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Kurosawa, In Order #29 – Rhapsody in August

Posted on Mar 3, 2014 by | 0 comments

RHAPSODY IN AUGUST (1991)

The previous 25 years, during which Kurosawa made only five films, were especially daunting in how hard it took to mount a production. Rhapsody in August came together remarkably easy in comparison. Kurosawa wrote the film during Dreams, found financing easily through the studio Shochiku, and ran into Richard Gere in Tokyo during a promotional tour.

Kurosawa loosely based the script on a novel by Kiyoko Murata titled In the Stew, but kept relatively little of it. Kurosawa kept an old grandmother as the main character but changed the setting to Nagasaki and added concerns about the atomic bombing of Japan to the story. Obviously, those concerns were near and dear to Kurosawa as he grappled with them in I Live in Fear and Dreams, although in neither case entirely successfully. It was to be a movie quite unlike anything else he had made, as it’s impossible to imagine the typical Kurosawa protagonist personified by Susumu Fujita, Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, or Tatsuya Nakadai in the central role of the grandmother. The other principal roles are of teenagers instead of the usual adults of his films.

Kurosawa opens the film in a pastoral manner. Clouds gather in the sky while we hear the sound of cicadas. That pastoral scene is interrupted as we cut to a teenaged Tateo (Hidetaka Yoshioka) playing an off key organ as he tries to repair it. He’s teased by his female cousin Tami (Tomoko Otakara) who brings a letter from his parents who are in Hawaii.

Tami brings the letter to their grandmother Kane (Sachiko Murase) and all the grandchildren gather round while they go over the letter. The grandchildren include Tateo, Tateo’s sister Minako (Mieko Suzuki), Tami, and Tami’s brother Shinjiro (Mitsunori Isaki). Kane is very traditional and her home is very meager and rural, while her grandchildren are all urban modern Japanese youths. So modern, that they all wear American style clothing such as blue jeans and typically with Tateo dressed in a M.I.T. tee-shirt, Minako  a New York Mets jersey, and Tami  a U.S.C. shirt. They’re a family, but there has been a great variation in their experiences.

The most vital difference being that the grandmother is still not over her hard feelings for America which dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing her husband in the process. The letter relates the latest news that stirs up Kane’s emotions. The family had been contacted by a man claiming to be her brother Suzujiro who is on his deathbed in Hawaii. Suzujiro has made a fortune with a pineapple plantation in Hawaii and has invited Tami’s parents for a visit as a prelude to Kane coming herself for a deathbed reunion. Among Suzujiro’s children is his son Clark (Richard Gere) who have become fully Americanized, although they do speak broken Japanese. However, Kane has refused claiming not to recognize her possible older brother, who left the family for America a long time ago, and not wanting anything really to do with America.

In an effort to make it all clear, Kurosawa frames the composition carefully, with Tateo and Minako, the children of Kane’s daughter Yoshie, situated on Kane’s right and Tami and Shinjiro, the children of Kane’s son Tadao, situated on Kane’s left.

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Unfortunately, while it clearly lays out the necessary exposition of the film and the setting is nicely pastoral, it’s also very static filmmaking. Kurosawa in his prime was one of the best in history at laying out backstory, geography, etc. and this is fairly pedestrian for him, even given the nature of the setting and characters. It’s a necessary scene and the bright greens of the background are vivid, but necessity doesn’t make it particularly good.

The grandchildren are all eager for Kane to go visit Hawaii and to bring them along, and urge her to do so. After all, who doesn’t want to visit Hawaii? But her hard feelings for America mean that she needs further proof and convincing.

So the grandchildren hatch a plan to wear down their grandmother’s resistance. Even if it means insulting her cooking, which isn’t good, and taking over her household duties so that grandmother comes to depend on them. In the meantime, the grandchildren start to learn about their grandmother and grandfather, it’s his untouched organ that Tateo is so eager to repair, and her history with America. They learn that their grandfather died at a school in Nagasaki and embark on a short trip to see where he died. It’s a spot marked by a melted metal playset.

