Criterion has surprised me once again with this beautiful film. It amazes me ow they continue to find these “diamonds in the rough”. Films that couldn’t possibly exist, yet here they are, widely available on the mas market. The Burmese Harp is a Japanese war film that is decidedly anti-war, and features some truly beautiful music.
At the end of World War II, a group of Japanese soldiers find themselves in Burma, held by British forces as prisoners of war. One soldier from the party has spent his free t…me in Burma learning to play a native harp. This skill proves valuable upon capture, until an unfortunate incident leaves him in a state where he is thought to be dead. Upon recovery, the soldier finds true enlightenment, and takes the viewer along on the journey.
This film features a Mono Japanese soundtrack from 1956, and it sounds quite impressive. Early in the film, there are several scenes with large groups of soldiers singing. While loud choral music is often times the main source of audio distortion on older films, the effect is clear and quite moving. Those worried that higher volume levels will lead to higher levels of distortion can ease their fears. The audio track on this disc is of the utmost importance, and Criterion has treated it with the care that it deserves.
While the video quality isn’t quite as good as that of the audio, it is an impressive offering nonetheless. Films of this age, especially foreign films, tend to look as though they were shot in a snowstorm. These reels have undergone a major restoration, however, making them much cleaner than the average classic film. There are still some issues to contend with, however. Some scratches and grain are still present, especially in scene transitions. Flicker is also a bit of a problem, as is a “yellowing” of some of the images. Ultimately, these quirks don’t prove to be a major problem, and the images turn out to be cleaner than I was expecting them to be.
There seem to be fewer extras here than usually appear on Criterion titles. However, sometimes the fact that the film is on DVD at all is enough to qualify as something special. Such is the case sere, as I would have been perfectly fine with no extras being included in the package.
What we are treated to is the film’s original theatrical trailer, as well as Criterion’s customary thick booklet, this one featuring an essay by film critic and historian Tony Rayns. This essay talks about the origin of the film, its production and some of the important themes the narrative explores.
The extras finish up with a coupleof interviews that were shot specifically for inclusion of this DVD. The first interview is with director Kon Ichikawa, and he second with lead actor Rentaro Mikuni. Only Criterion has the pull to be able to obtain such fascinating footage over 50 years after the film’s original release.
War has always been horrible, and it will always be so. As long as war exists, films such as this one will feel modern and resonate with viewers. The Burmese Harp is quite possibly the greatest anti-war film that I have ever seen. It somehow manages to not be preachy in its message, but instead let the images of the aftermath of war speak for themselves. This is a film that is at once beautiful and horrible. In this modern age of conflict and combat, films such as this one beg to be seen by a broader audience. It is my sincere hope that viewers will at least rent this film, as its message is universal.
Special Features List
- New video interviews with director Kon Ichikawa and actor Rentaro Mikuni
- Original theatrical trailer
- Booklet with a new essay by critic and historian Tony Rayns