Burmese Harp, The (1956)

The Burmese Harp (1956), directed by Kon Ichikawa.

When I was a boy I saw a clip from a Japanese film about a monk who was mixed up with some friendly soldiers somewhere in wartime Asia. The bit that stuck with me is when he finds a gem stone (I remembered it as a pearl, but it is actually a ruby) and someone tells him: "It must be a spirit of the dead." I've always wanted to find it again and here it is.

In the summer of 1945 the Japanese army in Burma is beaten but not ready to surrender. We follow one ragged unit as they try to escape the country. At the end of the war they become POWs and Private Mizushima volunteers to talk some hard cases out of their mountain stronghold. That doesn't go well. Most of them are killed and he nearly dies. Stealing a monk's robes, he wanders the country pretending to be a holy man. After much travel and travails he is no longer pretending. He takes as his mission the recovery and burial of the thousands of bodies of dead Japanese soldiers in Burma.

His comrades working in the prison camp have not forgotten him. Could he still be alive? That wandering monk looks just like him! How do we get a message to him? He has to return home with us!

It's a moving story of spiritual transformation. Adapted from a childrens' book, it retains some sweet elements: they communicate through song and exchange messages by training parrots to speak.

The score is rather good and there is quite a bit of choral singing. At one point the Japanese and British exchange versions of Home, Sweet Home, both groups sounding like Welsh men's choirs.

Coincidentally, I just finished rereading George Macdonald Fraser's Quartered Safe Out Here, his memoir of the war in the same time and place as the movie. The mission was to intercept the broken and disorganized fragments of the Japanese army trying to escape the dry belt of Burma, so it is the same story from the other side, reminding me of Clint Eastwood's pair of films about Iwo Jima.

Criterion DVD.