Hachigatsu no rapusodi
(Rhapsody in August, Japan - 1991)
Review by Mike Lorefice
Cast: Sachiko Murase, Hidetaka Yoshiaki, Mitsunori Isaki, Tomoko Otakara, Mie Suzuki, Richard Gere
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa & Kiyoko Murata
Cinematography: Masaharu Ueda & Takao Saito
Composer: Shinichiro Ikebe
Runtime: 98 minutes
"People do forget everything…and so quickly" - Minako
When I think about Rhapsody in August, the first thing that comes to mind is why aren't there more films like this? Until Hollywood stopped dealing with issues and retreated from anything that might offend anyone other than crude "humor", several films were made about every war America was involved in. War based films generally fall into three categories - war is bad (used to be common but now anything that takes a stand is an art film), war is exciting (most any blockbuster), or war is tragic (the ones that involve citizens suffering in wartime, usually centering on lovers that are forced to be apart). While these sometimes make good or even great films, the problem with all of them is, regardless of being made 2 or 20 years after the war, they are always set during that war.
The end date of every war is an accepted fact. You can look it up in any worthwhile history book or encyclopedia. For most people (the ones who don't have friends or relatives maimed or killed), the war is over when the media gets tired of it. Everyone's attention begins shifting to something else, and soon most is forgotten. Forgetting is, of course, encouraged. Oh, there will be certain times when you are supposed to remember, ceremonies and moments of silence, but what you are supposed to forget about is whether the war was justified, whether anything was accomplished, the damage and destruction that was caused, and the loser's suffering that continues long after. Outside of a few documentaries that no one but Sundance shows, there's no serious or informative reflecting in the theatres or on television.
In his next to last film, Akira Kurosawa shows a war isn't really over as long as those that truly experienced it are alive. You might think this would make Rhapsody in August a vengeful film, but it's perhaps Kurosawa's most humanist and personal film, as well as his least violent. War isn't between individuals; it's between governments. The film is about a family, so no judgements are made about the governments of yesteryear. "Blame it on the war" the grandmother repeats because she knows both sides do whatever it takes to win and lose many lives in the process. There are many themes in the film, winning and losing not being one of them, but for the most part it's an educational film about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and more importantly how those who suffered through those times deal with it today. They were a dying breed even in 1990 when the film was released, so Kurosawa is trying to pass on the experience, to make his own living memorial, before it was too late.
Age is the primary reason the film works so well. Most viewers aren't old enough to have experienced the atomic bomb, and even if you are your experience is most likely very different than the grandmother's because she saw the flash. Though she is leading the children in certain directions, it is their eyes that we see things through. This method could make for a really dumb film, but as the film progresses we come to realize that in many ways we are as ignorant as naïve as they are. The reasons may be different, but the statistic or two we have a vague concept of and couple detached clinical facts we know don't contain any human element. This film makes the experiences vivid, makes you feel it, and only through this method can we come to some understanding of what the grandmother (Sachiko Murase) has gone through.
I would certainly recommend showing this film to children, who I believe are the intended audience anyway. If you wean kids on dumb stuff that only cares about selling its product line like America is now (especially with the Annihilators' idea that logical=mature=R while juvenile=immature=PG-13), expect them to grow up to be dumb consumers. On the other hand, if they see stuff that's good enough for adults and has some worthwhile information, ideas, and values, the worst case scenario is they are bored.
Two of the grandchildren are high school age and two are elementary school age. Age isn't really a factor to Kurosawa though, because you are never too young to learn and his belief is the post war generation was lost when they joined the work force. When they had to earn, they became capitalists that were only thinking of themselves. They stopped growing and traded their imagination for thoughts of personal advancement.
The quote I used at the start was from the youngest girl. That I can actually find someone young worth quoting brings to mind another place where the more recent American films go wrong as opposed to foreign ones. Our films have replaced values with consumerism. The adults used to teach and we'd see how the children gained something from it, but now it's more like the adults are unnecessary because the children are so cunning. They all know how to manipulate to get what they want, which of course will be what the movie is selling them. This and some of the other foreign ones show children that are learning how the world works apart from their own personal gain. It's not about outsmarting someone so you can have the coolest stuff, it's about improving yourself so you can make better decisions and become an adult. That doesn't mean the adults you see have to be positive and all knowing like they usually were in our older stuff where the parents could solve every problem, but that the children need to instead learn if and when each adult can help them. From the stuff we put out, it's no wonder there aren't many Paulines at our beaches.
