Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Finding Poetry Amid the Horror of World War II

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday April 20, 2007

Kon Ichikawa directed nearly 30 films in his native Japan before anyone took much notice of him. He was a studio director, taking assignments and completing them dutifully if not artfully. It was only when he and his wife/co-scenarist Natto Wada began developing their own projects that Ichikawa received his due recognition. 

Two of his most renowned works, The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain (1959), have recently been released on DVD by Criterion.  

The Burmese Harp is often hailed as one of the masterpieces of Japanese humanist cinema. Based on a novel by Michio Takeyama, it is a thoughtful and compassionate view of Japanese soldiers fighting in Burma during World War II. A regiment, led by a captain who was a musician before the war, surrenders to British forces after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The captain has trained his men to sing as a choir and one member of the company has learned to play the Burmese harp, accompanying his comrades in cathartic folk songs during their imprisonment at the hands of the British. (If the oft-repeated theme seems familiar, it’s for good reason; it’s a Japanese derivation of “Home Sweet Home.”) 

These men are patriotic and rue the fall of the Imperial Army, yet they are only human and thus weary of battle, eager to return home not only to surviving friends and family, but to do to their part in reconstructing their decimated nation. When the captain, who eloquently gives voice to this sentiment, learns that another Japanese regiment is entrenched on a mountain, refusing to surrender even though the war is over, he dispatches one of his men, Mizushima, the harp player, to ascend the mountain and persuade the stubborn company to surrender. When the company’s captain refuses, Mizushima’s company believes that he has perished on the mountain in the ensuing round of bombing. 

As Mizushima’s company mourns the loss of their comrade, the captain is especially distraught, guilt-ridden for having sent the soldier needlessly to his death after the war’s conclusion. At one point his men ask him to let go of the notion that Mizushima may have survived, for although the company has come across a Buddhist monk who resembles him, they cannot confirm his identity. It would be easier, they say, to simply believe that the resemblance is coincidence.  

Meanwhile Ichikawa catches us up on Mizushima’s story. Wounded by the bombing, he is nursed back to health by a Buddhist monk. When he is able to walk again, Mizushima steals the monk’s robes to use as a disguise while trying to make his way back to his regiment. But he is waylaid by the grief and trauma he discovers along the way in the form of Japanese corpses, strewn across the landscape and abandoned to the elements. Mizushima is compelled to give proper burials to all he comes upon, and in the process he undergoes a transformation, the impostor monk becoming a true monk. And it is here that Ichikawa is at his best, seamlessly blending Mizushima’s physical and spiritual journeys with beautifully expressive technique. The director keeps the horizon always high in the frame, allowing his shots to be dominated by the rocky foreground, rough terrain that must be traversed en route to that horizon. Thus we see Mizushima struggling across the blood-stained landscape, his feet cut and bleeding, his soul tormented by the plight of his fallen countrymen. 


Fires on the Plain, based on the 1952 novel by Shohei Ooka, is starker in its vision of warfare; it is a more harrowing version of a similar tale—more graphic, more comic, more disturbing. 

Again, a Japanese soldier is left to fend for himself in a foreign land, this time the Philippines. Private Tamura makes his way across another rough landscape, encountering fellow soldiers along the way who, like him, have descended to varying degrees of depravity under horrific conditions. If The Burmese Harp focused on what was best in the soldiers of Japan’s Imperial Army, Fires on the Plain casts a merciless gaze on the worst. Soldiers are reduced to primitive survivalists, using, abusing and defrauding each other of the necessities of survival. It’s like an adult version of Lord of the Flies.  

But Ichikawa again manages to find the poetry in the turmoil, this time with a lovely metaphor of insects unable to see the greater world and context of their struggle, but concerned only with immediate obstacles. Our first glimpse of this device comes when Private Tamura takes a minute to marvel at an ant, placing it in his hand and watching it scramble madly across his palm. The metaphor comes more clearly into focus a bit later, when a group of Japanese soldiers attempts to cross a road and field under cover of darkness, right under the noses of Allied forces. One particularly artful shot shows the soldiers descending from the top of the frame, clinging to roots and vines as they scamper down an embankment, like so many insects filtering down the screen. They then writhe through tall grass toward the road, where they slowly crawl on all fours en masse like an infestation set on destroying the crops across the way. 

Another memorable sequence presents a more light-hearted view of the conditions of survival. A pair of abandoned shoes lay on a path in the forest. The camera stays fixed on them as a soldier comes along, inspects them, and exchanges them for his own, followed by another soldier who does the same and so on down the line, until Tamura approaches and looks balefully through the soleless shoes before opting to go without shoes altogether. In the DVD’s liner notes critic Chuck Stephens points out the scene’s debt to Chaplin. While the scene obviously owes much to the famous boiled boot sequence from The Gold Rush (1925), it also calls to mind Chaplin’s short film Shoulder Arms (1918), which humorously and poignantly depicted the trials and tribulations of the little Tramp character while serving in the trenches of World War I. 

More broadly though, Ichikawa has adopted the overall aesthetic of Chaplin, that genre-defying blend of pathos and humor that seeks to find truth and humanity amid deprivation and tragedy. With The Burmese Harp he finds dignity among the rank-and-file of the aggressive Imperial Army, and in Fires on the Plain he finds humanity and visual poetry amid the most gruesome of conditions. 


THE BURMESE HARP (1956). 116 minutes. FIRES ON THE PLAIN (1959). 104 minutes. 

Published by Criterion. $29.95.