Burmese Harp (The)
R1 - America - Criterion Collection
Review written by and copyright: Noor Razzak (7th April 2007).
The Film

Kon Ichikawa made 26 films before anyone really knew who he was. He spent his career under contract making film after film, some of which he never really believed in. "The Burmese Harp" was not one of those films, he very much wanted to make this film and the result is his most accomplished work. A huge hit in his native Japan it was also a critical success overseas, garnering an Academy Award Nomination in the category of 'Best Foreign Language Film', "The Burmese Harp" stands as one of the most moving and poetic anti-war films committed to celluloid.
In July of 1945 the Japanese army is obliterated, in Burma a few regiments continue to resist the British Troops. Mizushima (Sh˘ji Yasui) is a soldier in one such regiment and to keep the minds off of the perils they face the entire regiment sings as Mizushima plays a Burmese harp which he learned on his own. Eventually, after being on the run for as long as possible they surrender to the British and are relocated to a prisoner of war camp in Mudon. While waiting at the camp for their fate Mizushima is sent on a mission to aide the British, his duty is to convince a company of Japanese to surrender and to return to Mudon. His mission fails as they refuse to surrender and as a result they are killed by British bombing, Mizushima, however, manages to survive while his comrades fear he has died. Mizushima disguises himself as a Buddhist Monk and is en route back to Mudon when the sight of his dead fellow countrymen overwhelms him and decides to seek spiritual enlightenment and makes it his mission to bury those who have past, while his friends wish for his safe return so they may travel back to Japan together.
Having not been familiar with Ichikawa's work I wasn't sure what to expect, generally speaking I haven't been disappointed with films from Japan, especially those made post-war it wasn't too convincing me to watch this film. The Second World War devastated Japan, two hydrogen bombs later and the country was in ruins. Ichikawa chose to reflect on the inhumanity and ugliness of war and the effect it has on the human spirit. Going against the grain, there is no glorifying the actions of war in Ichikawa's frame with the shocking and deeply affecting shots of the dead. But this is not a depressing film, in fact it's a beautiful one, as this ugliness is juxtaposed with the melodic music the soldiers sing in order to lift spirits and Muzishima's drive to honor the dead and bury them so that they may find peace, this sentiment is heartbreakingly presented as a letter he wrote to Captain Inouyeas (Rentaro Mikuni) which he reads to the entire company at the film's end.
The film's stark black and white photography lends realism to the film and the wide shots of the Burmese landscape are captured in all their glory, hats off to cinematographer Minoru Yokoyama, I rarely see black and white photography that seems so vivid. With the simple yet power message it delivers "The Burmese Harp" is an engaging film to watch the performances are brilliantly conceived and executed and the music is a treat, it will grip you right from the start and never lets go until the sad yet rewarding end. It's a thought-provoking anti-war statement that should resonate with all mankind's will towards finding a peaceful and meaningful existence. I am thoroughly impressed with this entry into the Criterion Collection and have no qualms about recommending it as it's one of the best films I have ever seen.

Video

Presented in the film's original theatrical ratio of 1.33:1 this full screen transfer has been given a total restoration, removing many instances of dust and dirt to produce this rather good transfer. The film is generally sharp, close-ups and wide shots hold up reasonably well, although there are a few shots here and there are appear softer, some white streak print damage is seen in isolated cases but overall the print is clean. The contrast between black and white is perfectly balanced but there were a few occasions where I thought the blacks were rather flat and not as bold and deep as I would have liked. Otherwise this is a fine looking film that has been given a wonderful treatment by Criterion.

Audio

The Criterion Collection presents the film with its original Japanese Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono sound track. As with most mono tracks it lacks depth, but I was impressed with the atmospheric mood created by the film's music and it's score. Dialogue was also clear and distortion free as there was no evidence of pops or hiss, however there was one incident where the sound dropped out, this didn't disrupt any dialogue as it was in transition between one scene and the next (and it wasn't a layer change). Otherwise I am impressed with this sound presentation.
Optional subtitles are included in English only. The subtitles are 16x9 friendly and are a nice size on-screen. The subtitles are easy to read and feature no grammatical or spelling errors and appear on-screen for long enough to read without having to stop and rewind.

Extras

First up is a video interview with director Kon Ichikawa which runs for 16 minutes 22 seconds. Filmed in 2005, the director comments on his early career in animation and his inspirations and moving onto reading the original novel to immediately wanting to adapted it into a film. He talks about the differences between the book and the film, casting Sh˘ji Yasui what he brought to the role, shooting in black and white (mainly because the color cameras where far to big to take on location), as well as commenting on his technical preferences with lenses and lighting among other things. While this clip is brief it's highly informative and like most Criterion supplements it's worth a look.

Another video interview is included with actor Rentaro Mikuni which runs for 11 minutes 46 seconds. This clip was recorded in 2006 as the actor talks about working with Ichikawa and comments on the director's intention for the film, the effectiveness of the film's message, on the directing style of Ichikawa and staying close to his planned storyboards, shooting on location and learning the songs as well as shares memories from the filming of some key scenes from the film.

Also included is the film's original theatrical trailer which runs for 3 minutes 41 seconds.

Rounding out the extras is an 18-page booklet that features a liner note essay entitled "Unknown Soldiers" by critic and historian Tony Rayns.

Overall

This film was originally released in Japan in 2 parts, the first part ran 63 minutes while the second for 80 minutes, the total runtime being 143 minutes. When re-released to theaters and for export both parts were combined and trimmed to 116 minutes and according to Tony Rayns' essay to the dissatisfaction of the director. However this 116 minute version is the version Criterion chose to release. While this cut of the film still holds its impact and powerful statement I still would have loved the opportunity to see the 143 minute cut as Ichikawa intended and am very disappointed that version was not included in this release. I feel that despite the excellence of both this film and the DVD presentation a 2-disc Special Edition release opportunity was missed.

The Film: A+ Video: A Audio: A Extras: B Overall: A-

 


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