Akira Kurosawa: Rhapsody in August (1991) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
25Jan/130

Akira Kurosawa: Rhapsody in August (1991)

1Kyle Commentary BannerUpfront disclaimer: As it progresses, Rhapsody in August proves to be a bit more capable than it at first seems. That's not especially strong praise. Here is a movie that starts off so bad, so shockingly hackneyed and uneven, that I never in a hundred million years would have guessed in the first third or so that it was directed by Akira Kurosawa. The story involves four children staying with their elderly grandmother for the summer, who discovers by letter that one of her older brothers—we learn she had 7 siblings—who moved to Hawaii and applied for dual-citizenship early in his life is dying, and would like to see her one last time. She isn't sure that he is who he says he is, which introduces a small plot diversion while she tries to verify his identity—this is interesting, considering that the letter was sent by one of her own children, who went to Hawaii for, as I gathered, the express purpose of seeing said relative.

No matter—the point of the film's early scenes seem rather to be establishing the four children as insufferably fake inventions of a writer who's only ever encountered kids via educational programing on PBS, all of whom serve to illustrate in broad strokes the gap between and essential connection of older generations to contemporary ones, particularly in relation to how they perceive and are affected by the dropping of the atomic bomb. This is an inherently interesting topic, and Kurosawa does damn near everything he can at first to alienate us from it.

We're off to the races with an early scene where the children openly ridicule their loving grandmother's cooking and then congratulate themselves deliriously afterwards (because somehow this will enable them to go to Hawaii for the summer, or something), which is followed by a sudden visit to Nagasaki—they having learned that their grandfather died in the dropping of the atomic bomb— in a scene so overwrought and forced it feels like a brief documentary made exclusively for use in middle school social studies classes. This is film-making on a Lifetime Movie level—I'd say it at times elevates itself to that of after-school special, but the mournful opera droning on in the background as they tour historical landmarks in the city pushes it toward the former. The children return home and have a conversation that a university professor seems to have written for them about contemporary generations' inability to fully understand the effects of the atomic bombings during WWII, and then grandma scares everybody to bed with a story of a double suicide in the mountains.2What happened here? These opening scenes are at such pains to set up the film's larger questions about how an event like the dropping of the bomb connects generations and nations that it feels like we're watching Kurosawa sketch the outline for himself before he started actually writing. Here is a movie that needs desperately to observe instead of tell. So much of its potential power lies in things that should be unspoken—by having the characters narrate their every thought and feeling, Kurosawa strips the story of any genuine emotion.

It does pick up, strangely, around the halfway point, where he seems to have finally become comfortable with the fact that his audience can think and infer basic concepts, and at which point we start to get some genuinely interesting scenes. Most striking is a powerful and effective sequence during which the grandmother relates to the children what happened on the day the bomb was dropped, describing seeing the explosion rise up over the mountains like an eye opening in the sky. Likewise, two scenes where the children come across their grandmother and some others performing Buddhist chants in a small shrine—framed in true Kurosawa form by the hut's square opening—and a shot of two women sitting in silence remembering their loved ones who died at Nagasaki provide some genuine value and poignancy.

I feel schizophrenic about this movie. I know that I began to actually appreciate some of what was going on in the last act or so, and I know that there are a lot of interesting questions at the root of this story, but remembering my experience actually watching the movie, I almost don't want to discuss them out of spite. Perhaps you can point us in the right direction.

Oh... also Richard Gere is in the movie. Richard Gere, speaking Japanese, poorly. You could also watch Richard Gere, for the same rental fee, in the recent and fantastic Arbitrage. But your choice. Your choice.3AndrewCommentaryBannerI feel less schizophrenic and more on the manic end of a bipolar swing.

The only salvageable aspect of this film is Richard Gere’s performance.  His scenes felt honest in a way that put the contrived schoolhouse feel of the rest of the movie to shame.  He may not speak Japanese very well but he’s visiting family he never thought he would and trying to be as respectful as possible.  His little awkward bow that he gives the kids after warmly receiving their greeting is followed by equally weird phonetic English line readings from the children in English.  Their attempt to communicate over a gulf of mutual incomprehension is honest and warm – just about the only time I felt that during Rhapsody.

The rest of the film is so steeped in hypocrisy (style aside) I scarcely believe it came from Kurosawa.  This is the man who once viewed his generation as wasting away their potential by giving in to many of their base urges due to Western influence.  The historical context of disease and change was metaphorically burning a hole into his early characters.  Yes, they changed to be slightly nobler, most notably in Red Beard, but Kurosawa never pasted over history and attempted to deal directly with it.

Based on Rhapsody, you’d think that World War II was something that happened to Japan on a tragic whim instead of a willing act on their part.  Kurosawa went on record stating that his soft take on Japan’s involvement in WWII is ok because governments wage wars, not people.  For a man who literally just made two samurai epics dealing with the way power is built from the ground up this is a patently absurd notion made borderline evil thanks to all of the blind schmaltz on display in Rhapsody.

While the two sisters were chasing their youngest brother while he was dressed as a river spirit I don’t, for a second, imagine that Kurosawa thought “Surely this scene will cleanse my spirit of the Rape of Nanking.”  Earlier the children are looking at memorials donated from other countries and the kids have the audacity to note that there isn’t a memorial from America.  The moral complications that came from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are immense, but these kids cannot be so ill-taught that Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor could actually be shown to them to explain why there’s no American mural.  Yet here they are, giggling in the fields and wondering how silly ol’ grandma is going to feel today.  This is one of the few situations where you can get away with utilizing Godwin’s Law since Japan, at the time, was literally allied with Adolph Hitler.4I’m not sure that kooky granny would have a response to the question of what it felt like being part of the Axis powers.  She’s not a character, just a mouthpiece for Kurosawa’s  misguided attempt at constructing a cinematic memorial for the people lost at Nagasaki.  No matter how deserved that is, Kurosawa makes the crucial mistake of framing his narrative of Japan in relation to other countries and then selectively chooses what parts of his country’s history he should present.  He raises the very questions his film is incapable of answering.

