Natural piety: The Burmese Harp (1956)
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The Vatican film list includes a few different World War II-related films, and Kon Ichikawa’s 1956 classic The Burmese Harp may be one of the most unusual, as the story is told from the perspective of a Japanese troop in Burma in the days after the end of the war.
Mizushima, the protagonist, serves in a company whose musically trained captain teaches them to sing together to keep their spirits up. Mizushima himself plays the harp, not only to accompany the choir but to send signals as the company’s lookout. Traumatic encounters with death immediately after the company’s surrender set him apart first physically, then psychologically and spiritually, from his troop, and he ends up wandering the countryside disguised as a Buddhist monk.
This is an anti-war film, and a film about piety toward the dead, but it’s also about vocation and how it relates to membership in a community. Mizushima experiences a special calling which sets him apart from his fellows even as he serves them.
Music, and specifically communal singing, is often important in films about either of the world wars, but this film takes that concept to a whole new level, with music (both the protagonist’s harp and his company’s choral singing) serving a crucial function of communication throughout the entire film, especially at moments when words seem impossible.
Watch The Burmese Harp on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8lTqY9H-sA
Music is The Duskwhales, “Take It Back”, used with permission. https://theduskwhales.bandcamp.com
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