The Burmese Harp / Fires on the Plain
1956/1959Director: Kon Ichikawa
Cast: Rentaro Mikuni, Shôji Yasui, Eiji Funakoshi
he sun is always lingering somewhere just behind the trees in Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp, with diffuse patches of light landing on some parts of the scene, and ignoring others: basically recognizable to anyone who’s ever been in a forest or seen Rashomon. Ichikawa, now 91 and still making movies every few years, is a notoriously difficult case for auteurists—a man who’s made too many comedies and war movies of too many varieties to be precisely pinned down as having a certain view of the world. Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain (1959) are typically cited: both war movies, the first sentimental, the second scabrous. But somewhat ironically, the chief delight in both is Ichikawa’s refusal to define the world with any particular style, preferring to set up each film as a pastoral excursion through forest and fields, in natural light, watching the light play randomly on bodies—often dead.
That each film takes a completely different stand on humanity, on the other hand, can be attributed to situational differences—The Burmese Harp takes place in a monotonous POW camp after the war; Fires on the Plain in the midst of chaos and war—though that’s really beside the point. Each is something of a message movie: War can really be chaos sometimes! We can all be redeemed! Or, more likely, just die.
And here, the movies get problematic. First up is The Burmese Harp, a fable that takes place in the aftermath of the war, but plays something of the same role Flags of Our Fathers did in Clint Eastwood’s own war diptych last year, as the calmer and sentimental prelude about the traumas of war to the actual war movie itself. This time around, though, it’s the better one. Besides the relaxed cinematography, there’s a sort of Powell/Pressburgian jauntiness to the thing: the anonymous army unit at the film’s drifting center spends most of its time singing, with one member (Shoji Yasui) as harpist to play a catchy tune as warning when he sees enemy troops approaching. After the Japanese surrender, he steals a monk’s robes and eventually his role as well, turning to the ascetic life, wandering around, and playing his harp—the imprisoned unit, of course, recognizes the tune, and from there the story turns around some more eccentric twists involving parrots.
It’s a lovely and poignant little movie clearly striving at every moment to be lovely and poignant, but it works not only because of its cinematography, which at nearly every moment gives a sense of light hitting a world of darkness, but because of some sample war scenes at the beginning, in which another company decides to single-handedly keep fighting the war after it’s been lost. If the film nudges toward a life-affirming message, it’s probably only because death seems to come a lot more easily than living; rare, in these two films, is the man who’s alive, and in Ichikawa’s graveyard, life does start to seem like some precious deviation. It helps, too, that the film appropriately refuses to articulate its implicit (and absurd) platitudes about verbal words dividing, and the language of music uniting. Which in the end of the film, isn’t even the case.
Often recognized as one of the most horrific war movies ever made, Fires on the Plain isn’t even a war movie at all. A slapstick zombie film, perhaps; if The Burmese Harp is a Disney animation (Ichikawa’s acknowledged primary influence), Fires on the Plain strives to be a Warner Bros. cartoon. A glazed-eye soldier wanders through a pretty landscape inhabited by cannibals and criminals sponsored by the government; potentially an influence on Jean Luc-Godard’s and Sam Peckinpah’s far more brilliant Weekend and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Fires on the Plain opts, instead, to be a gag-a-every-five-minutes gas. The structure is episodic, with the episodes as moments instead of scenes.
The soldier trades a company salt so that in exchange they won’t eat him; the soldier points a gun at a couple retrieving salt, begins to put the gun down, thinks better of it, and shoots the woman; a man raises his head from a corpse, his mouth and beard speckled with blood; lights flare up in the forest—“Tanks!” They aren’t fighting for their ideals; they’re fighting for their yams. All of which is to say that the characters are only alive in the sense that they’re hungry. Just as the happily married couple is typically a lot less interesting than the couple falling in love, one might add that unless you’re George Romero or Robert Bresson, the dead man’s way less interesting than the dying one. And here, everyone’s more or less dead.
Despite the far too intermittent moments of cinema-fist, most of the movie is really just people sitting and wandering in forests and hills. Slackly edited, the movie seems to be saying, deliberately or not, that war just isn’t that compelling once almost all of your own enemies are from your side. Regardless, these passages in nature are in some sense the strongest of the movie as well, simply due to their beauty. Ichikawa started off as an illustrator, and it literally shows: Fires on the Plain is certainly the darker of these two films, in all ways, and Ichikawa mostly exploits the film as an opportunity for exercises in form and composition, using light to stencil out silhouettes in otherwise complete darkness. And so the double feature, along with Tokyo Olympiad (the only other of Ichikawa’s 88 films available on DVD), does make some sort of case for consistency in the director’s work. He’s a man quite skilled at looking at his characters as bodies, if less so at observing them as actual characters. Likewise with the viewer: the films are certainly nice enough to look at—if a bit less so to actually watch.
The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain are currently available on DVD.
By: David Pratt-Robson
Published on: 2007-04-16
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