A final word from the Epilogue of Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto's study, Kurosawa
may be instructive:
Kurosawa is not an auteur who singlemindedly pursued throughout his career,
which spanned more than fifty years, a single project, whether artistic,
political, or otherwise. Nor is he a representative Japanese filmmaker who,
despite his interests in Western art, literature, and film, relied on traditional
Japanese aethetics, sensibility, cultural heritage, or Japaneseness. The
complexity, contradiction, and openness of Kurosawa's work cannot be reduced
to either the intention and subjectivity of an auteur or the cultural traditions
and patterns of a particular nation called Japan.
There is simply no single approach that fully explains the significance,
meanings, or relevance of Kurosawa's films. To explain where the powerful
impact of his films comes from, their style and formal aspects must be analyzed
closely. Yet it is senseless to construe him merely as a filmmaker of formal
innovation at the expense of the richness of the thematic matrices of his
In other words, we cannot think of Kurosawa only as an auteur, or only as
a Japanese filmmaker, or only as someone with a unique visual signature arising
from the formal style of his films. He is the sum total of all these things
with the addition of complex themes and philosphical perspectives that penetrate
his art. Above all, he is someone who should be remembered.
Comments by Stephen Prince:
The narrative of the film, slight as it is, investigates the bomb's legacy by juxtaposing the experiences of three generations, those like Kane (and Kurosawa) who are prewar, those born in the 1940s, and the youth of today. By juxtaposing the behavior and outlook of these generations, Kurosawa investigates the legacy of the bombing for Japan and tries to envision possibilities for transcending ity. He said, "What I would like to convey is the type of wounds the atomic bomb left in the heasrt of our people, and how gradually they began to heal."
[The young generation knows] little of the war's history, particularly the bombing of Nagasaki and how it has affected their gradmother and others of her era.
Despite the youngsters' historical ignorance, Kurosawa's presentation of this generation is sweet and affirmative. The children are good-hearted, and though they are unaware of the older Japan that Kane represents, they are receptive to the stories and tales that she tells them. Kane awakens in the grandchildren a desire to learn more of their family history and of the bombing, and Kurosawa shows them becoming more historically sensitive through their contact with the older generation. . . .Kurosawa is more unsparing of the middle generation, raised suring the war. This is the generation that grew up amid the massive influx of Western culture that followed the war and the American occupation and benefitted from Japan's postwar economic "miracle." Kane's children, now grown adults, are depicted as greedy and shallow opportunists. . .In Kurosawa's generational parable, they willingly forget the past in order to survive and prosper.
Stephen Prince, The Warrior's Camera, pp. 317-19
Rhapsody in August (1991)
May 19, 1991
Madonna and the Master at Cannes
By Vincent Canby
Published: May 19, 1991
Madonna and Akira Kurosawa: flesh and the spirit. Also, for that matter, spirit and the flesh. To be a show-business legend in your own time, you can't have one without the other. This was what film aficionados might call the subtext of the first week of the 44th Cannes Film Festival, which ends tomorrow night after 12 days of screenings.
The presence of Madonna added a lot of redeeming lunacy to this year's festival, which has been mostly serious and often lugubrious. Mr. Kurosawa, his productivity undiminished at 81, has been the festival's implacable conscience. Their work was cut out for them. The uncertainty of current business conditions and of the further economic integration of the European Community, scheduled for 1992, somewhat dampened the enthusiasm, if not the hyperbole, of the hundreds of movie traders who came to Cannes this year.
Their object: to attend the main competition, subsidiary shows and the Film Market, and to buy and sell the rights to what the trade calls "product," even though many of these haven't yet been made. This year, the still-to-be-produced category includes two big-budget productions, celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage to the New World. They may or may not be what the New World needs now.
This festival definitely needed both the ephemeral razzle-dazzle created by Madonna and her entourage and the prestige conferred on it by the great Kurosawa.
Like "Rhapsody in August," the Japanese master's new work, "Madonna: Truth or Dare," Alek Keshishian's authorized documentary, now playing in New York, was shown in the main part of the festival but out of competition. It was also the week's second toughest ticket to obtain, the toughest being a ticket to the party celebrating the film's showing. Priorities tend to get confused when Madonna is around. She's not yet a cinema icon; she's a vibrant new public personality who creates the kind of excitement that helps movie makers survive.
Another sort of necessity entirely is Mr. Kurosawa, who directed his first film in 1942 and appears to be in the midst of a vigorous Golden Age. It's a measure of the true originality of "Rhapsody in August" that it has not been a major festival hit. It doesn't cater to an audience's preconceptions of the new. It's not self-consciously inventive in the way of the films of Werner Schroeter, Lars Von Trier and the other avant-garde directors who come to Cannes.
