Men at War

I watched a very good film last night, the moving black and white 1956 version of Kon Ichikawa’s Burmese Harp. It’s the story of a Japanese soldier during WWII who repulsed by the horrors of war becomes a Buddhist monk dedicated to performing a rather extreme and solemn task concerning the war dead. The film subtly criticizes the military madness that fueled Japan’s expansionist policies in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and was one of the first films to focus on the war from the Japanese soldier’s point of view.

WWII-era poster depicting Japanese soldier as a monkey-man threatening a white woman.

I suspect it was also one of the first times movie audiences outside of Japan were presented with a portrayal of Japanese soldiers as average men, battle-weary, hungry, and not a little bit forsaken, as opposed to image that still prevailed in the 1950s, held over from the previous decades, as in the poster on the left.

At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to a Japanese infantry company in the Burma campaign. Private Mizushima has learned how to play the Burmese harp. He uses it to signal back to the company when he is scouting ahead, and as an accompaniment when the men are led in song by their captain, a former choirmaster, songs sung to raise their spirits. Mizushima will eventually become the Buddhist monk.

The film deals with a big issue, the brutality of war, in a personal and thoroughly humanistic manner. I suppose you would me an anti-war kind of guy, but I must admit I’ve seen more than my fair share of war movies. I’ve found that the best ones are not about great battles, but rather the small moments of life and death, courage and fear. In the end, there is, to borrow a phrase, a thin red line between those opposites.

How does a person continue when he, or she, has engaged in a barbarous act such as war, and has fully realized the horror of it? To participate in something unthinkable can taint you, if you allow it. Average men and women seldom are able affect history, but they can create a personal history. This is the lesson learned by Pvt./priest Mizushima, who at one point writes,

Burmese HarpMy heart was racked with questions. Why must the world suffer such misery? Why must there be such inexplicable pain? As the days passed, I came to understand. I realized that, in the end, the answers were not for human beings to know, that our work is simply to ease the great suffering of the world. To have the courage to face suffering, senselessness and irrationality without fear, to find the strength to create peace by one’s own example.”


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