Education About Asia: Online Archives

The Burmese Harp

Back to search results
Download PDF

305, LOS ANGELES, CA 90024
1956. 116 MINUTES

In many classes, at various levels, it is necessary to deal with the role of Japan during World War II. America’s enemies in that war, Germany, Japan and Italy, are often portrayed in crucially different ways. In Europe, the Nazis misled the German people into a series of misadventures and cruelties. The war in the Pacific was a racial war; the United States fought against the Japanese people.

In part, this difference in attitude grows out of pervasive American racism. In part, it stems from the attack on Pearl Harbor which crystallized “the war” for Americans. Though Great Britain and the United States officially agreed on a “Europe first” policy, the Pacific war was “our” war. In Europe, we demanded unconditional surrender. In Asia, our goal was extermination.

This attitude toward Japan has become an American myth; and it is part of our psyche. An older generation created this myth and still accepts it; a younger generation generally accepts it as a fact. Because of this, The Burmese Harp is useful in presenting a different and more sympathetic view of the Japanese fighting man.

Simply put, The Burmese Harp is a beautifully made film. In its photography, it shows what a master can do with black and white photography; one hopes that Ted Turner never comes out with a colorized version. Though some audiences may feel that the story drags in a couple of places, Ishikawa took the time to develop his characters and to give something of the essence of Buddhism.

The plot is this. A small Japanese contingent is trying to get from Burma to Thailand as the Pacific war was coming to a close. Out of touch with any higher authority, the unit struggles against the British and the jungle environment as it presses onward. The Japanese captain was a music teacher before the war; he has spent much effort in teaching his men to sing in harmony. Singing, he feels, keeps up the morale of the troops. One of his non-coms, though musically untrained, has learned to play a Burmese harp as accompaniment to the singing.

In a small village, the Burmese host a dinner for the Japanese troops in the hope of slowing them down while British and Indian pursuers surround them. The Japanese discover their predicament and, preparing for a final charge, sing to cover their preparations. Their final song is the Japanese version of “Home, Sweet Home.” When the British advance out of the jungle singing the same song, the nature of the war suddenly and dramatically changes.

The British are no longer seen as an enemy, and the Japanese surrender to discover that the war officially ended three days earlier. To Americans who believe that the Japanese consistently fought to the end, and then committed hara kiri, this more human view of a commander whose goal is repatriation and the reconstruction of Japan will come as a surprise.

As the unit is marched off to a prisoner of war camp, the harpist is sent off on a mission to convince another group of Japanese to surrender. Failing, he is the lone survivor of the British attack. Nursed back to health by Burmese, the harpist begins to make his way to rejoin his comrades. Crossing a desolate hillside, he discovers vultures feeding on a group of unburied Japanese dead. This scene will indelibly impress itself on the viewer. Rather than rejoin his unit, the harpist finds a compelling mission, and becomes a Buddhist monk. He must stay behind until he has buried all of the Japanese dead in Burma and said the proper prayers so that the souls can find peace.

The Burmese Harp can easily be used from middle school through college to dispel some of the stereotypes and show another, more human, side of the war. The subtitles are clear and easy to read without distracting from the visual images. The photography is outstanding. It is easy to use the film to lead into a discussion of the war, propaganda, stereotypes, and on the nature of Buddhism. It may be more effective to wait a day or two after viewing the film before starting a discussion which will flow more easily and meaningfully after the impact has sunk in.

Interestingly, the Charles E. Tuttle Co. has reprinted the Takeyama Michio novel on which the film is based, under the title The Harp of Burma (1995; translated by Howard Hibbett). Intended for a young audience when originally published in 1946, the novel became even more popular with adults.

Though the film is true to the novel, the latter is better for teaching in some ways. Without the cinematic need for compression, the novel is superior in developing the essence of Buddhism and in making more detailed comparisons between Japanese and Burmese cultures. The Hibbett translation should not pose reading problems for middle school students, yet is still compelling for those in college.