It’s the last few days of the Second World War, and a Japanese platoon is sneaking its way across now-hostile Burma (Myanmar), hoping to escape across the border into Thailand. Their captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni) was a musician before the war and keeps up company morale by leading them in singalongs, accompanied by Private Mizushima (Shoji Yasui) who’s picked up the Burmese saung harp surprisingly well. In fact, when the platoon is surrounded by English soldiers and Mizushima launches into playing “There’s No Place Like Home”, it stops whatever attack the English had planned and leads to the platoon getting captured instead of killed. The war’s over, anyway – Japan surrendered a few days prior.
Mizushima’s playing gives the English an idea, however. There’s another Japanese platoon holed up in the mountains nearby, still defending itself against Allied forces. Maybe Mizushima could get inside and talk them out of it. Captain Inouye sends Mizushima on the errand, leading the rest of the squad down to the prison camp on the southern coast. Mizushima will need to walk 200 miles to meet up with them after, but Allied soldiers have promised him safe passage. Inouye has faith that Mizushima will rejoin them – he’s convinced of Mizushima’s patriotism and knows he’d want to come rebuild Japan along with the rest of the squad. What neither Mizushima or Inouye could predict, however, is what Mizushima would see during that long walk, and how it would change him.
Mizushima’s big crisis comes from seeing just how many corpses are lying scattered across the Burmese countryside; the first time he sees a pile of them by a riverbed, lying where they were killed in battle, he stops to bury them. But then as he travels he sees more. And then more. And then more. And then…Mizushima is already being taken for a Buddhist monk – he’s using a monk’s robes as a disguise – but his drive to bury the dead leads him to contemplate going all the way and joining the Buddhist priesthood.
This was a surprisingly gentle and affecting film. Most “war” films usually have the trope of a drill sergeant who’s a fiend, and prison-camp dramas similarly feature captors who are brutes – but this film avoids all that, letting the whole saga of Mizushima come front and center – where it should be. Mizushima’s squad is supportive and loyal to each other, and to him, and their English captors are also compassionate, indulging Captain Inouye’s repeated attempts to track Mizushima down. This isn’t about war at all – it’s about war’s aftermath, and the compassion and empathy that helps rebuild the bridges between former combatants, and how vital that compassion can be.
And how contagious. One scene that moved me was a lengthy shot showing Mizushima on a beach, struggling to bury a huge pile of war dead as a cluster of Burmese fisherman stand and watch. They watch as Mizushima digs each grave by hand, drags a body off the pile towards it, and then buries it. After about the third or fourth corpse, one of the fishermen suddenly walks over and starts helping dig the next hole, followed by the others gradually picking up their own tools and starting on their own holes.
There are a couple of borderline hokey elements, like Captain Inouye trying to train a parrot to call “Mizushima! Come home!” so he can send it out looking for him. The film was based on a Japanese YA book, though, which explains the fable-like quality. The message of compassion still overshadows anything else – the call to ease suffering and work on healing.