Eventually, they buy a parrot and teach it to say "Mizushima, let's go back to Japan together". They have an old woman villager take it to a monk they suspect is Mizushima in hiding. She returns the next day with another parrot that says "No, I cannot go back". She also gives the captain a letter, that explains that Mizushima has decided not 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. He states in the letter that if he finishes burying all the fallen soldiers' bodies, then he may return to Japan.



In Japan, Nikkatsu, the studio that commissioned the film, released it in two parts, three weeks apart. Part one (running 63 minutes) opened on January 21, 1956, and part two (80 minutes) opened on February 12, both accompanied by B movies.[1] Its total running time of 143 minutes was cut to 116 minutes for later re-release and export, reputedly at Ichikawa's objection.[1]


Awards and nominations[edit]

Critical reception[edit]

In 1993, film scholar Audie Bock wrote:[5]

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:[1]

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Tony Rayns (16 March 2007). "The Burmese Harp: Unknown Soldiers". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 2010-07-10. 
  2. ^ "The Burmese Harp (Biruma no tategoto)". BBC Four. 22 August 2002. Retrieved 2010-07-10. A compassionate, anti-war film (yet refusing to enter into any cinematic discussion of where to lay blame), this is one of the first films to portray the decimating effects of the war from the point of view of the Japanese army. 
  3. ^ a b "The 29th Academy Awards (1957) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-10-24. 
  4. ^ The Burmese Harp (1956) at the Internet Movie Database
  5. ^ Audie Bock (27 January 1993). "The Burmese Harp". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 2010-07-10. 

External links[edit]