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Kurosawa plays the scene quietly which is sobering after the raucous teens’ plans as they start to become aware of the true impact of the bombing, even upon their own lives. They follow up the school visit by seeing the sites of Nagasaki that still bear the scars of the atomic bomb, such as a church where angel statues still stand bearing the blast marks of the bomb. They finish by visiting a park at ground zero where monuments from the world over, except for from America, have been set up to acknowledge the tragedy of Nagasaki.  It’s their first time they come to understand that America hasn’t always been their friend.

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Kurosawa was criticized for not acknowledging the atrocities committed by the Japanese army in World War II, and responded that wars are between governments, not people. That’s true to an extent, and even part of the text of the film, but also avoids the critique. Has Japan set up monuments everywhere they committed an atrocity? Doesn’t the calculation of how many lives would be lost by a full scale invasion of Japan have to be taken into account? Sure, there are theoretical ways that America could have deployed the atomic bombs, particularly not dropping the second one which would  have resulted in less death. There are many debates still to be had, but it’s simplistic of Kurosawa not to engage in them, particularly when Kurosawa had shown he was quite capable of delving into complex subjects.

Kurosawa would have been better off defending himself by simply observing that the film is not an angry screed, but a story of people reacting emotionally to a tragedy in their past. The children don’t take their American clothes and burn them in protest, but merely come home sadder and wiser about what effects the bomb had on their grandmother. They finish up their trip to the park by splashing water on a plaque commemorating the victims of Nagasaki who died wishing for water. Water is a recurring motif of the film, perhaps suggesting that Kurosawa wished that we could wash away the past.

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The grandchildren also leap to the assumption that their grandmother hates America now. Something Kane quickly disabuses them of, even if Kurosawa resorts to the hoary cliché of Kane standing unnoticed behind her grandchildren who talk about her unknowingly. At least Kurosawa doesn’t play it for a gag and we learn something about Kane as she claims that she’s moved on and doesn’t love or hate America now. Besides, she doesn’t mind the grandchildren’s parents running off to Hawaii if it means that she gets to spend the summer with her grandchildren. As someone who spent good portions of my teen summers at the family farm with my grandmother, that rings true.

It also opens up the door for Kane to discuss her other siblings as they try to get her to remember Suzujiro by listing off all the siblings that they know for certain. That triggers a different train of memory and Kane considers that the family’s history doesn’t completely revolve around the atomic bomb, even if it is a central traumatic moment. She remembers her brother who was a shoemaking apprentice with the opportunity for his own store, who threw it all away to run off with the wife of his mentor. Strikingly, she remembers that their cabin was nearby near a place where two trees were struck by lightning. The remains of the trees Kane describes as being like two lovers that had committed suicide.

That’s an intriguing, poetic description if I’ve ever heard one and creates interest in the characters and the audience. Kurosawa was a trained painter, which shows throughout his filmography, but this time he’s painting with words instead of images. When Tateo and Tami go to investigate the two trees the next day, Kurosawa shows that he’s still capable of painting a striking image on screen.

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It’s no surprise that Kurosawa can craft a terrific image with trees, but he finds something new in his old age with the dead trees. It’s a striking haunting image and shows the film has a lot more on its mind than simply atomic bomb fears. It’s a film about family and memory as much as it is about the Nagasaki bombing.

Immediately thereafter the grandchildren watch as an old friend visits their grandmother. During the visit, the grandmother and her friend don’t say a word. Kurosawa captures that moment/eternity in a nearly symmetrical image.

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Afterwards, Kane explains that her friend lost her husband to the Nagasaki bombing. They don’t have to say anything to express what they’re feeling, especially with the anniversary coming up during summer.  But, reminding herself of the bombing, also brings up other connections, such as one of her other brothers who lost his hair in the fallout and became a shut in. He would only draw only pictures of eyes and sometimes sneak out for a dip in a pool at a nearby waterfall. It’s another expansion in the grandchildren’s knowledge of the family.

