Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain

Recently I viewed two films that were directed by Ichikawa Kon (1915-2008). I hadn't heard of him prior to watching these films and wasn't even aware that both were directed by him. The two films are Fires on the Plain (1959) and The Burmese Harp (1956). Both are considered anti-war films, and that's why I rented them. I was curious about anti-war films from Japan that emerged shortly after World War II.

The first film I viewed was Fires on the Plain, which appeared three years after The Burmese Harp. The film was based loosely on the novel Nobi, written by Shohei Ooka who was a soldier in the Japanese army and eventually captured by American troops. It is a bleak and horrific story about a group of starving Japanese soldiers who were fleeing the American Army and local guerrilla groups and trying desperately to reach the coast where they could be rescued by the Japanese Navy. Dante could have borrowed several scenes for his depiction of one of the circles of Hell, especially one for those who committed the sin of despair. The landscape seemed littered with bodies in various stages of decay. However, the food shortage became so critical that some of the soldiers turned to cannibalism.

The film is shot in black-and-white which adds to the desolate and gloomy aura of the film. The actors actually went without food for part of the filming in order to produce the appropriate appearance of starving soldiers.

It was at this point that I discovered that the second anti-war film in my queue, The Burmese Harp, was also directed by Ichikawa. I was curious to see what his earlier film was like, so I moved it up and watched it several days later.

The Burmese Harp, while clearly an anti-war film, is much different in depiction and theme. Perhaps this might be because the film was based on what is described as a children's fantasy work, The Harp of Burma, written by Michio Takeyama. In an interview included on the DVD, Ichikawa said that the film is considerably different from the novel, for if he had made the film to closely parallel the book, it would have turned out to be a fantasy for children, and he wanted something that would appeal to adults.

The setting is Burma, just at the end of the war. A Japanese military unit learns that Japan has surrendered. The officer, Captain Inouye, decides to surrender to the Americans (who look British to me) because they would be needed to help rebuild Japan which has been devastated by the bombing. They learn of another Japanese military unit that refuses to surrender and vows to fight until all are dead. One soldier, Mizushima, is asked to go to the unit that refuses to surrender and attempt to persuade them to give up. He goes but fails. All are killed in the attack, and he is wounded and not found by the Americans. He is later found and treated by Burmese living in the area.

Mizushima decides to return to his unit who are in a POW camp, awaiting their return to Japan. On his way back, he discovers large numbers of bodies of Japanese soldiers who have not been buried (a scene which is also frequently repeated in Ichikawa's later film, Fires on the Plain). He ultimately decides that he cannot go back to Japan until the bodies of the dead soldiers have been buried.

Several important themes are present in this film that do not appear in Fires on the Plain. One is music and the other is respect for the dead. Captain Inouye was a music teacher and choral director before the war, and he turns his unit into a very fine choral group, which helps to maintain morale. Mizushima has taught himself to play a local instrument, a harp, and he then becomes the musical core of the unit. The music throughout the film ranges from folk songs to religious choral works, primarily those for burial ceremonies. Two very effective musical scenes are the ones in which the soldiers learn of Japan's defeat and are serenaded by the American? forces, who also seem to be a fine choral unit, with a moving version of "Going Home," and one in which British nurses sing at a burial ceremony for deceased soldiers.

Mizushima's decision to remain in Burma in order to bury the Japanese soldiers is reminiscent of Sophocles' play Antigone, in which a young woman also breaks a law in order to perform burial rites for her brother, who is decreed by Creon to remain without proper rituals and burial. The penalty for breaking the law is death. In a way, Mizushima is risking the same fate for his unit has surrendered, and he is a soldier who is now traveling around Burma dressed as a Buddhist monk.

An even more interesting connection is provided by the dominant religion in Burma, Buddhism. In fact, a monk tells Mizushima that Burma is Buddhism. I'm not very familiar with Buddhism, but if I understand correctly, there are a number of Buddhas, each with various attributes. One that seems particularly significant is the Bodhisattva, or the Compassionate Buddha. The Bodhisattva is one who rejects nirvana and vows not to escape the cycle of birth and death and reincarnation until all creatures have achieved nirvana first. The following is a quote from the Wikipedia entry:

"The various divisions of Buddhism understand the word Bodhisattva in different ways, but especially in Mahayana Buddhism, it mainly refers to a being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others."

Mizushima, in a way, has done something quite similar; he has rejected returning to his home (nirvana is considered the ultimate home of all creatures) until all those who have died have been properly buried.

I find it interesting that the first film Ichikawa directed, The Burmese Harp, has a far more optimistic and even a healing atmosphere, in comparison to the later film, Fires on the Plain, whose look is one of death and despair.

I'm not going to comment on the relationship between the films and the novels as I haven't read either of the novels. Nobi, the source for Fires on the Plain, isn't available now at the library, while The Harp of Burma is now in the process of being purchased by the public library. I have it on reserve, so I may get to read it, sometime soon, perhaps. I am adding Nobi to my search list.

No comments:

Post a Comment