Friday, April 3, 2009

Takeyama Michio: Harp of Burma

On March 14, 2009, I posted a commentary on two Japanese anti-war films, one of which was The Burmese Harp. According to the director, Ichikawa Kon, the film was based on Takeyama's The Harp of Burma. Impressed by the film, I decided to read Takeyama's story. The version I read, translated by Howard Hibbett and published by Tuttle Publishing, is approximately 120 pages long, an easy evening's read.

Ichikawa, in an interview, stated that he had made some major changes in the story because the story, if transferred exactly to film, would be a fantasy for children, whereas he wanted a film for adults. After having read the story, I could find only two major changes in the film, neither of which really changed the overall theme of the story. Both changes occurred in the part that involves Mizushima's attempt to persuade a group of Japanese soldiers to surrender, now that Japan has surrendered. One change concerns the effect of Mizushima's efforts to persuade the soldiers to surrender, and the other changes the type of people who find the wounded Mizushima and take care of him.

Frankly, this is one of the few times (changing Mizushima's caretakers) that I thought that a film's version was more appropriate than that of the original story. On the other hand, I saw the film first, which might make a difference. Secondly, I must also consider that the story was initially written for juveniles and that might explain my preference for the film version.

The "Publisher's Foreword" states that "It was for the younger generation that M. Takeyama intended the book, but after its initial publication in Aka Tambo, a now defunct but then leading juvenile magazine, it became enormously popular among Japanese adults. It is currently included in a series of recommended world literature classics for high school age youngsters." While I have no evidence to support this, I suspect that it is ignored in US schools.

Aside from these two modifications, I felt that the film emphasizes Mizushima, the harpist, a bit more than does the story, but the film overall follows the events of the story very closely. The themes are the same: the stupidity of war and those who glorify it and the effects on those who have the least to say about going to war but pay the greatest price for their leaders' folly.

Overall Rating: This is one of those stories that are written for younger readers, but adults perhaps will get even more out of it than the readers it was initially published for. I found my copy in the library, but I am going to find my own copy. It is a work that is worth rereading, as the film merits more than one viewing.


  1. Excellent review-I see no sense in which this is not an adult book-it might have been that adults in Japan in the late 1940s did not want to the face the reality of that are pointed out toward the close of this book-

  2. mel u,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I also was surprised to find it considered a children's book. Perhaps the translation distorts it somewhat to make it seem more of an adult book.