Rhapsody in August

  • Akira Kurosawa
  • Japan  /  1991
  • Japanese
  • 98 min
December 3, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

Rhapsody in August represents the culmination of a career with Kurosawa returning to the bomb, confronting it, contemplating its legacy and ultimately prescribing a way out of its long-cast shadow. His vehicle for exploring this theme, and others, is a novel by Kiyoko Murata entitled “In the Stew” which centers upon an old woman who has difficulty distinguishing illusion from reality. Kurosawa uses the grandmother and her grandchildren for affirmation—and needless exposition—setting his adaptation in Nagasaki where her husband was killed that fateful day nearly five decades ere.

We are introduced to summer in Nagasaki with its blue skies and soft breeze. A boy is playing an old harmonium badly out of tune with designs to fix it. The tune he plays, Schubert’s musical adaptation of “Heidenröslein” by Goethe, will form a leitmotif, used in conjunction with a cut for scene transitions and later realized visually. The boy is one of four grandchildren spending their summer at grandma’s house. A letter is received from the children’s mother in Hawaii pleading with Grandma Kane to travel there with the kids to see her older brother Suzujiro before he dies. Grandma is incredulous, and furthermore, cannot recall a brother of that name. “After all, I was born in a poor family that was blessed only with children,” she says. The children then set about to persuade her to go while attempting to jog her memory of her siblings.

Of course the children at first can think only of vacation in Hawaii and of their rich relative’s mansion. The film then is one of education, its locus upon this new generation learning and apprehending their country’s recent history, specifically the narrative of atomic war with which their grandmother is intimately bound up. Three of the kids spend a day in Nagasaki shopping, but we only see the result in the form of the shopping bags they carry. What we actually see is them discovering the bomb and its devastation by visiting ground zero, a schoolyard with the twisted and seared remains of a jungle gym (the image of which figures prominently in their education, and ours) and a fountain memorial. This experience leads them to abandon their plan of persuading Grandma and instead creates a stronger emotional bond between them.

Though it is Grandma’s generation that was physically destroyed by the war, including at least one brother, Kurosawa will demonstrate that it is the following generation (Grandma’s children and the foursome’s parents) who are truly lost. They are emotionally vacuous; no sense of honor or regard for their elders. They have been spoiled by the rapid prosperity of postwar life. They give no consideration to Grandma’s feelings, but only those of their wealthy relatives (and potential benefactors) in Hawaii. The Americans prove to be of better stuff as Clark (Richard Gere) visits Grandma to apologize after discovering that his uncle was a victim of the bomb, a revelation kept from him by the adults wishing to spare him the guilt (and risk their own aggrandizement) they expect Americans to feel for having dropped it.

Kurosawa’s later work tends to suffer from some confusion, Ran perhaps excepted, muddling what was heretofore a consistent body of work. Rhapsody in August is no exception. Where films like The Bad Sleep Well and Ikiru, among others, would approach their subjects indirectly, usually encircling them in varying degrees—often therefore more cinematic in approach with images and nonverbal communication abstracting ideas perhaps too difficult or clumsy to express through exposition—and therefore provoking rational consideration. Such methods tend to result in a richer experience—one that respects the viewer’s intelligence—and, if not always a grander spectacle, usually a more rewarding one.

Kurosawa’s eye for the cinematic has not diminished but his scripts seem to have met a crisis of conscience, or, more appropriately, his writing suffers as a result of a very personal crisis. Certainly, with the rapidly changing economic, technical and aesthetic demands of the Japanese film industry of the ’60s and ’70s no filmmaker was immune. Even as the reactionary younger filmmakers, Oshima and others, experienced a brief ascendancy with the popularity of the “art” film as in other nations during this time, the auteurs were cascading back to earth as quickly as they rose to preeminence. Despite leading the way from an earlier era with an approach vastly different from the “new wave” Kurosawa was no exception. He could no longer command the financing for the historical epics he had been so successful with in the ’50s and he suffered a lapse in confidence with the decline of international recognition for his work.

