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Another season, another reason to bless Criterion for making DVD the most exciting medium for seeing classic Asian cinema. This time it's Ichikawa's The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain.
Watching Ichikawa Kon's films provides instructive examples of screen "adaptations" of literary sources. His most well-known films both in Japan and the rest of the world are based on equally well-known books, among them my favourites Enjo (1959, based on Mishima Yukio's The Temple of the Golden Pavilion) and Odd Obsession (1959, based on Tanizaki Junichiro's Kagi). Probably his two most famous films based on literary sources are The Burmese Harp (1956, based on Takeyama Michio's novel of the same name) and Fires on the Plain (1959, based on Ooka Shohei's novel).
Given this short list, it would be too easy to write Ichikawa off as being merely a translator of literature. Let's go further than this and say that contrary to simply transposing words to the screen via dialogue and situations, all the above-mentioned works demonstrate forcefully the amount of visual perspicacity and dynamic understanding of the differences between film and literature that Ichikawa and screenwriter Natto Wada (Ichikawa's wife, incidentally) possessed that make the films stand in their own right and go beyond the simple status of "adaptations." And anyone who claims that his two major initial influences in visual media are Walt Disney and Yamanaka Sadao must be more interesting than your run-of-the-mill assignment director.
What concerns us here most specifically are The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain, both of which the Criterion Collection has issued on DVD this past month. Though three years separate the two productions, one cannot speak about one without eventually discussing the other; thanks to Criterion yet again, excuses of not being able to see one or the other are no longer valid. Moreover, these DVDs help to make two "famous films talked about" become ever more so "famous films seen," given that Ichikawa's films are less accessible than other Japanese directors of the postwar period (e.g. Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi).
Why exactly The Burmese Harp gives way to Fires on the Plain -- or vice versa -- is that both tackle the tail end of the Asia Pacific War from the point of view of the Japanese soldier: one in Burma, another in the Philippines. The theme of divine sacrifice and loyalty to the emperor until one's dying breath? Not quite. There's an illustration of such an ideology in The Burmese Harp, but the context of defeat as actual recent history at the time and as theme called for new idioms to talk about (the) war, and both the films and the novels on which they are based manifested these new idioms in the fifties. Following the novels, the films take an individual from a group context and explore with each male protagonist the limits of sense-making, humanity and carnage that a person can experience in the midst of war -- on the losing side, at that. Both feature a voice-over, but not necessarily delivered by the singled-out individual whose emotional/physical trajectories the camera gives us to observe. If these details qualify the two films as variations of each other and as "literary," then such assumptions need to end here.
The most striking aspect of both films is the paucity of dialogue. That they're from novels makes it all the more striking, and it's from this point where Ichikawa's and Wada's visual and narrative intervention is most felt. The two films couldn't be more different actually: The Burmese Harp can be described as a narrative of spiritual ascent, while Fires on the Plain is one of descent. In the former is a company stationed in Burma that surrenders to the Allied Forces. Before being taken as POWs, private Mizushima (Yasui Shoji) is ordered by his captain (Mikuni Rentaro) to convince another company holed up in a mountain to cease fire and surrender. Through this company's imperial loyalty and self-destruction, Mizushima is thought dead and therefore separated from his musically inclined captain and company. As he attempts to rejoin them, he experiences the epiphany of healing the souls of Japanese dead left unburied around the Burmese countryside by providing them proper burial. As the film progresses, he subtly dons the monk's habit, takes monastic vows and decides to remain in Burma while his company returns to Japan. This narrative trajectory is clear and structured enough, but while watching the film, the pace becomes slowed down so that the flesh of the narrative hardly sticks. Or rather, hovers in mid-air as the spectator's emotions and intellect become stimulated more by simply watching Mizushima transform imperceptibly into a mute, revered monk from the time a Buddhist priest heals his wounds to the moment when he turns his back on his beloved company-family to fulfill what he sees as his spiritually-bound duty to the dead.
It's worth repeating that what prevents The Burmese Harp from lapsing wholly into melodramatic sentimentality as Mizushima discovers his "calling" is that there isn't really any extended exposition to explain away something as profound and private as his literal, imperceptible change of habit from a military uniform to a monk's robe. Of course, the epilogue where the captain reads Mizushima's farewell letter to the company smacks of the literary/explanatory, and as the camera registers the company members' tearful reactions, Japanese atrocities in Burma are all but forgotten. Ultimately, this focus on the individual Japanese soldier makes the Southeast Asian location of both films interchangeable (in fact, both were shot mainly in Japan). Tony Rayns' essay that comprises the DVD booklet mentions Joan Mellen's critique of the film as a "beautiful whitewash" and though he counters this well enough, it can sound a bit forced in the midst of some interesting production history notes.
I'm a bit more partial to Fires on the Plain -- where the "flesh" of the narrative takes on new meaning -- since it completely abandons any ambition to find a harmonized balance between the bleakness/horror of war and individual "well-being" and more significantly, any ambition to have a plot. Simply following private Tamura through the Philippine countryside where he ultimately comes face-to-face with cannibalism for survival among the Japanese soldiers is enough of a mammoth and horrific task so that plot claims become irrelevant. Moreover, the black humor and detached observation for which Ichikawa's films are known emerge here at their most powerful.
Also marvelous is Funakoshi Eiji's performance as private Tamura. In the video interview with Ichikawa included on the DVD, he recounts that Funakoshi was so committed to the role of the starving, tuberculosis-stricken Tamura that he gave up eating for two weeks. When it was time to shoot, he collapsed and inadvertently delayed shooting until his recovery. All "recovery" aside, Funakoshi delivers a terrific, unpretentious physical performance. His constant treading almost recalls the "tramp, tramp, tramp" of silent film comedian Harry Langdon and lines the environment of imminent defeat, corpses, soldiers trudging in mud and under the rain -- and looking more like a zombie film -- with brief glimpses of, dare I say it, calm. His very movement and tread create the film's off-kilter pace. (Sadly, the Criterion release of Fires on the Plain in mid-March this year was followed by Funakoshi's death.)
Another interesting aspect of Funakoshi's performance is the several lines of Tagalog he speaks to the Filipinos he encounters during his Odyssean journey. Compared to The Burmese Harp, in Fires on the Plain the ire and suspicion of the local population for the Japanese is quite explicit -- however brief such moments are. What's strange and disappointing about the sequences in Tagalog is that they're not entirely subtitled, which is almost equivalent to editing out the dialogue, however "trivial" the sequences/dialogue may be.
Okay, so this is minor quibbling on my part on an otherwise fantastic DVD of a great, disturbing film. But here's one more: neither of the DVDs in question contain audio commentaries. However, the Rayns essay and the one by Chuck Stephens for Fires on the Plain continue the great Criterion standard of film criticism wedded to restoration and digital transfers. On the latter point, the DVDs present another great standard: the contrast in both cases is exceptional, despite occasional blotches and scratches. In particular, the Fires on the Plain DVD gives Kobayashi Setsuo's stunning cinematography its rightful due. One expects nothing less than luminous, transfers and films alike, when it comes to capturing the emotional and physical limits to which war and the memories of it can bring to people.
Date Posted: 4/13/2007