The Burmese Harp (1956)

The Burmese Harp (Biruma no tategoto)The_Burmese_Harp_Nikkatsu_1956_poster
Directed by Kon Ichikawa
Written by Natto Wada from a novel by Michio Takeyama
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#319 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die


Captain Inouye: The songs uplifted our spirits and sometimes our hearts.

This film really got me where I live.  I found it to be a spiritual experience.

Captain Inoye and his men are serving in Burma during the last days of World War II.  He keeps morale up by leading them in choral singing.  One of their favorite numbers, believe it or not, is “There’s No Place Like Home” (I may never be able to listen to this again without tearing up). One of the men, Mizushima, has taught himself to play the Burmese harp beautifully and accompanies the singing.  He is sent out as a scout in native Burmese garb, and everyone remarks on how Burmese he looks.

The war ends and the Japanese are about to march off to a camp.  The British contact Inoye and inform him that there is a group of Japanese still fighting in the hills that apparently have not heard of the surrender.  Inoye sends Mizushima off to talk them into giving up.  He makes contact but they refuse to believe there has been a surrender or to stop fighting.  The British basically wipe out the platoon.  Mizushima survives.


Mizushima begins to walk south to rejoin his comrades in the camp.  He acquires a monk’s robes on the way.  After several days his robes are in rags and he is out of food.  The Burmese people, believing he is a monk, feed him.  He comes across the bodies of Japanese soldiers which are being devoured by vultures.  He tries to bury them but he has no tools and there are simply too many.  He keeps encountering masses of dead on his journey.

Mizushima gets to the camp and witnesses a group of British nurses singing at the burial of a Japanese soldier who has died in camp.  Still in his robes, he turns back north, feeling compelled to bury the dead. When Mizushima fails to return Capt. Inoye begins to be obsessed with worry.   I will not tell any more of the plot.  I defy anyone to have dry eyes by the end.


The sadness, tenderness and compassion in this film was almost overwhelming to me. The simple, moving story is highlighted with some of the most beautiful music, both instrumental and choral, anywhere.  The stunning imagery completes the picture.  Very highly recommended.


Japanese trailer – no subtitles

2 thoughts on “The Burmese Harp (1956)

  1. Very highly recommended indeed!
    I too felt this as a religious experience and got touched by it and the funny thing is that it is no individual item or concept but the whole that has this impact. a very human film in the midst of murdering insanity.

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