#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!

#220 : Harmagedon

“That’s great it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, and aeroplanes… Lenny Bruce is not afraid”… ? … hold on a minute, is this like the end of the world as we know it, the end times, the apocalypse? Kind of and do I feel fine?… I don’t think so if that’s the case and yet from all endings throughout time they are also become new beginnings. Combine the ultimate disaster scenario with an invading evil presence from the far side of the universe and what do you get?, BIG trouble. In the year of 1983 I could sum this up with the title of a movie that was a box office hit in Japan. Let me guess is it Total Armageddon? Nope, more like Harmagedon.

Harma_1aHeroes unite! The evil Genma has made his way through the universe, bringing terror and destruction to every world he touches. Not bad for a large cloud like red skull? He is now set on Earth to claim as his own except he runs into a little problem. He has to face a squad of people who hail from all around the world, from different backgrounds, nationalities and races who happen to have psionic powers… almost sounds like a variation of Cyborg 009 in a way. And it should as the original source material, and title of the film, was known as Genma Taisen (The Great Battle, or War of Genma) a cooperative effort between Kazumasa Hirai and Shotaro Ishinomori (009’s creator). Genma Taisen even had it’s origins in the 1960s too! The first half of Harmagedon, and it’s a long half, showcases only a trio of our heroic cast: a psychic princess from Transylvania (really!), a resurrected robot warrior and our main protagonist, a young Japanese man named, Jo, who is having a very bad day. First he finds out he is not on the baseball team, then he gets dumped by his girlfriend and finally he ends up being chased by some strange robot in an alley that keeps shooting at him. Talk about a rough day!

Harma_2Another take on ‘Heroes unite!’ as we now look at another group of people, those who were responsible for the making of this mammoth of a film. First is Haruki Kadakawa who is not a name I often equate with anime often, except when I see his name plastered at the beginning of any opening credit sequence with that beautiful phoenix like logo. He was the executive producer and a high roller at that who made it loud and clear that he was the one funding this project! Let us next move to the powerhouse studio known as Madhouse and one of it’s best directors, the amazing Rintaro. Love him or hate him, his work is monumentally visual which sometimes looses a little depth in terms of story, or character. Next in line is our character designer who was a young manga artist that would get his first shot in the anime world. He would become ultra famous for a movie from 1988 known as Akira, but in 1983 he was just plain and simple Katsuhiro Otomo. And finally we need some music, so who could fill this roll? We need someone big, bombastic and different! How about Keith Emerson? Whoa really like from Emerson, Lake, Palmer? The guy who brought a massive Moog synthesizer on tour and had a reputation for stabbing knives into Hammond organs, amongst other things. Yeah we’ll take him! “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends…”

Harma_3Many often poo poo Harmagedon as a film, particularly here in the west. In Japan it was a huge blockbuster at the theaters and popular. Did you see the reference in Project A-Ko for instance? We of course did not have much exposure to the original Genma Taisen sources that had been around for decades in Japan. That and the over emphasis of action and the visuals make Harmagedon a feast for the eyes, but awkward in terms of plot. You really have to know and have a passion for Genma Taisen to really love it, or just see Harmagedon as an example of an arthouse action film. And anyway, aren’t many blockbuster action films just visual spectacle. Yes, but not on the level of artistic beauty that Harmagedon exudes. Plus the emphasis of more realistic designs for both Tokyo and Otomo’s characters, as well as Rintaro’s touch, gives Harmagedon an edgy look that was not seen often in anime at that time. Don’t quote me on that, I heard this from many sources and they are so right!

Harma_4Several themes are brought to the surface, but one that draws a good amount of attention is some very open racism, which eventually resolves itself from understanding and compassion. Compassion is a great word to use I would say as an overall theme of this movie as we as humans need to respect the diversity of who we are and take care of this beautiful green world we live on which is not separate from us, but is a part of us. Our protagonist Jo also has his own feelings to resolve, all stemming from anger towards himself, the death of loved ones and even getting dumped and feeling not up to playing for the high school baseball team. Transforming anger into compassion, hate into love and believing in yourself is for me the major theme of Harmagedon. I understand this very well as this is a core issue I have been dealing with personally. And as of this writing in 2020, who can not say there is a lot of anger and frustration in our collective world? Jo would rise above his hate and is it me, or does this film also remind you in a way to Otomo’s Akira? In that movie we see the destructive power of personal hatred affecting each and every one of us. Both films end in total destruction and yet in both films there is a glimmer of hope that we can start again because being with people you love and that in turn believe in you, no matter the circumstances, can show a way toward one’s next season in life.

