Burmese Harp & Fires on the Plain

Japanese Film Review

Kon Ichikawa’s

Reviewed by Lyle Sylvander

(Spring 2007)

The Criterion Collection has released more classic Japanese films than any other DVD distributor.  After releasing the films of Akira
Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, the Collection series has now turned its attention to Kon Ichikawa.

Ichikawa’s reputation among film scholars is not as grand as that of the other great directors in the series. This lack of recognition
does not rest with the quality of his films but rather with the nature of film criticism itself.

The French film journal Cahiers du Cinema launched serious criticism with its “auteur theory” – wherein the director was elevated to
the status of literary author.  Such analysis allowed film critics to connect a thematic consistency among the films in a director’s
oeuvre.  The art house distributors of the 1950s and 1960s capitalized on this notion by marketing films according to the director’s
name.  Audiences would flock to the latest Kurosawa or Bergman film as a result of this “branding”.

For the more eclectic Ichikawa, however, this sort of system limited the size of his international distribution.  Ichikawa’s films run the
gamut from dark comedy (Odd Obsession) to revenge drama (An Actor’s Revenge) to sports documentary (Tokyo Olympiad).  It wasn’t
until the Museum of Modern Art’s 2002 retrospective that American critics became seriously interested in his work.  Indeed, critics
and audiences began to see his eclecticism as a strength rather than a weakness.

Criterion was wise to begin its Ichikawa releases with two war films, The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain (1959).  Despite
their similar subject matter, the two films showcase the director’s stylistic variety.

The Burmese Harp, based on the novel by Michio Takeyama, follows a Japanese troop in Burma at the close of the Second World War.

When Japan surrenders to the Allies, the soldier Mizushima (Shojo Yasui) is assigned to leave his squad and convince another troop
to surrender to British forces.  When the general refuses, Mizoguchi is shot in the leg and left to fend for himself.  A Buddhist monk
nurses him back to health and leaves him with his robe.  While journeying back to his unit, he encounters piles of human remains
from the war and burns them.  He gradually associates his second chance at life with a spiritual mission to help the souls of the war
dead.  In the process he becomes a real man of the cloth and vows to remain in Burma and live the life of the ascetic.

Ichikawa tells this story from two vantage points: that of Mizushima and that of his platoon.  In doing so, he exemplifies the struggle
within Mizushima’s own soul as he is caught between two worlds: that of his nation and that of a higher spiritual authority.

Ichikawa was trained as a painter and began his career as an illustrator – The Burmese Harp’s  mes-en-scene reflects this
background.  He films Burma in wide-angle shots, the landscaped littered with holy temples and shrines on one end, and earthly
carcasses and vultures on the other.  By shooting Mizushima as one small point on a large landscape, a visual motif that reoccurs
throughout the film, Ichikawa expertly visualizes the character’s spiritual burden.  The film also has a slow and contemplative pacing
that mirrors Mizushima’s solemn reflection.

For his second war film, Ichikawa chose to adapt one of the most controversial novels in Japanese literature, Fires on the Plain by
Shohei Ooka.

Unlike Takeyama, Ooka actually served in the Japanese army during the war and witnessed the horrors of war himself.   This may
account for the stylistic differences between Harp and Fires.  In contrast to the former film, Fires on the Plain offers no hope of
redemption for any its characters – in fact, it is one of the most uncompromising and graphic films ever made.

The narrative follows the soldier Tamara (Eija Funakoshi) through the jungles after his platoon has been destroyed by the enemy.  In
Burma, the corpses littering the landscape remind Mizushima of the impermanence of life on Earth and are a key component in his
Buddhist conversion.  In Fires, corpses serve a much more practical purpose as Tamara’s platoon resorts to cannibalism.  Indeed,
Fires on the Plain is about the grotesque sacrifices that survival in war entails.  In contrast to the lyrical and more meditative Harp of
Burma, Fires on the Plain is full of expressionistic touches – quick cuts, close-ups and sharply drawn battle sequences.  The ominous
volcano that hovers over much of the film is a fitting metaphor for the hell of war.

As usual, Criterion’s transfers are made from pristine newly-restored prints.  Both DVDs contain informative bonus material,
including interviews with film scholar Donald Ritchie and the director himself (still working at the age of 92).  Ritchie’s interviews are
especially illuminative, as he mentions the taboo nature of the war in present-day Japan.

Ichikawa’s focus is on the human costs of war, and he avoids the jingoistic nationalism of Hollywood films of the same time period.  It
is this very notion that some right-wing elements find offensive – the war and Japan’s responsibilities are anathema to contemporary
political sensibilities. Neither film could find studio backing today.  In his interview, Ichikawa mentions his first-hand account of
witnessing the devastation of Hiroshima and how that memory aesthetically influenced the films.

Criterion has provided a great service to film buffs with these two releases by recording Ichikawa, for he rarely gives interviews.  In
addition to his wartime memories, Ichikawa relates his filming methods and the process of adapting literary works.  Nearly all of his
major films were based on works by great Japanese writers and he worked closely with his wife, Natto Wada, who served as his

Hopefully, Criterion will continue to release his works in the U.S. along with those of all the other great filmmakers from Japan’s
golden age.

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