I can’t consider this a grand mistake on the level of The Idiot because there was little studio noodling here and the final product does feel like a complete picture.  But that picture is one of willing blindness as one caricature leads the next one right off the cliff.  That’s a concept that the final scene, which feels divorced from the rest of the film, seems prepared to deal with as the children struggle to keep up with their grandmother as she foolishly braves a violent storm.  Just imagine a Kurosawa who would have been willing to confront the way people selectively remember the past in order to create a more honorable present.  This scene would have been incredibly powerful.  Instead it introduces the depressing notion that the message of his own Rashomon might have flown over his head.

The few times I enjoyed myself during the film I still felt depressed, like watching the final performance of Johnny Cash.  He could still sing and play, but only if the guitar was put in his hands, and even then only a select couple of songs.   I still have the knowledge of Madadayo ahead, and I know this isn’t the end of his career, but this was very nearly a eulogy to a career that could have ended with his absolute worst film.

Before I go on too much longer, the more abstract imagery in this film (though strong) reminded me of how two different pieces of animation have handled this exact subject much better.  Both Grave of the Fireflies from Japan, and the Peanuts animated special What have we learned, Charlie Brown? tackled this exact same material much better and in the case of the Peanuts special with much better imagery.  I know you’ve seen Fireflies, but the special is worth tracking down to see the other side of realistic kids tackling tragedy honestly as opposed to this.5Kyle Commentary BannerI sat here for some time very seriously contemplating a response that didn't even mention the movie again, and instead directly discussed other, better Richard Gere movies. By the time I'm done typing this, I'll probably regret not having done that instead.

The notion that governments wage wars rather than people could have been interesting if Kurosawa was committed to exploring the split between A) the devotion to ideals required to propel an individual to and through war, versus B) the way war affects individuals' lives and their likely very different feelings toward this. I'm reminded of the scene in the what's-the-number-higher-than-a-trillion times better Letters From Iwo Jima where the captured American soldier talks with the Japanese officer about their respective time living in California. It's a scene that works because it, and the characters, accepts that there is a schism dividing two very separate yet equally important parts of their lives: their immediate, everyday personal lives and the way they view their overall lives as part of a larger picture.

That Kurosawa claims the movie is about governments waging war rather than people is interesting, because nothing in the movie explicitly examines this separation. I understand creating a character in the grandmother who, uninvolved in the war effort and helpless to change it, holds animosity toward a country who caused her such pain—but if the central question is as Kurosawa suggests, wouldn't the film make an attempt to deal with her anger in a way that at least acknowledged (even if the character herself didn't) the absurdity of her reluctance to see her brother in Hawaii?

I can see a skeleton of this idea underneath the horrid mess of a movie that's here. We have, for instance, how readily the kids bond with the Gere character—to them he is simply a relative they've never known and are excited to meet. For the grandmother, he is the representation of a government who killed her husband and thousands of others like him—an unfair distinction but an understandable one. The movie, however, isn't interested in that distinction; it only needs Gere to show up and apologize so that the grandmother can in return show that she has no animosity toward him as an individual. This works to make the basic point that Kurosawa is interested in, but as you said, it's an uneven and one-sided one.

All of that would have been fine with me had the movie actually provided a complicated portrait of a character so permanently affected by war. The critical error here is that we should see the grandmother through the eyes of the children, who could, if the movie resembled reality, perceive her anger without fully understanding it—instead we see the grandmother, and the children, and Gere, and some of the grandmother's kids, and some other stuff too. There is no focal point, which turns the one-sidedness that would be understandable and interesting on an individual emotional level into a tacky, sweeping moral statement that I don't think Kurosawa even meant to make.6AndrewCommentaryBannerOne-sided.  Tacky.  Insufferable.  Alienating.  Awkward.  Mistaken.  Depressing.  This is just a smattering of the words that we've used to describe our shared experience.

Reader, I believe it's a safe move on your part to assume that this is the worst thing that Kurosawa has put to film.  I'll add the caveat that I can only speak for myself at this juncture and I'm sure Kyle will have more to say later.  I've discussed how I feel about this movie in relation to The Idiot, which was previously my least favorite, but how does this compare to The Most Beautiful?

This is where any critic willing to divorce a text from its historical context should give up the profession immediately.  The Most Beautiful was made during the most dangerous period of Kurosawa's life because he was either going to enrage his Japanese superiors or he was going to be bombed by the Americans.  The manic laughter of the girls makes sense in this context, crazily hoping that they are going to be able to save the empire by producing more, but still less than their male counterparts.

I thought that film a worthy companion to one of the quintessential American films, Birth of a Nation.  But The Most Beautiful is nervous, poorly done propaganda, and nothing more.  Rhapsody in August requires the kind of willingness to ignore hatred and violence perpetrated by your own populace in the purpose of a higher ideal.  Much like Birth at least acknowledges the existence of the Ku Klux Klan but stages them as heroes, Rhapsody acknowledges that the Japanese empire was in a war but presents its citizens as victimized.

This movie is just wrong.  From start to finish Kurosawa seems to have ignored every lesson that his films, to this day, continue to teach his audience.7Next week: the road finally ends with a remake of Dead Poet's Society

Posted by Andrew

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