Kon Ichikawa

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Alastair Stewart

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What [The Burmese Harp] says is perhaps this: There are certain men who take it upon themselves to live unselfishly as far as they can, perhaps because it gives purpose to their actions. To do this takes internal and external courage. Contact with peaceful eternity follows the realization that all selfish endeavour achieves nothing….

The harp is symbolic from the start. But at the start the symbolism is crude and sentimental. This is not only justifiable, but also right. For here, things are represented as they appear to the Universal Private. He reminisces. To him the harp represents brief rests and that incentive to continue, a more enduring peace. It represents the pains a clever friend will go to, to provide a little home comfort a long way from home. (p. 27)

The Burmese Harp works on three levels. The situation is seen from three points of view: that of the Universal Private (all the men of that and any other platoon), that of a captain, and that of a developing saint. The three are unified by the overlapping of experiences and characterization. The captain is halfway between plain man and saint. He is a gentleman warrior by vocation. He understands Mizushima, but is not himself of saintly calibre. The presentation of three points of view creates an illusion of three-dimensional reality. Mizushima's ascent in the hierarchy of understanding, from a plain man with a difference to a saint, is therefore convincing. The situation justifies the mystic conclusions he draws. The more so, because even his attitude is objectified….

I was impressed by the film's dignity. The right image and true symbol are used almost unfailingly—the cracked earth for purgation; figures of contemplation and revelation; Mizushima's literally being inside Buddha; and still water for peaceful eternity. Though used in a modern story (where they are revitalised) they lose none of their traditional grace. The black and white photography is superb: sometimes histrionic but never melodramatic, as it might easily have been. Light and shade are used with admirable subtlety. The music reflects the mood of the images aptly, both where it is and where it isn't part of the action. The German hymn "O Haupt voll Blut and Wunden" is heard when Mizushima wakes in the cave. Acting is restrained, but never painfully so.

At a time when English-speaking artists are looking for a calculus in which to express themselves seriously …, The Burmese Harp should be welcomed as a corrective. Perhaps we shall survive moribund conventions. (p. 28)

Alastair Stewart, "'The Burmese Harp'," in Film Journal (copyright by Melbourne University Film Society), No. 14, November, 1959, pp. 27-8.

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