The soil of Burma is red, and so are its rocks…
I watched “The Burmese Harp” on Sunday, a powerful and moving film from 1956 about a Japanese army unit captured by British and Indian forces in Burma at the end of WWII. One soldier in the unit, Mizushima, is asked to climb a mountainside where another Japanese unit is in hiding, to persuade them to surrender or face death. The second unit fights to the death and Mizushima is seriously wounded. He is nursed back to health and as he journeys south to rejoin his unit at the POW camp he is awakened spiritually by the sight of hundreds of dead, unburied Japanese soldiers. He becomes a monk and devotes himself to burying the war dead. However, this breaks the vow he and his unit made that they would all return to Japan together. Mizushima is torn between his loyalty to his troops and his newfound purpose in life.
The film is a drama but it proceeds rather light-heartedly until the scene on the mountain. The tone shifts dramatically when Mizushima encounters the first corpses on the battlefield. It is a shocking, grisly image, heightened by the musical score and the stark black/white camerawork.
My favorite scene occurs early in the film: the Japanese soldiers take refuge in a village and suddenly become aware that enemy forces have surrounded them. Rather than take up arms, they begin singing “Hanyu no Yado” in chorus (the unit captain was a music instructor and taught his soldier how to sing as a way to pass the time). The British soldiers hiding in the outskirts of the village, recognizing the tune as an old British folk song (“Home Sweet Home”), and respond by singing it (in English) in return.
And so last night I re-watched “Letters from Iwo Jima”, Clint Eastwood’s 2006 companion piece to “Flags of Our Fathers”. LFIJ is the Japanese side of the battle at Iwo Jima in February-March 1945. Facing an insurmountable American force, the Japanese resign to their fate and fight to the death – of the nearly 22,000 Japanese soldiers who fought on the island, only 216 were captured, the rest dying in battle or committing ritual suicide.
I like this movie because it takes it time introducing each character and in detailing the futility in fighting for control of the island. The acting is superb and the cinematography is beautiful – most scenes look as though they were filmed in early morning light, with hard black shadows cast over the actors’ faces. Lots of well-framed backlighting, especially in the cave and night scenes. Juxtaposing General Kuribayashi’s memories of visiting the United States with his letter-writing drove home the point that he, like everyone else on the island, was just a soldier who thought of his family’s well-being and longed to return home.