1990s, 3/4, Akira Kurosawa, Drama, Review

Rhapsody in August

#26 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.

The third of Kurosawa’s three works that dealt directly with the atomic bombing of Japan and its aftermath, Rhapsody in August is a flawed but worthwhile penultimate film from one of the masters of the craft. There’s a deep well of emotion hiding in the film for a while, hidden behind a quartet of children that feel wrong in more ways than one narratively, but ultimately they fall enough to the side for the movie to actually find the more subtle emotional point Kurosawa was going for.

It’s July of 1990, and Kane (Sachiko Murase) is being visited by her four grandchildren Tami (Tomoko Otakara), Shinjiro (Mitsunori Isaki), Tateo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), and Minako (Mieko Suzuki) while Kane’s two children Tadao (Hisashi Igawa) and Yoshie (Toshie Negishi) visit their newfound uncle in Hawaii, a naturalized American citizen who had moved there before the war. This newfound uncle is a wealthy pineapple plantation owner, and the adult brother and sister visiting are hoping for a family reconciliation that could lead to them sharing in the great wealth in the United States.

The main problem of this film is the four grandchildren. I’m not sure why Kurosawa decided to keep the grandchildren as the vehicle for background information on the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. I presume it’s sourced from Nabe no naka by Kiyoko Murata on which the screenplay is based, but I think it’s a change that needed to happen. The dialogue between them is unnatural. The performances aren’t really very good, and their efforts to bring forth the background and scars of the bombing are didactic. They explain everything in exact detail that never feels like real dialogue, delivered rather unconvincingly by the young cast. Maybe Kurosawa, at 80 years old, just didn’t have the pulse of the youth of the day?

Anyway, when their time with Grandma begins, they are taken with the images from Hawaii and the wealth of their newfound family. However, Grandma is not concerned with it. She doesn’t even really believe that this newfound brother of hers is actually her brother. She doesn’t remember the name of this brother, but since she was one of the youngest of at least ten children, that’s not entirely disqualifying. The children, excited by the idea of breaking up their summer vacation in the Japanese countryside with a visit to Hawaii, are happy to try and goad her into visiting. While they do that, they learn about their grandfather, a schoolteacher who died at the school he was teaching at the morning of the bombing. His body was never found because the building and everyone in it was charred beyond recognition.

One of the big points of the film is the idea of old scars and how we deal with them. For the youth of Japan, they seem to have forgotten the bombing. The children on playgrounds run around monuments to the bombing without seeing them. These scars are very real to those who lived through it, though. Even though firebombing destroyed far more of Japanese cities than the two atomic bombs, there’s something world shattering about a single flash that wipes out an entire city, and surviving it while everyone else dies. This is the core of the film, and yet the first half lays it on thick, delivered by these four grandchildren.

I really think a more radical reinvention of the story to fit the medium of cinema might have been appropriate. There was a moment late where one character explains that the sky of one morning is just like the sky of the morning of the bomb, and I knew that it was something that could have been just shown visually. It would have required a flashback in order to do it, though, and then I saw the movie as it would have been with a dual narrative, one set in 1945 and the other set in 1990. Quieter with far less emphasis on the grandchildren while giving more time to Kane, I think this version in my head would have been more effective overall.

The grandchildren send a telegram back to Clarke (Richard Gere) with information about how Grandma has decided to go but will have to wait until after August 9 in order to honor her husband, and he instantly drops everything to come. Now, I had no trouble guessing why he came, but the movie strings us along for about ten minutes with the idea that Clarke is coming to break off everything between the two families, a theory put forward by Tadao and Yoshie because Americans, they say, are just indignant about being reminded of the bomb. Just one mention, they believe, is enough to break off family contact. Well, I knew that wasn’t true. I knew he was coming in order to honor his uncle, and this bit of attempted tension just kind of fell flat.

However, once Clarke gets to Japan, the movie finds that well of emotion. It’s not that Richard Gere is some kind of powerhouse of an actor. Speaking Japanese (phonetically, I believe), he’s a charming presence for sure. However, the emotion springs up when they visit, coincidentally at the same time as the grandchildren, the school where Grandfather died. Gathering around the monument of the twisted metal of a jungle gym from that day, they quietly consider the loss of life while children are released to recess behind them, playing happily while the classmates of those that died arrive to plant and tend to flowers around it.

Then Clarke goes to his aunt’s house, and there’s a wonderful scene between him and Grandma where they sit quietly and talk about his uncle. He attends a Buddhist prayer ceremony for the victims of the bombing, and it’s another quiet, emotionally affecting scene. It’s really not because it’s Gere, but because the center of the emotion of the film is Clark’s and Kane’s. Together, they form the heart of pain, regret, and loss that the movie is going for.

The film ends with that morning like the morning of the bombing which turns to rain. Grandma, perhaps finally entering some level of dementia, goes out to walk to Nagasaki, as though it was that morning, and the family chases her in the rain, with Grandma letting neither the wind nor the rain deter her in her quest.

I kind of love the second half of this film. It’s gentle, subtle, and emotional. I barely tolerated the first half, though. Didactic, stilted, and centered on four rather annoying children, it doesn’t work all that well. However, as a whole, I think the film ends up working quite well. I especially like the image of the little organ that one of the children progressively fixes over the summer, a nice metaphor for the addressing of past mistakes.

This is Kurosawa working professionally as a director but not bringing quite enough as a writer. I maintain that a complete revision of the story’s structure is what it needed to really mine the emotional possibilities of the film, but the man was 80 years old. I suppose I can’t really fault him for not taking the film in a more ambitious direction. As a small film set mostly on a single set of a country house, Rhapsody in August is mixed, but ultimately good.

Rating: 3/4

3 thoughts on “Rhapsody in August”

  1. I’ve been fascinated by Japan and Japanese history for a long time. They’re a strange culture that on one hand, wears the clothing of the West (both literally and in technological and political terms) but they are not Western. They’re just strange enough and yet just familiar enough.

    That all said, I have zero sympathy for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The wartime Japanese were huge assholes and they had it coming. So I have a hard time caring about the trauma of what the Japanese brought on themselves. I have no interest in their fears over being nuked.

    The ‘wise beyond their years’ children or children as literal mouthpieces for adult conversations is a trope in Japan, not uncommon in a lot of post-war media. So that didn’t bother me (they often annoy me anyway, but then so do most child actors).

    I just shrug my shoulders therefore. As I said, I don’t begrudge Kurosawa making whatever he wants to in his twilight years. But I find it very hard to care about this movie.

    I do love how Hollywood, or parts of it, embraced Kurosawa. You can tell how excited Gere was to be in this film, to pay his tribute to him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find it interesting that it’s the atomic bombs that sticks in the Japanese ethos, but not the firebombing.

      Much greater percentages of Japanese cities subjected to firebombing were destroyed than Hiroshima or Nagasaki were by the atomic bombs. And yet, the firebombing doesn’t hold some special place in the Japanese consciousness.

      Liked by 1 person

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