RHAPSODY IN AUGUST (Japan, 1991) ****. Written and directed by Akira Kurosawa. Cast: Richard Gere, Sachiko Murase, Hisashi Igawa, Narumi Kayashima, et al. An Orion Classics release. 98 min. Japanese with subtitles. Rated PG. At the Art Theater.
On May 7, 1945, Germany capitulated and on May 8, V.E. Day ended the war in Europe. On August 6 the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. On the 9th another fell on Nagasaki. Japan surrendered on August 14. World War II was over.
Among the fictionfeatures on Hiroshima, one masterpiece stands out, HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR (1959), by Frenchman Alain Resnais , a complex movie that covers more ground than Hiroshima proper and stresses the pain of remembering ,the pain of forgetting and the need for responsibility.
Nagasaki finally gets its world-class fiction movie with RHAPSODY IN AUGUST. It shares much with HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR, notably themes of pacifism and of memory, but is otherwise a very different , simple, quiet and elegiac work of moods and feelings. Its maker is he great Akira Kurosawa ( b.1910) who is often said to be the most western of Japanese directors yet still profoundly Japanese.
The unhurried first part exudes a perfect rural vacation feel. In the summer of 1990, two pairs of youngsters, first cousins, are staying with their aged, sweet and old-fashioned grandmother Kane ( 86-year old Sachiko Murase) in the countryside near Nagasaki. Their parents have gone to Hawaii to visit Sujijiro, a terminally ill relative (one of Granma's many brothers) who had moved there back in 1920, married a Caucasian-American and made a fortune. This is the first contact ever between the Japanese families and their Japanese-American kin.
The sick man in Hawaii wants to see his sister, Kane. Grandma is reluctant to go. Her selective memory has dimmed with the years, and she isn't even sure that Sujijiro is really her brother. The children however are anxious for her to establish contact with their exotic, American relatives.
Wearing bluejeans and T-shirts with American logos , behaving like perfectly normal and nice teenaagers, the grandchildren treat the old lady with affection as well as amused (sometimes bemused) tolerance . Far from Granny dumping , we get Granny nurturing here.
A trip to neighboring Nagasaki gives the youths (and the audience) a sudden awareness of the 1945 bombing . They contemplate the twisted metal of a jungle gym in the school yard and learn that this is where Granny's husband , a schoolteacher, was killed. They visit the point-of-impact memorial, a stark slab of granite bearing only the inscription of the day and time : 8. 9. 11:02. Nearby are sculptures sent by most nations -- except the USA. All this is quiet, low-key and poignant.
Back at Grandma's the consciousness of Nagasaki increases through the old lady's tales, some factual, others like fanciful myths or fairy tales. The family stories, in bits and pieces, intrigue, puzzle --even scare --and move the impressionable younsters.
Back from Hawaii, the parents are anxious for Grandma to accept the invitation, mostly to cement a potentially profitable link with the rich Hawaiian family. The mildly opportunistic attitude of the middle generation alienates somewhat both the children and the grandmother, but Kurosawa, wisely and subtly, does not make a production of it. Nor does he engage in gloppiness in the tightening bond between granny and the kids. Throughout, the film's attitude remains natural, calm, pared down to essentials, and all the more affecting.
This unadorned thoughtfulness is leavened by gentle humor. It extends to Clark (Richard Gere), the son of Sujijiro, when he flies to Nagasaki. To the film's credit, Clark looks just like Gere, with no attempt made to orientalize his features.
Clark speaks halting Japanese . ( Gere learned his lines phonetically, which is uncannily like the Japanese protagonist of HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR who spoke French also learned by sounds. ) Clark-- like the youngsters --has just learned that Grandma's husband had died in the 1945 bombing. The grownups illogically worry that as a touchy American he is there to break relations, while in fact, the quiet, sensitive Clark has come to share the sadness of his Japanese family. A wonderfully warm rapprochement takes place between him and his relatives, before he has to fly back suddenly when his father dies. The movie ends with a lyrical thunderstorm sequence which affects the befuddled Grandma.
Kurosawa 's film is neither accusatory nor defensive film nor apologetic. The fingers points simply at the notion of war . Without any didacticism, the movie speaks (just as HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR had done) of the tragedy of the past , meaningwar as the source of unhappiness, and of the sadness of the present , which is the forgetting of the past. To this Kurosawa brings his acute sense of observation, his painterly eye, touching visuals some immediately accessible (two old women visiting each other and communicating in total silence) , some poetic ( a pair of charred trees), others metaphorical (a procession of ants invading a flower).
The sophisticated plainness of this movie is a big asset. It will surprise those viewers who are mostly familiar with the grand, sweeping style of Kurosawa's historical epics. Like those films, RHAPSODY must be treasured, on a different level.
The understated, gently spacy performance of Sachiko Murase is perfect. Richard Gere's part is relatively small, but it has much discreet feeling and makes you forget that the man is a star. It is his most likable role until now.
[Pub. 3 April 1992]
Addendum of March 1995. This what the most commonly used movie guide says about this film. Obviously my opinion is much higher.
Rhapsody in August **1/2 - Thoughtful but (by his standards) minor Kurosawa, about the painful memories of a Japanese grandmother who recalls the bombing of Nagasaki at the end of WW2. Gere, in a glorified cameo, doesn't seem too out of place as a Japanese-American member of the old woman's extended clan. The director manages a few memorable visual touches, but talky film never quite recovers from its nearly static opening.
Edwin Jahiel, Cinema Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
"Le mauvais gout mene au crime" (Stendhal)