Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Burmese Harp

ビルマの竪琴 (birma no tategoto, The Burmese Harp, 1940) is a 1946 children's book by TAKEYAMA Michio (竹山道雄, 1903-1984), which ICHIKAWA Kon (市川 崑) made into a film with the same title in 1956. There is an English translation, Harp of Burma by Howard Hibbett, first published by Tuttle in 1966. The story follows a group of Japanese soldiers in Burma in the last days of the second world war and in the time between their surrender to the British and their return to Japan a year later.

Apart from an introductory chapter, the story is told by an anonymous member of the group, narrating as a representative, not so much telling us his own personal feelings and observations as what the whole group saw and felt. In fact very few of the soldiers are characterised individually and only one is named, the central character Mizushima (水島). Apart from Mizushima, the most important character is the calm and serious captain, who had been a music teacher in civilian life and now keeps the soldiers in spirits with choral singing.

Mizushima is a private (first class) who has discovered a passion for music in this setting, constructing a Burmese harp. 
You know, I think if you collected together the instruments that soldiers have, it would make an interesting museum. Wherever soldiers go, if they have any free time, someone is sure to make an instrument. Some of them are specialists; and it's astonishing what good instruments they can create, making do with the materials available. In the wind section, you go from flutes made by cutting reeds and bamboo and boring holes in them all the way to proper trumpets made by putting together pieces of broken machinery. In the percussion section, I've seen everything from the skin of a dog or cat stretched over a wooden frame to drums made by stretching some kind of skin over an oil drum. They said it was tiger skin, but, well, I don't know about that. Anyway it made an incredible, reverberating noise, and was the pride of that troop.
Mizushima is the troop's scout and goes ahead of them in Burmese clothing to check that they are not going to run into British soldiers. In one village, the Japanese find themselves surrounded by Gurkas and British and Indian soldiers, waiting in ambush in the jungle outside. Pretending to still be celebrating the feast they had been enjoying, the Japanese keep singing their traditional songs, as they push the cart with their ammunition out of the village. A moment before they turn from singing to attack the enemy, the captain stops them. The British soldiers are singing the same songs. (In the nineteenth century, there was a westernising movement in music education, that brought many British songs to Japan with new texts, as well as Japanese compositions in a western style.) The threat of fighting passes, and they find that the war is over and Japan has surrendered.

Nearby a different group has not surrendered so easily. The captain is asked to help and sends Mizushima to try and convince the hold outs to accept defeat. Transported across the country to a prisoner of war camp in Mudan, they wait for him to return; but when months pass without sign of him, it becomes clear that something has gone wrong, particularly when they find that the survivors of the group he was meant to convince had in the end surrendered and are being treated for their injuries in a nearby hospital.  Unable to find out more, they have to assume that Mizushima is dead; but then the captain, driven by his guilt at sending him on the mission, begins to suspect that maybe a buddhist monk they have seen could be the surviving Mizushima. The soldiers fluctuate between belief and rejection, as various clues make the identity seem more or less likely. Meanwhile the captain starts teaching a parrot, the brother of the one that the monk always carries on his shoulder.
Stroking the parrot, he said, "There, there, we've all been ignoring you, haven't we? From now on we'll look after you properly. In return, you can learn some Japanese."

The parrot shook itself with happiness. It clacked its hard bill and stuck out a cold rubber like tongue and pecked the captain's hand.

What the captain had started doing was really strange. He would divide up the food he received three times a day, then he would say, "Oy, Mizushima," and when the parrot repeated it, he would let it feed from the palm of his hand. Then he would say, "Come with us" and when the parrot repeated that he would give it a share of meat from his side dish. Finally he would say, "Home to Japan."  
They send the parrot to the monk; but although he receives it, he seems unwilling to admit that he is Mizushima, appearing only as a silent watching figure outside the camp. Only when they have finally embarked on the boat home do they learn from a letter what had kept him in Burma.

The narration, despite the serious subject matter, mostly runs along calmly and cheerfully. Some bits are even like a children's adventure story. In particular an episode in a cannibal village, wisely dropped from the film, reads as if it came out of a nineteenth century adventure. The book and film are sometimes described as anti war; and they're certainly not pro war. It might be better to see them as depicting people coming to terms with being the losers in a mistaken war and working out what they should be doing with their lives now.

The film is very close to the book. There are hardly any scenes or dialogue which are not taken from it. The main difference, except for some abbreviation, is that Mizushima's narrative is inserted into the story earlier. As Takeyama comments, the central part of the book is structured like a detective story, except that the mystery is only important for the soldiers' feelings. Since the narrative is so even paced, readers are probably willing enough to read first the troops' account, then Mizushima's; but a film viewer has different expectations.

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