Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Rhapsody in August is a pleasing little film that suffers a bit from having too many lessons
to teach. But then its real lessons appear, expressed through film poetics instead of talk, and
we're left with a lot to think about. It's about Nagasaki and the bomb's legacy to Japan, but
it covers the subject very delicately, even making specific observations about Japan's relationship
America. Akira Kurosawa's elegant production shows his mature style, and discerning wisdom when
dealing with sensitive material.
Grandma Kane (Sachiko Murase) stays in Nagasaki with her four grandchildren, while
word comes from Hawaii that her rich older brother is dying. The kids scout out local legends
and visit memorials in town, while trying to convince Kane to go to Honolulu, so they can have
a vacation too. Then the parents return, and become upset when the children's Uncle Clark, who
is half-American (Richard Gere) announces he is going to visit. They think Clark is upset over
a telegram allusion to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and is coming to sever ties with them.
I'm not up on Japan's attitude toward the Atomic Bomb, but judging by the evidence
of popular movies, it's just as confused as our own. 1988's Black Rain showed the bombing of
Hiroshima, but then spent two hours detailing the misery of bomb survivors discriminated against
because of their association with an 'unsavory accident.' An otherwise healthy girl is jilted by
a suitor because the bombing has made her a social undesirable.
In Rhapsody in August, four nice kids bond with their grandmother Kane as they learn about her
past. Kane lost her schoolteacher husband when Nagasaki was blasted, and they visit a melted jungle
gym maintained by surviving schoolchildren, now adults, as a shrine. Another official memorial
has testimonial statues from many countries, but the U.S. is conspicuously absent.
This complicates matters when Kane is asked to go to Hawaii to say farewell to a brother she can't
quite remember (she had 11 or 12, and she's nearing senility). The adult family members rather
greedily want to press their connections to this newfound relative, because they stand to inherit
pieces of his pineapple plantation. But the Hawaiian branch of the family are American citizens,
and the direct heir is the very white-looking Clark, whose mother was anglo. The adults assume that
Clark's hasty visit to Nagasaki is to
cut them all off, over the issue of the atomic bombing. The Japanese barely acknowledge that the
bombings ever happened, are still embarassed over the issue of war, and reason that the 'American'
has taken an innocent mention of a Nagasaki memorial service as an insult.
Rhapsody in August is a Kurosawa film most of the way. His characteristic long-lens filming of
people in groups is here, along with an interest in folklore and spirituality. Kane regales her
grandchildren with ghost stories about water imps, and relates to the 'flash' that destroyed Nagasaki
and killed her husband as some kind of horrible Eye of Truth - shown in a fantastic, disturbing
It's hard for a gaijin to gauge the acting and dramatics. The four kids are nice in the
extreme, and I don't know if their amiable spirit would play as forced to a Japanese audience. Their
parents, I'm fairly sure, are exaggerated somethat - they sit around scheming and displaying their
greed as if in a bad one-act play. But my cultural radar isn't in tune for this, so it may be 100%
natural. Indeed, Kane's son and daugher become more sensitive as the drama rolls on.
The film winds up in a dramatic contrivance that brings its theme to a head. (Spoiler) Grandma Kane
slips further into senility, confusing people and suddenly becoming convinced that a summer storm is
actually a replay of August 9, 1945 when the bombs fell. Kurosawa puts together a classic montage
of her family pursuing her in the rain, as she reenacts her dash to town to look for her lost husband.
The montage uses some slow motion, and is intercut much like the famous 'running shots' from
Kurosawa fans will find Rhapsody in August a minor film by the master. It's beautiful to
look at, but its atomic heritage theme isn't all that original. On TCM a couple of years back, I
harrowing I Live in Fear, a movie about an elderly Tokyo patriarch obsessed with fear of a
nuclear apocalypse. It has similarities to this film - an old-timer slipping into senility and
experiencing terrifying visions, and even a curious theme of Japanese emigration to other lands to
become farmers. Only ten years after the bombings, the hero of I Live in Fear seems to be
the only one concerned about the issue. It apparently got little or no exhibition in the U.S.
(gee, wonder why?) and predates nuke awareness in American movies, which really hit four years
later with On the Beach.
Rhapsody in August seems sort of a bookend to that movie, 45 years later when only older
adults have any direct memories of the bombings. The film makes no demands or accusations, and
blames only 'war' for the tragedy, which is either wisdom or a dodge. Kurosawa may have been
approach the subject because of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which marked the end of the
Cold War era that began with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Interestingly, Kurosawa's fellow Toho
alumnus Ishiro Honda, who introduced Godzilla and a number of other atomic monsters to the
cultural pantheon, was Kurosawa's co-writer, assistant, and pitch-hit director on
Rhapsody in August, a Shochiku release.
Sachiko Murase is very effective as the troubled old woman, happy to have her grandchildren with
her and humbled by her poor cooking skills and failing memory. The kids are interesting to my
American perceptions, with their different rules about what is polite behavior - by our
standards, they can be purposefully tactless and blunt, and stay within acceptable limits.
Richard Gere does a great job as a nice-guy half-American who stumbles through his spoken
Japanese but knows all the rules of politeness - bowing, loudly admitting mistakes, etc. He
doesn't come off as some kind of American apology, as might be feared.
MGM's DVD of Rhapsody in August is a clean enhanced transfer that is much more satisfying
than the old Orion laserdisc. The widescreen framing is handsome and formalizes scenes well,
especially the weird vision of a colossal Eye in the sky. The music track is nicely rendered
The effective cover art reproduces the most dramatic scene in the movie. In a classy move, or maybe
with the realization that emphasizing him would be counterproductive, MGM has not put Richard Gere's
name on the package front. A trailer is included that
has many alternate takes of scenes, and ends rather abruptly. Extras with more information on
the film, even if only some text files, would have been very welcome.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Rhapsody in August rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 24, 2003
1. Rhapsody in August
uses the healing metaphor of the repair of Kane's old musical organ to show the growth of solidarity
between the characters. This is similar to Wim Wenders' using the growth of a 'musical group'
among the survivors of
Until the End of the World, another
film of optimism following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson