#147b : The Harp of Burma

[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.

HoB_1World 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.

HoB_2The 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.

HoB_3Animated 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?

HoB_4Well 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!

#147 : Animated Classics of Japanese Literature

ACoJL_1Never judge a book by it’s cover… same goes for anything else that is packaged. Advertisers can sell you anything, so long as the branding is attractive to you. Sometimes the plainest of outer shells contain the richest and most profound inner contents; true beauty at it’s best. Let’s recap about books again for a moment, literature if you will. One of the best ways one can look at a culture is to examine the stories that they tell. These tales give the personal experiences, feelings and outlook of those who choose to write it all down and express. Anime often times gets big and over the top and strives for something newer, brighter, more exciting, etc. But what of the classic literary tales of Japan, don’t they deserve a voice as well? Of course they do and with Animated Classics of Japanese Literature you can have your cake and eat it too without ever reading a line of text.

… Of course if you don’t speak, or comprehend Japanese, you will more than likely be reading subtitles for Animated Classics of Japanese Literature, or any other anime unless you have, or choose the route of a dub in your native language. So in the end watching anime can be like reading a book… sort of. Don’t you feel smarter knowing you watch cartoons? No matter which way you slice it, you are going to be reading. …

ACoJL_2On it’s original release, Animated Classics of Japanese Literature went by another name. Sumitomo Life Insurance Youth Anime Complete Collection is the proper title as seen in Japan. The naming that I am familiar with and using in this entry, was used on the DVDs I found from the old Central Park Media catalog. An odd choice for that company back in the day, but I for one am glad that this was part of their repertoire. Similar to another Nippon Animation production, World Masterpiece Theater (Nippon animated both productions by the way), Animated Classics of Japanese Literature would translate native Japanese stories instead of the Western classics more familiar to the previous. Obviously! Except in the case of Animated Classics of Japanese Literature, these would be pocket sized entries as each episode, or two, or three, was a self contained story instead of the longer drawn out full series format. Hence we have an emphasis on the format of the short story rather than the longer novel.

ACoJL_3Even to this day I have yet to see the complete series. The long out of print DVDs released here in the U.S. only cover a dozen of the 34 total episodes. And if I remember correctly, a few more episodes were also available on VHS. With only about one third of the series under my belt I can safely give a proper analysis due to the overarching format being an omnibus collection of smaller stories. This is not for the usual otaku type searching for magical girls or giant robots. These are mundane stories, very plain and mostly ordinary. Many are very dramatic, or at times comedic, depending on the source. As a fan of World Masterpiece Theater this was a no brainer for myself as I enjoy seeing literary classics come to life from my favorite visual medium of animation. As a lover of Eastern culture and philosophy, I welcomed these stories into my home like a traveling friend. As I have grown up in the west, all of these tales are completely foreign to my native experience and serve as an appetizer to introduce me to more of Japan’s literary history. Many of these episodes were memorable, but I always seem to remember The Harp of Burma most fondly.

To finish off, let’s go back to the beginning… never judge a book by it’s cover. Animated Classics of Japanese Literature may not win awards for glorious designs or high end animation. Animated Classics of Japanese Literature is also, in many cases, not what we gravitate towards our choosing of anime subject matter. These are mostly common everyday stories, similar to many of the books we read in school, or choose to now, that pertain to our cultural definition. Often times these stories have lasting value and even with a more budget appearance, their golden centers still shine.