(aka 'Biruma no tategoto' or 'The Burmese Harp' or 'Harp of Burma')

Directed by Kon Ichikawa
Japan 1956

A rhapsodic celebration of song, a brutal condemnation of wartime mentality, and a lyrical statement of hope within darkness; even amongst the riches of 1950s’ Japanese cinema, The Burmese Harp [Biruma no tategoto], directed by Kon Ichikawa (Alone Across the Pacific, Tokyo Olympiad), stands as one of the finest achievements of its era.


At the close of World War II, a Japanese army regiment in Burma surrenders to the British. Private Mizushima is sent on a lone mission to persuade a trapped Japanese battalion to surrender also. When the outcome is a failure, he disguises himself in the robes of a Buddhist monk in hope of temporary anonymity as he journeys across the landscape – but he underestimates the power of his assumed role.


A visually extraordinary and deeply moving vision of horror, necessity, and redemption in the aftermath of war, Ichikawa’s breakthrough film is one of the great humanitarian affirmations of the cinema. Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and honoured at the Venice Film Festival, The Masters of Cinema Series is proud to present this landmark film on Blu-ray for the first time.

***

An Imperial Japanese Army regiment surrenders to British forces in Burma at the close of World War II and finds harmony through song. A private, thought to be dead, disguises himself as a Buddhist monk and stumbles upon spiritual enlightenment . Magnificently shot in hushed black and white, Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp is an eloquent meditation on beauty coexisting with death and remains one of Japanese cinema’s most overwhelming antiwar statements, both tender and brutal in its grappling with Japan’s wartime legacy.

***

At the end of WWII, a Japanese soldier is confronted with the true horror of war and death. Classic lyrical drama from acclaimed Japanese director Kon Ichikawa.

 
Beautifully constructed and immaculately paced, it's almost impossible not to be moved by Kon Ichikawa's heartfelt look at the aftermath of battle.

Set in Burma at the end of WWII, it begins with a platoon of Japanese soldiers singing as they march through the jungle. Encountering the British army, they prepare for combat only to find out that the war is over, Japan has surrendered and the Brits are there to escort them to a POW camp.

But first one member of the troop, the harp-playing corporal Mizushima (Yasui), must carry out a final mission. Deep in the mountains one last Japanese platoon is hiding out, so he's sent to convince them that the war is over. The mission is a failure and ends in terrifying bloodshed.

Excerpt from Channel 4 located HERE

LaserDisc cover, LP cover etc.

Theatrical Release: January 21st, 1956

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Comparison:

Criterion - Region 1 - NTSC vs. Masters of Cinema - Region 'B' - Blu-ray

Criterion - Region 1 - NTSC LEFT vs. Masters of Cinema - Region 'B' - Blu-ray RIGHT

DVD Box Cover

Distribution Criterion Collection - Spine # 379 - Region 1 - NTSC Eureka - Masters of Cinema - Spine #13  - Region 'B' - Blu-ray
Runtime 1:56:20  1:56:02.288
Video 1.33:1 Aspect Ratio
Average Bitrate: 6.65 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

1080P Dual-layered Blu-ray

Disc Size: 30,672,232,338 bytes

Feature: 27,262,390,272 bytes

Video Bitrate: 27.99 Mbps

Codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video

NOTE: The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes.

Bitrate:  DVD

Bitrate: Blu-ray

Audio Japanese (Dolby Digital 1.0)  DTS-HD Master Audio Japanese 1690 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 1690 kbps / 16-bit (DTS Core: 2.0 / 48 kHz / 1509 kbps / 16-bit)
Subtitles English, None English, None
Features

Release Information:
Studio: Criterion Collection

Aspect Ratio:
Original Aspect Ratio 1.33:1

Edition Details:

• Video interviews with director Kon Ichikawa (16:22) and actor Rentaro Mikuni (11:46)
• Original theatrical trailer
• Liner notes with essay by critic and historian Tony Rayns

DVD Release Date: March 13th, 2007

Transparent Keep Case
Chapters: 24

Release Information:
Studio: Eureka - Masters of Cinema

1080P Dual-layered Blu-ray

Disc Size: 30,672,232,338 bytes

Feature: 27,262,390,272 bytes

Video Bitrate: 27.99 Mbps

Codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video

Edition Details:

• Exclusive video interview with scholar and filmmaker Tony Rayns (18:13 in HD!)
• Original Japanese theatrical trailer (3:40 in HD!)
• 40-page booklet with an essay by Keiko I. McDonald and rare archival stills

Blu-ray Release Date: August 30th, 2010
Standard
Blu-ray Case
Chapters: 14

 

Comments:

NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were taken directly from the Blu-ray disc.

