Burmese Harp (1956)

Genres - War  |   Sub-Genres - Anti-War Film, War Drama  |   Run Time - 116 min.  |   Countries - Japan   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Keith Phipps

Though exceptions abound, from The Best Years of Our Lives and The Story of G.I. Joe through the readily explicable rise of film noir, the most visible American portrayals of World War II in the years following its conclusion tended not to dwell too heavily on the psychological or spiritual impact of the war experience. While it is reductive to credit Japanese filmmakers as a whole with a boldness wanting in their American counterparts -- Joseph Anderson and Donald Richie dismiss most war films of the period as "frank audience exploitation" -- one look at The Burmese Harp with its mounds upon mounds of untended corpses is enough to grant that impression. But while graphic, Kon Ichikawa's film has more on its mind than immersing its viewers in the horrors of war (for that experience, see the director's harrowing Fires on the Plain). Almost immediately upon its release, Harp rightfully earned a reputation as one of the finest and most succinct statements of humanism. Portraying war as a profound violation of the human spirit, it at times resembles Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, particularly in its use of music. But Ichikawa's mastery of moments both grand (a beach awash in corpses) and small (the gentle interactions between the soldiers and the friendships they form with their by-all-rights unfriendly hosts), instantly sets his work apart. The pace is sometimes inadequate, perhaps due to some invasive editing, but only a slab of stone could fail to be moved by the film as a whole and by the heart-rending finale in particular.