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LGM Film Club, Part 401: The Burmese Harp

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Next in our mini-fundraising series of films from 1956 is what I consider to be the second greatest film of that fine year in cinema history: The Burmese Harp, directed by Kon Ichikawa.

Of all the many great films made about World War II, this is perhaps the most beautiful and thoughtful. A popular soldier, the musician of a Japanese platoon (I guess, I don’t know exactly what small groups of soldiers are called in this context and also don’t really care) in Burma is under the command of a very humane officer, which makes everything here very unlikely the rest of the Japanese military. It is the very end of the war. Unlike most platoons, this one surrenders. Our humanistic officer wants to work with the Allies to get other platoons to surrender. The Allies are about to bomb a dug-in group of soldiers. So our musician friend agrees to go over there and try to get them to surrender. Of course they think he is a coward, refuse to believe the war is over, and choose mass death. The bombing commences and everyone assumes that their good friend died in the effort to save lives.

Except that he did not. He wakes up and doesn’t know what to do. He ends up in a Buddhist monastery. He steals the robes of a monk to try and get back to his men. But on the way, he runs across the endless dead Japanese, not properly buried. He loses it. He decides to become a monk and go around giving proper burials to the soldiers. His fellow men realize he is still alive. The rest of the film revolves around whether he will agree to give up his new life and come home. I won’t give it away, but let me just say that is is an utterly gorgeous and touching film about defeat and personal revival through embracing a spiritualism of peace rather than war. You hardly have to defend the Japanese military or Japanese culture in the 1930s and 1940s to find this to be one of the truly great films of all time.

Ichikawa remade the film in 1985 and that version was hugely popular in Japan but I have not seen it.

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