Kurosawa sees hope in the new generation because they have plenty of time to fill and no reason to think only of themselves. This is why it's important that the grandmother is compelling. I see Kurosawa as the grandmother and the grandchildren as the way he hopes the new generation will react to and take an interest in his generation. It's not all about the grandmother's influence; the grandchildren have some redeeming values to begin with. The oldest boy Tateo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), for instance, takes on the summer project of fixing the ancient organ his grandmother has feeling for rather than loitering at the mall or getting fat playing video games. What's important though is their grandmother is able to rid them of the selfishness they learned from their parents. They initially want their grandmother to go to Hawaii to visit her long forgotten brother Suzujiro, who is dying, because that means she'll have to take them with her and they'll get to live it up with their new rich relatives like their parents currently are. This isn't one of those stupid films that lives in a dream world where all negatives can easily be erased. It's not naïve enough to try to say the kids no longer have any interest in a Hawaiian vacation, but it shows the children growing to the point where they'd be going to learn about their heritage and get to know their relatives, hoping they'd share in the fun they initially had in mind. They grow to this point because the grandmother is able to convey her value of sincerity rather than materials.
Though the film is rich with ideas and meanings, Rhapsody in August is plotted as basically as could be. The grandmother tells the grandkids a story their family members had during their youth and they soon go off on their own to visit the location where it took place so they can share the experience in a way. With a little imagination, it becomes real enough for them that the experience is passed down and the children grow from it.
It is to Kurosawa's credit that he is able to avoid turning this into a grim film. What Kurosawa taps into is the joy of discovery. When you come to understand something you couldn't have impacted in any way there's a personal gain, a certain satisfaction of addition that overrides the negative aspect of what exactly you are understanding. Of course, you have to want to understand, but what Kurosawa shows is that it's not really the subject matter, but the way it's presented. The grandmother speaks of things that are adventurous, mysterious, magical, and mystic. It's not only exciting, but it brings a kind of life to their deceased relatives and certainly creates an interest in them. The children realize everything she speaks of didn't happen exactly that way, some details may be fudged to make the story better or some things just aren't explainable so she gives the fairy tale version, but the children know she's not making up the serious matters.
Kurosawa doesn't want people to dwell on the past. What he wants is for them not to be ignorant of it, or worse yet play ignorant. One of the key themes is that running scared from the truth gets you nowhere. This is the big clash between the generations. The grandmother, though the stricter and more traditional, feels their newfound relatives have the right to know her husband was killed by the bomb. Her children on the other hand, are afraid all their work toward getting handouts and promotions will be lost because though half-and-half, Clark has grown up an American living in America and his wife is American. They are right about Americans not liking to be reminded of certain aspects of their history, but they are wrong to turn the kids on Clark before they even get to meet him (they are so certain he's only come to visit because it's the proper way to break off relations).
Richard Gere, whose part is key but much smaller than I expected given his prominent billing, actually manages not to ruin this film. Casting him as the Japanese American relative Clark is ridiculous because he doesn't look the least bit Japanese, and this problem is greatly magnified by the decision not to alter his look one bit. It's hard not to think of him as the Japanese-American Gigolo, but this is one of the only times I believed his performance. Gere is an antiwar activist, and in spite of his look, his emotion - the keen interest in his elders as well as the sadness and regret - actually seem genuine.
The key scenes involving Gere are about remembrance. One takes place at the school the grandparents taught at, where a charred contorted hunk of iron was the only thing left remaining. The other takes place on 8/9/90, the 45th anniversary of the bomb being dropped. They show the difference between ritual and remembrance. This wasn't the kind of crap we have here where we are told it's the yearly moment to remember what these people did for our country, even though we are given no concept of it (just roll out sacrifice again and throw out a number), and some paid musicians try to muster up some emotion and/or someone reads some feel good flag waving drivel to the audience, which is polluted by a bunch of people who don't bother to take their hats off and spend half the time talking among themselves. The remembrance scenes in Rhapsody are moving because they aren't an attack on your senses telling you cry now like the horrible hammer it home for the 2000th time ending scene in Saving Ryan's Privates. There's not much going on at all here, but the emotion jumps off the screen ringing sincere and true. Remembrance here is about respect, both for the people that are no longer around and for those who are because they are allowed to have their own way of going about it without being judged. A woman whose husband was also killed that day can drop by and her and the grandmother will just sit there for a couple hours without saying a word to each other. They don't need to because they know what's on each other's minds.
The grandmother has been negatively effected by the bomb in many ways, and it's easy to see all the ways she's not right, though the younger ones are able to forgive her for it because they care about her. She is the hero of the film not because she's surviving, but because she takes a stand against the idea of only telling people what's "necessary". By sharing the truth with her grandchildren and nephew (who shows that entire generation wasn't lost), they all grow as individuals and as a family. Family is what it's all about because that's where the hope lies, where everything Kurosawa would like to have seen needs to start if not come from entirely.
The final scene is very poorly and unbelievably set up by two previous events, and one can only guess what it means. It is certainly one of Kurosawa's most beautifully filmed though. The family is running after her in a torrential downpour to stop her from running after her husband like she did on 8/9/45. Her umbrella gets reversed from the wind, but she's still holding it up and slowly trudging forward, while the family is stumbling around. Perhaps it means anyone who tries to change things has a difficult road ahead of them where they will be marked by certain events and come off as a loon, but they can inch closer as long as they keep trying?