The film narrates how private Mizushima, a soldier of one of the Japanese military units during the time of the surrender of Japanese army at the end of WWII, took personal responsibility for the disaster of destruction created by the war. He is not accusing any particular side. He is taking the tragedy as a personal challenge to never return to the regular life which leads to war like river is to the sea.
The power of “Burmese Harp” lies in stylistic particularity of Ichikawa;s description of how Mizushima came to the decision not to return to civilian life and exactly what kind of life he invents for himself and is ready to endure to address his guilt before the fallen soldiers and civilians and for all the destruction the war has brought to the world. The degree of such a monumental destruction makes finger-pointing blasphemy, a non-sensitivity of vulgar souls, as it makes regular life a monstrosity and a passive preparation for future wars.
Mizushima’s creative effort of a radical transformation of his life, of a complete change of identity, took neither purely religious (to redeem sinfulness of human condition) nor (secularly) intellectual form (to understand what exactly in human life creates wars with inevitability of eternal return). Ichikawa made us witness how human individuality is born from the unifying and dissolving power of groups. Mizushima’s creative solution is courageously aesthetic – to pray and ask for forgiveness from the earth, from the sacred soil of the innocent land that was used by the fighting sides. Rapport with earth must be achieved through the music of Burmese harp.
The grief over the killed on both sides instead of cheer about winning (a childish reaction) or about surviving and being spared (egoistic one), became in the film an example of adequate perception of war. The film is full of songs and its melodies that as a sublimation of grief address our suffering paired with war.
The richness of Ichikawa’s cinematographic language in “Burmese Harp” is overwhelming. The film’s symbolic inventions and elaborations make it an innovative text-book for teaching how to elaborate life through agile cinematic visual semantics.
The competence and inventiveness of Ichikawa’s depiction of the psychology of the existentially creative process makes this film a model work of serious filmmaking.