… I apologize as this one went a little longer than normal, but then again this movie’s running time feels like it runs longer than normal… maybe it was destined to be this way?

#27b : The Rose of Versailles

For my original entry for The Rose of Versailles, click here.

Sometimes you have to recover your tracks in order to move forward. In terms of classic anime and in particular, The Rose of Versailles, I have a little more to say…

2019 Original Entry

Sometimes I wonder if I will ever re-watch certain shows that sit on my shelf or on a hard drive ever again? About a month or so ago I have given one particular show a second go and by the title of the entry it is of course The Rose of Versailles. It seemed like the right time. I didn’t question it, or wonder why. I just needed The Rose of Versailles. After a tough winter with nasty snows, isolation, some setbacks and a gnawing, or itch that chronically comes and goes, the The Rose of Versailles became a sea of calm and a vision of reassurance to say… hey, everything is will be ok. … OK time to get personal.

RoV1The Rose of Versailles has high regard for being a standard of anime excellence. Shojo perfection? Though I feel the show goes beyond the general demographic designation… as most anime does in any case. And with the show turning 40 this year of 2019, it still looks and presents flawlessly; a gorgeous visual masterpiece! The first half directed by Tadao Nagahama is bright and sparkly reflecting naive youth with the second half under the helm of Osamu Dezaki (GENIUS!) is gritty and intense showing the politics of revolutionary France. Beautiful and timeless, this is a show I am honored to share as a virtual twin (both RoV and I joined the world in 1979).

RoV2So what of the personal? The Rose of Versailles’ main protagonist. Oscar Francois de Jarjayes. is one of two women in anime that I whole heartedly admire; the other being Remy Shimada from GoShogun. Blonde, graceful, intelligent and independent speak to both ladies, but Oscar has something else, a particular fragility. Her sense of duty as a noble, a military commander and her enforced gender classification. Raised as a ‘boy’ and expected to follow into her father’s footsteps, much dysphoria abounds in the beautiful Oscar. This expectation of a gender role, to be a ‘man’ in public, tugs at the truth in her heart that she is a woman. Yet also the role of being a noble who has lived in luxury and comfort and seeing first hand the life outside the gilded cage. Being rich and powerful in a position of authority is not all that it is cracked up to be and the same goes for being a ‘man’ as well. To quote Alan Watts, “don’t envy rich people, it’s a great mistake. Don’t envy anyone.”

Personally I understand both of Oscar’s dilemma’s. I am not ‘rich’ in the way we often think with lots of money, fancy car and house, etc. I am comfortable, yes, as I live in the U.S. and have a ‘job’, but I have great health, my mind and intuitive senses. No amount of money can put a price on those three. Living in the affluent west and seeing much of the flash from TV screens, luxury items and being in stores with a glut of stuff… ok most of it can be classified as crap that is constantly being barraged through every sense imaginable. I must question, is this all life is? Is this to be my life? Living in a gilded cage of constant consumption where we are taught there is never enough and you have to bleed yourself dry in order to fit in? Like Oscar, I see the ‘nobility’ of our backgrounds as not real and limiting. Monarchy or capitalist state… looks about the same to me? We just need more corsets and petticoats instead of suits and wingtips. The other dilemma of playing the role of ‘being a man‘, what is that really? Only a facade?

RoV3In terms of the winter of discontent from 2018/2019, I had The Rose of Versailles as a catalyst to pull me out of my depression. Watching this time round made personal issues come into a better perspective; including waking up occasionally in pools of tears. Beyond these personal points, it is a show about love, politics, desires and revolutionary France with occasional sparkly eyes. God I love shojo anime! The Rose of Versailles, a bonfide masterpiece, oh how I love you.  I hope for this show, or any particular anime that you watch, you somehow take something of it with you to heart. Because sometimes a show is more a mirror of your inner psyche than just ephemeral entertainment. Think about that one!

2020 Addendum

A few things to add…

  1. I consider this a blessing that something odd and bizarre happened with the other entry as this allows me to proofread again…
  2. The tides of revolution that were prevalent in late 18th century France would seem a scary place to be… and yet in 2020, it is kind of at our front doors. If only open dialogue and discussion were the norm. Yet the tides of time of  current events seem to favor a showcasing of ignorance and arrogant soap boxing. I hope justice is not blind in terms of karma.
  3. I will admit early on I removed many references I had at the time in my 2019 writing that I was dealing with some gender dysphoria. This is not something I need to hide from, but as a private individual in a more conservative area, it is something that I feel I have to be discreet about.
  4. 2020… could this be the fall of the decadent West, the gilded cage, that I eluded to earlier? Or perhaps, an evolution towards true freedom?