Writer-director Akira Kurosawa’s “Rhapsody in August,” the penultimate feature film of the illustrious filmmaker's career, finds the then well-aged director revisiting a theme that often appeared in his filmography — the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the twilight hours of World War II.
Viewing this film marks my twenty-first encounter with the work of Kurosawa, my favorite filmmaker. His films — such as “Ran,” “Seven Samurai,” and “High and Low” — are among some of my favorite films of all time, and his work remains to be some of the best films any cinephile would experience in their journey through world cinema. Sadly, however, “Rhapsody in August” rests low in Kurosawa’s 30-film filmography.
Kurosawa, who was 35 years of age at the time of Hiroshima and Nagasaki's abolition — an age old enough and wise enough to fully comprehend the terror of the war's end — would later moderately subsume his films with thematics concerning the bomb.
Ten years after the drop, Kurosawa’s 1955 film, “I Live in Fear,” finds actor Toshiro Mifune as an elderly man consumed with nuclear paranoia, fearing another day of nuclear holocaust is near, while his 1990 film, “Dreams,” devotes an entire sequence to civilian panic as a power plant melts down near the base of Mount Fuji, the fantastic sky superimposed by massive columns of flames. A year later, Kurosawa would adapt Kiyoko Murata's novel “Into the Stew” into “Rhapsody in August.”
Kane, an elderly “hibakusha” — a term designating the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who so often carried the physical effects left in the wake of the blast, such as hair loss, keloid scars, and genetic defects — who lost her husband in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, is caring for her four grandchildren over the summer in her Nagasaki country home. The anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing is nearing and Kane has received word that an estranged older brother on his deathbed is requesting a visit from her before he passes.
The older brother, Suzujiro, immigrated to Hawaii long ago, married an American woman and had a son named Clark, here played by American actor Richard Gere. The theme of paranoia carries over from “I Live in Fear” as conjectural tensions between Kane’s Japanese heritage collide with the guilt of America's role during the war, localized here into Gere's half-Japanese, half-American character.
The grandchildren play a central role in the film. At first, they serve to selfishly persuade their grandmother to journey to Hawaii, but the faded memory of her brother — in a family of reportedly 11 siblings — keeps her uncertain of the truth in his request. The children playfully mock the thin hair atop her head and only wish to go to Hawaii for the sights.
However, as their summer is spent in a renewed
Nagasaki, they soon learn of the city's tragic past through their grandmother and sojourns through the city itself. A twisted, geodesic climbing dome serves as a memorial in a school's playground, its iron bars once used for play by schoolchildren are warped and rusted from the flames and shockwave, while monuments gifted from several countries lament the victims in a neighboring park.
In “Rhapsody in August,” three generations of a Japanese family, with American pedigree now sharing the family tree, respond to and recall the past. The grandmother details a massive eye peering out of the bright mushroom cloud on the morning of Aug. 9, her country home situated on the other side of a mountain that separated the countryside and metropolitan Nagasaki — a place far enough away to survive the flames but not the radiation. As she peers into the shrouded eye, her husband, at the children's school in Nagasaki, is meeting the fire.
It's a proper memorialization of Hiroshima and Nagasaki situated in the perspective of a singular family tree — yet Kurosawa, nearing his final years, a time where he was at his most didactic, instills within the film an overbearing amount of sermonizing lecturing, here filtered through the dialogue of the grandchildren as they, almost directly to the audience, recount the bomb and its postwar effects on Japan.
A remnant of the past and an ostensible victim of the blast itself, a broken pump organ — its key-pressed octave of rising and descending notes acting as an ellipses between some scenes as the eldest grandson works to tune it to correction — is fixed in the final act just as the thematic tensions between Japan and America are resolved. This maneuvering through history and memorial becomes a bit too maudlin at times, perhaps overcompensating for what is, in fact, a rather stale narrative.
The staples of Kurosawa's cinema are here undoubtedly, with his penchant for cutting from a loud scene to a quiet one, or vice versa, and in a distanced camera to emphasize ensemble staging that isn't so dissimilar from the viewpoint of an audience member seated in a Broadway theater — where the performers and their stage are in full view.
His ability to create geometric spacing between his characters and in supplying a sense of depth to the image is still ever-present as well, assuring his admirers that he still knows his craft. Even torrential downpours of horizontal rain and threatening winds — weather being a mainstay of Kurosawa’s style — make an appearance here. The final moments of the film find the entire frame rife in animation when all of the 80 minutes preceding it reveled in stillness.
Yet, Kurosawa's brilliance, unfortunately, doesn't transpose into the narrative itself. This is likely the weakest film from the able director that I have seen. The emotional resonance never quite lands as well as it should, and the sentimentalism for postwar Japan at work here, though not quite demonizing America nor playing Japan in an overly-chauvinistic light, marginally forgets that war is damaging to all, that all sides divvy horrors when the evils of humanity are laid bare on the battlefield.
In a lasting image, a rose — burning in a bright green and red — rises from the colorless earth around it. Like a burnt forest seeing life sprout from the scorched earth, it's a testament to rebirth and memory, that devastation will always yield a lasting beauty.