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“The Burmese Harp” is one of the great examples of downbeat, heart breaking, sad bastard cinema.  Few films so encapsulate the feelings of post-war despondency.  After the thrill of glory seeking is over war leaves little more than a pile of broken men and dead bodies.  As much is clearly expressed by “The Burmese Harp”.

A platoon of musically inclined WWII Japanese soldiers are trouncing through the forest of Burma, eeking out survival.  In a sequence demonstrating the all encompassing power of music, the men learn that the war is over and that their fight is done.  They are crushed.  Their most valued soldier and comrade, the diligent in spirit harp player, is sent on one final mission to talk down a regiment of suicidal soldiers who refuse to surrender to the British.  Though he tries to save the delusional platoon from destruction he can’t talk them down and is almost killed himself.  Thus his engrossing odyssey begins.  The harp player crosses the terrain of Burma impersonating a monk, quickly learning that the bodies of his fallen comrades pepper the land, unburied and rotting.  Though his platoon hopes and prays for his return, he can’t bring himself to rejoin them.  He’s been changed at his soul’s most base level and he must fulfill a new, unsettling mission in life.

There’s little argument to make against “Harp” as quintessential, fundamentally perfect, cinema.  Every note of it borders on heartbreaking.  Filmed without a misstep by Kon Ichikawa, it easily rivals, and surpasses emotionally, the best works of Kurosawa.  Kurosawa made scores of masterpieces, but few hit the consistent, emotional gut punch that “Harp” hits.  Ichikawa is virtually unknown in this country and I hope Criterion can fix that.  Should any of his other work come remotely close to “Harp”, the results would be greatly appreciated.  I have no problem or hesitation calling “The Burmese Harp” one of the great, unparalleled pieces of pure cinema.


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