The grandchildren decide to visit the pool, a beautiful setting continuing the films motif of cool, cleansing water, and encounter a snake which they assume is what spurred their grand-uncle’s eye obsession. On their return, they find their grandmother at a Buddhist shrine remembering the dead. When they all arrive home, the grandchildren explain their theory of the eyes to their grandmother who has her own theory: that they’re the eyes of the atomic bomb flash. Kane remembers the sky splitting open with the flash and an eye peering out, which Kurosawa uses to create a striking visual of her memory. It’s one of the most surreal images Kurosawa ever created.

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From that image, Kurosawa cuts to a moonlit night over the same landscape for contrast. The atomic bomb is the pivotal event in Kane’s life, but Kurosawa again makes it clear that it’s not all that she experienced in life which ran the full gamut from joy to fear to wonder. In this case, Kane relates a tale to the grandchildren of their grand-uncle apparently being saved from drowning in the waterfall’s pool by a water imp. A sly look on the grandmother’s face hints that she’s pulling one over on the grandchildren.

That leads to a pure sequence of comedy as Shinjiro takes it upon himself to pull a prank on his older sister and cousins with his own impersonation of the water imp. That leads directly into a slapstick chase around the old home, complete with Tateo playing the organ, echoing a silent film comedy. The film is full of contrasts and little subplots which is why it can’t be considered a screed and avoids many of the traps his other attempts at grappling with atomic fears fell.

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The film has been going back and forth between the serious atomic bomb considerations and light, family drama and it now decides to move forward with the plot. They receive word that Suzujiro has correctly identified the names of Kane’s brothers, confirming his identity. At this point, Kane agrees to go to Hawaii, much to the joy of her grandchildren, but only after the August 9th memorial service for the victims of Nagasaki. Word is quickly sent back to their parents, along with Kane’s reasoning, via a telegram.

But the telegram never reaches the grandchildren’s parents as they return to Japan, toting the traditional tourist souvenir, pineapples. It leads to some awkward time as the parents gauchely worry that it will spoil their opportunities by making their rich American relatives uncomfortable by having to deal with the implications of the atomic bomb. It also leads to Kane telling off her children to stop being so obsessed with wealth, as she’s only going to Hawaii to visit her brother, not a rich man.

Kurosawa is probably being a bit harsh here. The parents were part of a generation that started from nothing in the ashes of World War II. It’s very easy for Kurosawa, a rich man, to be dismissive of the middle class. But, even if Japan was falling into excessive materialism, it’s hardly as if there’s any indication that the middle class were at fault for that. Or, even, these particular characters. Frankly, the greatest argument for the worth of the parent characters are the children that they’ve raised who all seem to be bright and good-hearted. Even if Kurosawa groups the grandchildren with Kane, he’s arguing against himself.

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This is probably the weakest section of the film as it relies on otherwise levelheaded characters jumping to conclusions and acting impulsively on incomplete information. The family soon receives a telegram announcing that Clark, Suzujiro’s son, is going to come for a visit, which they assume is to wrap things up with the family once and for all. Rather than deal with a potentially ugly situation, the grandchildren run off. It’s almost like an episode of Three’s Company where misunderstandings lead to bad character decisions. It’s certainly false tension and drama that the film doesn’t need and displays a lack of confidence in the material to keep the audience’s interest.

Fortunately, this section doesn’t last long. Clark arrives at the airport and expresses great sympathy for the death of his uncle. Rather than being a boorish American, he’s part of the family. Kurosawa engages in some broad humanism here, but it gets the film back on track. The first thing Clark wants to do is visit the resting place of his uncle, so they return to the school yard. Coincidentally, the same school yard that the grandchildren have decided to flee to, which closes off the misunderstandings portion of the film.

