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Rhapsody in August
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 with America. Akira Kurosawa's elegant production shows his mature style, and discerning wisdom when dealing with sensitive material.
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 vision.
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 Seven Samurai.
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 saw Kurosawa's 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 inspired to 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 as well.
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 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.