The man who had been so prolific in the postwar decades began to produce a film roughly every five years from 1965 on. Beginning in 1970 with Dodesukaden, all of his films to his death would utilize color film stock. Some of these pictures are breathtaking, others less so, but it is this new aesthetic and evolving methods which would prove most interesting in these final films. They are increasingly expressionistic, still concerned with politics in the context of the individual but less humanistic, more pessimistic and more traditional at the same time that they are revolutionary. Rhapsody in August feels out of place alongside these seven color films because it is so direct. Dreams deals briefly with the question of the bomb, as do several films before it, but Kurosawa here is determined to approach this complicated issue head-on. As a result it is difficult to accept and appreciate what Kurosawa seems to be communicating.

The script is so contrived that the weight of the atomic bomb and its enduring aftermath is reduced to trifle. Whereas in Drunken Angel similar ideas are broached obliquely yet incisively—with the added advantage of having truly captured an ephemeral postwar existence—this film feels far removed from that time and place and those methods of evincing it. At a ritual honoring the August 9th dead, Richard Gere’s character Clark speaks meaningfully that “seeing these people here… I can feel that day.” But we cannot feel it for Kurosawa has done very little up to that point to provoke us. He has not courted us to the horror and awesomeness of those events the way better documents have.

So what is the allure of this film? To me its power lies in its images. Kurosawa brilliantly realizes a few cinematic moments in this film (all very moving but especially the last) while leading us to the affirmation they represent with insouciant and recurring motifs. The images of a line of ants cascading through a forest and climbing ever higher to the lofty heights of a brilliant red rose speaks much more clearly and elegantly than the words of the children, or Grandma or Clark. For a film that is extremely literal and linear this scene delightfully and unexpectedly cuts through these contrivances. Another has grandma and her friend sitting together, facing each other but with eyes downcast without saying a word. Kurosawa planned this shot, but in a way rediscovered it while filming. His shot was originally constructed through the window of Grandma’s house (which the children have quietly slinked up to) but he found that the house itself obscured the shot so the wall entire was removed, allowing him to lens the two women fully.

Then we have the waterfall sequence, so skillfully rendered by Kurosawa’s lighting team that it seems otherworldly in its greenish, fluorescent beauty. While Kurosawa was always receptive to ideas—deferring to input from his team and discarding his own vision is a common occurrence—it seems that nowhere is he more reliant on his assistants than here. His lighting technicians especially, but also the cinematography of men like Takao Saitô and Shôji Ueda have a greater impact on the final artistic product than Kurosawa’s former collaborators did during the prolific years.

Despite some narrative clumsiness I think Rhapsody in August is a success for at least one reason: the character of Grandma Kane is fully-realized. If our attention has been cast largely upon the grandchildren for much of the film at the expense of her tragedy, it becomes clear in the film’s final heartbreaking sequence. Kane finally recalls her elder brother Suzujiro and this recollection is traumatic for it only occurs when it is too late for her to see him. Kane’s mind cascades back in time so that, in her delusional state, she associates the now dead older brother with her dead husband. In her mind it is August, and in her mind the bomb is falling from the sky.

She takes off running in a violent, heavy rainstorm clutching an umbrella. The children take off after her and, rendered completely in slow motion, we see Kane running in to the powerful gusts—against time—as her umbrella held aloft is turned inside out (recalling the rose scaled by the ants). While cutting between the children always several steps behind and Grandma, the soundtrack is replaced with an arresting children’s choir singing Schubert’s “Heidenröslein“. This must be among Kurosawa’s most disarmingly beautiful, tragic, dignified and enduring images. Running through the storm Grandma is transformed; she becomes something else entire. No longer a delusional old woman, she resembles something closer to a warrior charging in to battle. She is myth, metaphor, signifier and signified. And then the curtain falls.

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