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Richard Gere isn’t asked to do much in the role except be likable and empathetic, and he’s not very convincing as a second generation Japanese-American through no fault of his own, but he acquits himself fine for what he’s given. It’s not Gere’s best performance, but it’s an understated performance that fits in well with the surrounding cast without overshadowing the clear central figure of the film, Kane. And, frankly, the teen actors occasionally struggle with their roles while Gere is consistent throughout.

Kurosawa interrupts the private memorial with a procession of older Nagasaki residents who work to refurbish the monument after a moment of respect. It’s explained that these are the classmates of the children who died at the school in the blast. What’s striking about this sequence is that the people who are actively working to memorialize the victims are all distinctly older and facing their own mortality while children play in the background completely oblivious to the memorial in their midst. Certainly, one of the key purposes of the film is to remind people of Nagasaki, young and old, Japanese and Americans alike. Nagasaki and Japan have been rebuilt, but the memories still live on. Kurosawa also pulls in the soundtrack which is operatic during the sequence.

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Clark’s visit ends the false drama that he had created and gets back to the idea that this is a complicated, extended family. Clark apologizes to Kane for his family not realizing that her husband died in Nagasaki and brings peace to the whole family. Not insignificantly, Tateo finally brings the organ fully into tune. The grandchildren sing a song, Franz Schubert’s Heidenroslein, about a brilliant rose in a field.The song is based on a Goethe love poem in which the rose symbolizes the object of one’s affection which proves difficult to pick due to its thorns.

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The rose symbolism comes up quickly again at the August 9th memorial service. During the ceremony, Shinjiro and Clark spy a column of ants, which the camera follows to a close-up of a rose where the ants are swarming. It’s a clear visual metaphor which, as Donald Richie notes, Kurosawa refuses to explain. That makes the metaphor all the more intriguing.

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In a strange way, there’s a link between the ants swarming around the rose and the old men and women working around the Nagasaki memorial. Or perhaps it’s noting that the ants don’t appreciate the beauty in their midst, they’re so caught up in their work and their short lives. Either way, it’s a striking and unique visual image from Kurosawa.

The film could have ended there, but Kurosawa has another turn of events in store. In the aftermath of the memorial, Clark celebrates with the grandchildren at the waterfall, splashing and forgetful of all their cares. At least until they’re interrupted when a telegraph arrives, informing Clark that his father has died. Clark leaves immediately to make funeral arrangements. The dwelling on the past has impacted the present for all involved as the reunion of Kane and her brother has never come to pass.

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Kurosawa expands on that theme with the coming of a thunderstorm. Kane is so lost in her grief and past at this point that she mistakes the storm for the bombing of Nagasaki and flees. The rain pours down as her family pursues. Kurosawa films the family pursuing, futilely, in a manner similar to Seven Samurai with Kurosawa cutting on action as the camera tracks with the pursuers. The soundtrack plays Schubert’s Heidenroslein with Kane clearly as the object of pursuit by those that love her.

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Kurosawa chooses to end the film at that point, with the knowledge that even if Kane is brought to her senses, she’ll never quite forget or escape her past, however hard the rain tries to cleanse. The memory of the bombing will endure for Kane’s generation.

Rhapsody in August is a “minor” film from Kurosawa with some problematic areas. It has a static start, a section in the middle relying on false, manufactured drama, and it can be “on the nose” at times. The young cast isn’t always up to snuff either. However, there are shots that are quite beautiful, Kurosawa handles his nuclear fears with quite a bit of nuance, and he’s stretching in subject matter, by making a family drama, and in style. It’s a flawed film, but not an unsuccessful one.

Kurosawa was nearing the ending of his career and everyone could sense it. Kurosawa especially as he was eager to get in as many projects as he could in the few years remaining to him. Kurosawa had been dealing with his own mortality indirectly in Ran, Dreams, and Rhapsody in August but would deal with that subject more directly in what would turn out to be his last film.

Next Time: MADADAYO (1993)

Robert Reineke
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