By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “The Burmese Harp,” Criterion Collection]
It’s a cinephile’s burden to observe the brouhaha about a contemporary film that does nothing at all that wasn’t already executed better in the medium-distant, but still forgotten, film culture past. Clint Eastwood’s “Letters to Iwo Jima” was a perfectly serviceable portrait of WWII warfare made remarkable, in many critics’ eyes and in the purview of the Academy, by the fact that it dared to focus sympathetically on the Japanese during the titular battle. For a Hollywood film, it was a first, and for Eastwood, a kind of antidote to the weepy Greatest Generation ballad that was “Flags of Our Fathers.”
But in a more general sense, it was a strange and largely unnecessary retread manufactured by an all-American crew as if we hadn’t already seen, since the 1950s, the Japanese war films of Kon Ichikawa. Some of us even remember them. Most Japanese filmmakers including Akira Kurosawa were dedicated in the postwar years to avoiding any sort of direct address of the Pacific conflict, for which Japan bore a crushing amount of guilt and responsibility. (What the Emperor’s military machine did to China alone would qualify for a top-five war crimes honor in any century.) Not Ichikawa, whose films have dug unflinchingly into the then-recent history of genocidal massacre, cannibalism, mort-lust and kamikaze destruction all seen as the pitiful dehumanization of Japanese citizens and Japan itself. (Yasuo Masumura did a good job this way, too, in the long-unseen 1966 combat-zone corker “Red Angel,” lately come to DVD from Fantoma.) Ichikawa’s masterpiece remains 1956’s “The Burmese Harp,” which, when it won the top prize at Cannes, awakened the world to the possibilities of a true Japanese New Wave, beyond the rock star Kurosawa and the aging mandarins Ozu and Mizoguchi.
“The Burmese Harp” harbors something of a mushy, sentimental heart its portrait of a close-knit Japanese platoon, singing a mournful variation on “There’s No Place Like Home” while scrambling away from combat during the war’s last days and eventually awaiting repatriation as the British attack, borders on the idyllic. But the experience is convincing and genuinely felt, and subject to a dire trajectory: the unit’s beloved lute player Mizushima (Shoji Yasui) is sent into the mountains to persuade a stubborn group of soldiers to surrender, just as the bombs fall. Mizushima’s compatriots fear the guileless private is dead, but Mizushima survives, by masquerading as a Buddhist monk in his return journey through the massive WWII killing fields, changing in the process, surrendering his old life and eventually committing himself to burying the uncountable dead.
A decade after Hiroshima, a Japanese filmmaker makes the most heartbreaking anti-war film of all time. Little about “The Burmese Harp” seems groundbreaking today it is simply a cudgel on your tear ducts, and arguably the first war film made anywhere that suggests that war finishes nothing, and indeed creates traumas and responsibilities without end. It’s a hard rock of a message to genuinely swallow, for the Japanese in the 50s, or Americans today, the vast majority of whom still claim to “support” illegal Third World carnage as long as it’s “handled” well and we are sure to win. Oh yeah: naturally the Criterion disc comes with a new Ichikawa interview and an essay by Nipponophile Tony Rayns, among other prizes.
Talk about hard to swallow: “Un Chant d’Amour,” the notorious semi-pornographic short made in 1950 by budding novelist/memoirist/playwright Jean Genet a mere year after dodging a ten-strikes-you’re-out life prison sentence thanks to the intervention of Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre, emerges onto DVD. And what a heated, potent, hot-and-bothered 25 minutes it is Genet, who’d spent years in prison for everything from homosexual acts to thievery, had unique things to say about prisoners in love, and “Chant” is one of those films that occupies its own completely unique vision of the universe. Simply put, Genet converts the grim, deprivative lifestyle of the inmate into an achingly romantic passion (as in, a religious passion, or tribulation), in which the walls and bars that separate his lonesome, lovelorn muscle men become the fetishized definition of their desire. (The predatory guard outside the cons’ cells is pathetic because he’s outside.) Simple cock-in-hand lust becomes an almost spiritually rebellious quantity.
In fact, the film resembles Carl Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc” more than any prison film (or stag reel), despite the semi-erections. Genet made the film as gay porn for rich collectors (much as Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin wrote softcore smut for cash in the 30s), and it comes with a long history of censorship and bannings; if you saw the film at MoMA or wherever decades ago, you didn’t see the masturbatory nudity you can see today. Genet denounced the movie once he got famous, but it’s difficult to see why: it’s totally in keeping with his sensational literary voice, and, as far as movies are concerned, utterly singular. Cult Epics hasn’t just released a famous, controversial short film, but packed it into a two-disc box along with an intro by avant-garde granddad Jonas Mekas, an audio commentary by underground pioneer Kenneth Anger, and two lengthy interviews with an aging and happily self-congratulatory Genet.
“The Burmese Harp” (Criterion) will be released on DVD on March 13th; “Un Chant d’Amour” (Cult Epics) is now available on DVD.