[Intro: The Harp of Burma represents two episodes from the collective 1986 TV series Animated Classics of Japanese Literature.]
Could you recognize an old friend who reappears after some time like a ghost some how coming back to life in a physical body? Could you understand why a passing face that you know so well and would think that giving a simple greeting of hello would only give silence? Can you understand the emotion on someone’s face, knowing what it is like to be in their shoes? Often we look for our purpose in life, or end up believing the path we are on is our true direction. And then sometimes life happens to deliver you something else all together different out of the blue. The story of The Harp of Burma is perhaps one of the best tales of spiritual transformation affecting one individual’s life.
World War II is winding down as we find a small Japanese unit near the Burmese border. The year is 1945 and to keep their morale high these soldiers often break into song. A young soldier by the name of Mizushima taught his comrades to sing and his musical skills would accompany them with a Burmese harp. It is this fraternal bond that holds the group together and it would be together that the news would arrive that the war these men had been fighting in for some time was now over. Captured and brought to a P.O.W. camp, they would wait until news from Japan would signal their return home. In the mean time Mizushima was asked to volunteer to join a group to alert another Japanese unit about the fact that the war was over. He would take this assignment, but in the process would not return, bringing sadness to his friends.
The possibility of Mizushima being alive never left the spirits of his fellow compatriots. It was in a split second moment, a chance encounter with a passing Buddhist monk (priest in my sub translation) that the reality of Mizushima had indeed survived, or did he? The monk looked very much like him, but how could that be… Mizushima was a Japanese soldier, not a Buddhist monk? Who was this monk and why was he so silent and cautious towards the company of Japanese soldiers? Such is the mystery of The Harp of Burma (The Burmese Harp), originally a book by Michio Takeyama, which unfolds the tale of Mizushima. We follow his coming into contact with a monk’s robe and his sworn vow and duty to pay homage and respect to all his dead compatriots left behind on foreign soil.
Animated Classics of Japanese Literature contained an interesting mix of stories from a meta-series that appears to be very plain and mundane if judged by appearance alone. Several of the episodes I came to enjoy, but The Harp of Burma really stood out; it moved me like few anime before or since. This was one of the best stories I have ever seen about both sacrifice and compassion. War and other traumatic situations always leave a scar to those who experience the event first hand, but does it also change something inside of you? Does that experience make you more apt to show kindness and gratitude, or even change your life direction at the drop of a hat? Dry eyes were non existent for me each time I saw the two episode special, particularly at the ending. So often we ask what can I do to make my life better, but how often do we ask, what can I do to ease someone else’s suffering with no expectation of anything in return?
Well known in Japan, The Harp of Burma (The Burmese Harp) also exists as two live action film adaptations, both directed by Kon Ichikawa. His original version in 1956 is considered a classic and after watching the trailer I have strong interest to track down and watch this version. It reminds me of Ingmar Bergman’s work from that era. It’s black and white, portrays serious character analysis and feels like a film made by crafted hands (no computers!): all yummy in my book. This can act as a great substitute if you can’t find the anime and of course there is always the original novel. It Is not very often I find anime like The Harp of Burma and it may not be too everyone’s liking, but in terms of expressing the human experience of transformation of the soul, The Harp of Burma is one of my all time favorites. Period!