ADDITION: Masters of Cinema - Region 'B' - Blu-ray (August 2010): Beyond the screen captures I can add a some important points in regards to the image quality. It seems apparent that Criterion have done some form of their digital restoration with both removal of the scratches and boosting of contrast and black levels. While the contrast appears somewhat duller on the MoC Blu-ray (a different HD source) - it advances handily in terms of detail/depth because of the resolution - and keep in mind Criterion actually limited theirs purposely with their picturboxing. The 1080P dual-layered rendering produces some depth and the light surface scratches make me feel it is far more like 'film' than the waxy video look of the Criterion. This is more apparent in motion and, in this case, the screen grabs are not telling the entire story as the Criterion had some notable flickering that wasn't anywhere near as prominent in the UK transfer.

From the enclosed liner notes it states: "For this Blu-ray release of Biruma no tategoto, we have digitally removed a handful of momentary instances of heavy damage in otherwise very good source materials supplied by the film’s Japanese owner, Nikkatsu.

Nikkatsu’s HD master was made from the Japanese theatrical release version and contains Japanese subtitles only when Burmese is spoken (the Japanese subtitles are displayed vertically down the right-hand-side of the screen). We deliberated about releasing this master or tracking down the international release print (which did not contain any ingrained Japanese subtitles) and decided to go with the domestic Japanese release for three reasons: i.) There are relatively few occurrences of Burmese speech in the film; ii.) the Japanese subtitles act as a helpful signifier of when Burmese is being spoken, something which may pass by most Western viewers; and finally, iii.) Their vertical display avoided clashing with our optional English subtitles.

This is the first time the original Japanese print, as seen by domestic audiences, has been released on home video outside of Japan.

It has been widely reported that original screenings of Biruma no tategoto as shown in Japan were presented in two parts with a running time noticeably longer than the version we know today. Unfortunately, Nikkatsu’s archives indicate that prints of this longer two-part version, including its original negative, no longer exist."
.

 

So there you have it about the appearance. Fans concerned with the integrity of the film will definitely lean to the Masters of Cinema. I, personally, don't mind these, mostly frame-specific, scratches - the significantly higher resolution is the lynchpin to the cinema-like feel of the MoC over the flatter, glossier, Criterion.

The UK Blu-ray has a lossless 2.0 channel audio track that is wonderful for the film's powerfully emotional music/singing scenes. The subtitles are excellent and the brief Japanese vertical ones are addressed above.

There is an excellent 20-minute piece, in HD, with scholar and filmmaker Tony Rayns discussing points of the film, an original Japanese theatrical trailer (3:40 in HD!) and another of the UK distributor's booklets - a 40-page one with an essay by Keiko I. McDonald and some rare archival stills. 

A must-own for all film fans - a bona-fide masterpiece in the glory of Blu-ray. It really was stupendous to see this in the higher res. - I recommend even for those who own the Criterion. It was almost like seeing the film all over again. 

Gary W. Tooze

****

ON THE CRITERION: NOTE: This Criterion transfer is again pictureboxed (see our description of 'pictureboxing' in our Kind Hearts and Coronets review). Criterion have included a black border around the edge of the frame to counter overscan on production television sets.

If you look closely at the screen captures below you can see where Criterion have done extensive cleaning and restoration to remove a lot of light scratches. The result is that this progressive transfer on a dual-layered DVD looks exceptionally strong without anything to compare it to. Contrast, again, is Criterion's hallmark. Flickering is prevalent though to a small degree. Overall the image is much better than I anticipated. I am very happy and the audio and subtitles are likewise at Criterion's adept level of digital production.  

In a 16 minute supplemental interview Ichikawa discusses how he had intended to become a painter but when he saw Disney's Mickey Mouse he was suitably impressed with the movement to consider film as a potential profession. He talks about many aspects of The Burmese Harp from the sound track to other production details. It is very interesting. The extensive actor Rentaro Mikuni (150+ films), in an 11 minute interview, talks of what he determines Ichikawa's intentions were in making the film. He compliments Ichikawa by stating that he learned a lot from his methods when he too went on to direct himself many years later. There is also a theatrical trailer and a 19-page booklet with an essay by Tony Rayns.

Gary W. Tooze

 



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DVD Box Cover

Distribution Criterion Collection - Spine # 379 - Region 1 - NTSC Eureka - Masters of Cinema - Spine #13  - Region 'B' - Blu-ray




 

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