In 1956, the world was coming to terms with the new hegemony created by the defeat of Japan in World War II. The battles in Burma [now known as Myanmar] had been particularly horrific, and many in the West had been instructed by war-time propaganda to view the Japanese soldiers as mindless killing machines.
Kon Ichikawa's film, The Burmese Harp, was the first to tackle Japan's new self-identity after the war, reframing their defeat in a way that resonated with domestic audiences to such a degree that it became Japan's top box office hit in the year it was released.
The film also drew the attention of Hollywood's Academy Awards, where it was nominated for Best Foreign film the following year.
This was not the first time that America's filmmakers had turned their eyes to the East and Buddhist themes. In 1919, D. W. Griffiths had made Broken Blossoms (with all white actors in the lead roles), and in 1937, Frank Capra had scored a huge hit with Lost Horizon, set in Tibet (again with all white actors in the lead roles). However, The Burmese Harp was the first serious, Buddhist movie actually made by Buddhists, to screen in America.
Ichikawa's portrayal of Japanese soldiers as ordinary folk with the same aspirations, fears, and frailties as any other person when pushed to the limits of horror, was not matched in any other films until Clint Eastwood's 2006 epic, Letters from Iwo Jima.
There is no doubt that the film may seem dated, insofar as it was made within the cinematic paradigms of its era, but its message remains as resonant as ever: war is never the solution to humanity's problems. That message is presented with breath-taking cinematography, an emphasis on character development that was largely absent from American film of the period, and visually striking locations.
Burma provided a unique opportunity for Ichikawa to present a Buddhism untainted by the scandals in which Japanese Buddhist institutions found themselves during the war. Many of those institutions were unwilling collaborators with the Imperial war effort, but many had been enthusiastic supporters of Japan's expansionist agenda. Looking back, that was clearly NOT congruent with the Buddha's teachings they claimed to espouse. Ichikawa's embrace of the Buddhist voice to show a different path was both a reaffirmation for domestic audiences and a breath of fresh air for American viewers.
How ironic, then, that Myanmar finds itself now promoting an unprecedented campaign of ethnic cleansing targeting its Muslim citizens, in the name of Buddhist purity!
The Burmese Harp is sure to be a profound topic for sangha discussions around engaged Buddhist response to war, xenophobia, and the global refugee crisis.
Visit the film's product page for more information: THE BURMESE HARP.