Harp of Burma (1956)

“I cannot leave the bones lying scattered on the hills.”

Harp of Burma Poster

At the end of World War II, a Japanese soldier (Shozi Yasui) in Burma is sent to inform another unit that Japan has surrendered; however, the unit refuses to stop fighting, and everyone but Yasui is killed. Devastated, Yasui pretends to be a Buddhist monk and wanders the countryside, burying and paying honor to the dead. In the meantime, his platoon leader (Rentaro Mikuni) conducts an intensive search for the missing soldier.


Harp of Burma (also known as The Burmese Harp) was Japanese director Kon Ichikawa’s first successful film in America, and remains one of his most accessible movies to date. After a somewhat hokey beginning — in which we are introduced to a Japanese platoon in the final stages of WWII which sings to keep its spirits up — the story quickly becomes more interesting, as Yasui is plunged into an existential crisis and begins his spiritual journey. At this point, Harp of Burma turns into a character study, with Yasui symbolizing veterans everywhere who must find a way to cope with the impossible reality of random death all around them.

Rather than retreating into anger, denial, or masochistic behavior, Yasui chooses a path of healing and reflection; in the meantime, his loyal platoon leader is obsessed with finding the missing soldier, who has become nearly a mythical figure to his fellow soldiers. Ichikawa thus shows us two divergent, yet equally relevant, approaches to dealing with the chaos and loss of war: Yasui honors the dead (who deserve attention and respect), while Mikuni focuses on preserving the living — who will ultimately be responsible for creating a new, post-war Japan.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Yasui as the harp-playing soldier struggling to make sense of the devastation around him
  • Beautiful cinematography of the war-torn Burmese landscape
  • A powerful and unique depiction of post-war trauma leading to spiritual awakening

Must See?
Yes. Along with Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain (1959), this remains one of the best cinematic reflections on post-war devastation.


(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One Response to “Harp of Burma (1956)”

  1. Essential viewing. An extraordinary film on all counts: directing, writing, acting, design, photography, editing, music. Stunning, really, and realized so perfectly that there’s little to add.

    [Note: A year earlier, director Ichikawa gave newcomer Shoji Yasui his first role, in the marvelous film adaptation of Soseki Natsume’s novel ‘Kokoro’ (‘The Heart’). That film shows up in retrospectives here; sadly, it’s otherwise unavailable. As for the dependable – and still hard-working – Rentaro Mikuni, he’s also good in ‘Kwaidan’ (1964) and Juzo Itami’s ‘A Taxing Woman’s Return’ (1988), among others.]

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