The Kurosawa Odyssey
Studio: Shochiku Films Ltd.
Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, based on the novel by Kiyoko Murata
Cast: Sachiko Murase, Tomoko Otakara, Richard Gere
Cinematographer: Takao Saito, Shoji Ueda
Music: Shinichiro Ikebe
“Rhapsody in August” should not work. Its four children characters are uninteresting ciphers. They’re tasked with selling lines like “People are apt to forget even a dreadful event like that”… and then the child actors do not come close to being able to do that. The middle-aged characters are even more cardboard, and don’t get me started about the scene in the woods. Yes, I was ready to dislike the movie…
But then I didn’t.
Somehow, despite all of its shortcomings, Kurosawa has pulled off making “Rhapsody in August” something special. It takes awhile, but as soon as you recognize that this isn’t a “film,” but a meditation on subjects so close to Kurosawa’s heart, it clicks. In many ways, this is the movie that “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams” could have and should have been, because it succeeds in almost all the ways that anthology failed. Most importantly, it creates emotional resonance for the viewer.
The maestro here deals with the subjects of age and nuclear devastation – ones he’s dealt with them numerous times throughout his career. Here, his point-of-view is somber. Resigned.
Our story concerns an old woman named Kane (Sachiko Murase), who takes in her four grandchildren for the summer. She has been invited to the death bed of her brother in Hawaii, but he is a man she does not remember nor is she sure he’s really her brother (this is not because of Alzheimer’s so much as it is because she had so many brothers and sisters). Kane was one of the survivors of the atomic bombing, though her husband was not so fortunate – he worked at the school that was directly under ground zero. Kane saw the explosion from her home and raced toward the devastation, and the aftereffects of the radiation made her lose most of her hair.
The four interchangeable grandchildren are, at first, horrible to Kane. They see the opportunity for her to say goodbye to her maybe-brother as a perfect chance to go on vacation to Hawaii! They mock her cooking (she has to prepare everything soft because of her dentures) and complain about not having any appliances. And then they begin to learn about the bomb and how it affected not only their family, but all of Japan. Kurosawa sets up what a big journey this will be early when he has all the kids wearing Americanized t-shirts with US schools and brands on during the first scenes.
There is a haunting sequence where three of the children tour Nagasaki. Kurosawa sets them at the center of a very empty frame when they stand in the schoolyard where their grandfather died decades before. Before them is a piece of metal playground equipment that was warped and half-melted in the explosion. It’s impossible not to think of the old man sitting in the swing set moments before he died in “Ikiru” at that moment, and I think that it is purposeful by Kurosawa. Later, the children visit all the memorials set up for the dead, but do not interact with any of them until they reach a stone that tells of how so many of the dead died of thirst after the blast. The children race into the pond in front of them and movingly splash the monument with water. This signals a change in their characters – they haven’t gained any depth, but we can now see that they are good people.
Kurosawa solely wrote the screenplay here, and he sets up an interesting dynamic. The children want to…need to know more about the bomb and how it affected the Grandmother they have come to love. In doing so, they are tearing open old wounds for the woman – the experience is wholly upsetting to both parties, but somehow necessary.
There is a third generation at play here… the parents of the children and the sons and daughters of Kane, but this is the least interesting aspect of “Rhapsody in August.” These moments play almost like a Greatest Hits from previous Kurosawa. They suspect their American cousin is important and therefore want to impress him. They don’t care about Kane and don’t want to spend time with her or understand her point of view.
Richard Gere is weirdly brought in around the two-thirds mark to meet Kane and, essentially, apologize on behalf of all Americans for dropping the bomb. It’s certainly an odd choice, considering that emotional maturation from Kane that appears to happen here is later undercut by the finale, as is using Gere as a voicebox for all of America. The movie rightly ignores the he-said/she-said of the bomb drop, choosing not to mention Pearl Harbor, the whats, whos, hows and why. Instead, it acknowledges that there are still bad feelings from the Japanese towards America and does the smartest thing possible by personalizing the devastation (both physical and mental) on one woman and her journey. So suddenly bringing in Gere to, essentially, speak for a nation is odd. That said, Gere acquits himself well to an almost impossible role to play, and there is a delightful moment with him and the grandchildren involving a makeshift bed that I very much enjoyed. It’s the most character development any supporting character gets.
Kurosawa gives us very simple shots and set-ups for most of the movie’s runtime, and considering what a simple story we have, this is fitting. But by doing that, he draws so much more attention to the moments where he does show off. The characters sometimes say that, when the bomb was dropped, it was like a gigantic eye opening over the hills, and Kurosawa blatantly illustrates that in a single shot of amazing power – it feels almost like a Dali painting. There’s another sequence with ants which is one of those metaphors that isn’t obvious… you can interpret the American cousin and the Japanese child watching marching ants make their way up a rose in multiple ways, and that’s a good thing.
And then, of course, there’s that image of Kane running through the storm, clutching her overturned umbrella as she refuses to go quietly into that dark night. It really is one of the most indelible of all Kurosawa images (so much so that it was made into the DVD cover I bought), made all the more heartbreaking by seeing the grandchildren who have grown to love her so chasing her… trying desperately to get to her. Save her. It’s moments like these where “Rhapsody in August” is a poem, one where you might not remember the individual words or phrases, but do remember how it made you feel. The scenes will fade, the melancholy will not.
-The movie was apparently controversial because Kurosawa didn’t underline Japan’s responsibility on getting the bomb dropped on them. Really, stupid people? I mean, really?
-No Criterion edition yet, the DVD is released under MGM’s “World Films” brand, has a trailer as supporting material and… nothing else.