Director Kon Ichikawa, known for his harrowing and gritty portrayal on the brutality of war in the film "Fires on the Plain," which took place on the Philippine Island of Leyte, during WWII, has given us a truly great look at the defeated Japanese army in Burma at the close of the war. "Burmese Harp," not unlike "Fires on the Plain" deals with the defeated Japanese army. However, where "Fires on the Plain" shows the viewer the despair of Private Tamura, the film "Burmese Harp" gives us a look into the spiritual awakening of one Japanese soldier towards the end of World War Two. The soldier and main protagonist is named Mizushima (Shoji Yasui).
Moreover, unlike Ichikawa's later film "Fires on the Plain" this film is not so much about the hellish nighmare of fighting a war, as much as it deals with the hellish aftermath of the Burma Campaign, and how the horror of this tragic campaign weighs heavily on the conscience of one Japanese soldier. For those of you who are not familiar with WWII, or the Burma Campaign; it was in Burma where the Japanese Imperial army suffered the greatest loss of life in World War II. In the film, Mizushima agrees to go to a fortified mountain stronghold, where the last remnants of Japanese soldiers are holed up, refusing to surrender. He is to inform them of the surrender of Japan, and for those inside to lay down there arms in order to return to Japan. However, something goes terribly wrong as the company of Japanese soldiers refuse to surrender.
Narrowly escaping death himself, Mizushima decides not to return to his company, or Japan. For something has changed. He is nursed to health by a priest, and steals the priests clothes: That of a Buddhist Monk. As he proceeds across Burma, he sees nothing but the unburied corpses of dead Japanese. Mizushima is affected by seeing these unburied dead of his fellow Japanese countryman, and in a symbolic death and rebirth, he assumes the role of a monk and decides not to return to his unit in the POW camp, or even to return to Japan until ALL of his fellows soldiers are buried.
He begins the task of burying any and all Japanese dead that he comes across in his journey across Burma: A very formidalble task indeed! Mizushima's horror at seeing the bodies of the unburied dead have had a profound affect on him, and he has become a different person. This is a truly profound and poignant film. And considering that this film was released in 1956, a mere 11 years after the end of World War Two, makes this a classic film which must rank right up there with some of the greatest antiwar films of all-time. This film predates "Fires on the Plain," by a good 3 years. For an early film dealing with this war, I believe this is one of the greatest films to come out of Japan dealing with the trauma of WWII. Especially considering is was directed by a Japanese, and released in Japan. A must see, and highly recommended.