The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Asian Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
No film has distilled more hauntingly the sadness of war than Kon Ichikawa’s Burmese Harp (1956). With Nobi, Ichikawa turned instead to war’s savagery and cruelty.
It begins with a slap in the face—in closeup. The face belongs to Private Tamura, in the Philippines in 1945—the Imperial Army’s raggedy last gasp. His squad leader is the one disciplining Tamura. The young consumptive was prematurely released from hospital; he should have stayed there five days instead of three, because who can be cured of tuberculosis in just three days? Moreover, food rations for five days had been sent along to the hospital for him. He is told to try to be readmitted; if that attempt fails, the squad leader continues, Tamura must fulfill his patriotic duty by blowing himself up with a hand grenade. He is no use to the platoon since he is constantly falling down on the job—at the moment, digging ditches.
Nobi becomes Tamura’s odyssey—one punctuated by mysterious sightings of distant fires on the plain. The hospital is blown up, but Tamura survives to endure a series of incidents that encapsulate war’s barbarism and the base impulses, such as selfishness, that it releases from humanity’s Pandora’s box. Patriotism, nationalism: these prove to be the bunk.
Eventually Tamura joins up with two soldiers who, without his realizing it, are cannibalizing human flesh. He dines with them. The two kill each other. When Tamura tries surrendering, an American kills him. Wilfred Owen wrote of “the Pity of war”; Nobi addresses the horror of it.
The fires on the plain are the illusion that war is productive or ennobling. Even Tamura, who had hoped to retain dignity and decency, is mauled by it. He dies for nought, with human meat in his belly.
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