Instead, it is distilled, utterly direct, abrasive. It reflects the manner of a man who is no longer interested in superficial effects, only in expressing what is on his mind as efficiently as possible. The film is a message from a director who was born four years before the guns of August were fired in 1914. It is a report from that generation of directors who are supposed to be dead or at least retired and modestly grateful for honorary awards.
Like "Akira Kurosawa's Dreams," shown out of competition at last year's Cannes festival, "Rhapsody in August" is visually splendid. Unlike "Dreams," though, it is almost willfully austere. It suggests something of the rigor of Roberto Rossellini's late films, though the two men otherwise don't have much in common. It is also a movie that could prompt righteous outrage in some quarters of the United States. At one point or another, there is something in it to offend everybody, including me. Mr. Kurosawa doesn't make it easy to accept man's higher nature, at least in part because the movie doesn't work in the way he seems to have intended.
"Rhapsody in August," adapted by the director from a Japanese novel, "Nabe-No-Naka," by Kiyoko Murata, is about the dropping of America's second atom bomb, on Aug. 9, 1945, on the city of Nagasaki. Unlike Shohei Imamura's "Black Rain" (1989), in which the effects of the Hiroshima bomb are explicity detailed, "Rhapsody in August" avoids any attempt to recreate the spectacle of atomic holocaust.
The time is now, and the setting is an idyllic farm on the far side of the mountains outside Nagasaki. Four teen-age children have been parked for the summer with their grandmother, widowed long ago in the Nagasaki raid, while their parents go off to Hawaii to visit the grandmother's dying brother, who became rich in Hawaii as a pineapple planter.
The Hawaiian household includes the half-American children of the grandmother's dead sister. Kane, the grandmother, now mentally confused in her old age, had 10 brothers and sisters and has trouble keeping them straight, as does the audience, though that's not important.
When Kane and the children are invited to join the others in Hawaii, she refuses. She doesn't hate all Americans, she says, but she doesn't especially cherish them. Little by little, she begins to tell the children stories about the bombing. Some are grimly factual; some sound like myth.
She had a younger brother who, though not caught directly in the raid, lost all his hair from the effects of radiation. He was so embarrassed that he spent the rest of his life in his room in the farmhouse. He was a painter, but his sole subject was a large eye, which Kane describes as "the eye of the flash" they saw on the far side of the mountain on the morning of the raid.
At a key moment, Mr. Kurosawa shows the audience that eye. It is large and red and fills the sky. The effect is both shocking and magical. It's not an evil eye; neither is it good. It is a presence that hovers over their lives. The youngest grandson later sees the eye in a snake he finds in the mountain pool where Kane's bald brother used to swim at night.
Kane remembers when a skinny-legged, dwarfish creature showed up at the farmhouse, having fished her nearly drowned brother out of the mountain pool. "A kappa," she says, as if describing a village policeman, "a water spirit." According to Kane, kappas do that occasionally.
"Rhapsody in August" vividly recalls the atomic holocaust, but entirely by indirection. Though Mr. Kurosawa says he intended that the movie should be about the awakening of the children to the bomb's meaning, the children are less important to the movie than the indirectly evoked bombing itself and the vision of the apocalypse.
The children, who range in age from late to early teens, remain largely uncharacterized. At first they miss television and the other pleasures they left at home in Tokyo. They are generic children, differentiated only by age, sex and the M.I.T. and U.S.C. T-shirts they wear.
Somewhat too quickly and obligingly, they begin to explore Nagasaki on their own, looking for evidence of the Aug. 9 raid. It's as if Mr. Kurosawa didn't have time to waste in creating especially compelling children.
Yet this doesn't interfere with Mr. Kurosawa's extraordinarily heartfelt recollection of the war and what it meant to the generations that survived it. Where the film gets tricky, and even ticklish, is when Richard Gere shows up as Kane's half-American nephew from Hawaii, who has come to pay his respects to his Japanese cousins and to apologize for the war.
Mr. Gere gives a good, self-effacing performance in a role that's a little unreal. He speaks his own Japanese dialogue easily and is at the center of one of Mr. Kurosawa's most breathtaking moments.
During a ceremony honoring the bomb victims, the camera shifts away from the shrine to show a line of ants making a purposeful ant-line toward a rosebush. The ants climb the bushy stalk, single file, to arrive at the magnificent blood-red bloom.
This may suggest that the ants, like the bomb's victims, have found their peace. However, it is far more effective if left uninterpreted. The film is full of such moments that might have pleased Luis Bunuel.
When the movie's politics were questioned at a post-screening news conference, Mr. Kurosawa denied any intention to sidestep Japanese responsibility for the war. "We Japanese," he said, "were also the victims of Japanese militarism." The subject of the film, he insisted, is not guilt and responsibility but the horrors of war, in particular of the bomb, which has made possible the absolute end of everything.
It is, indeed, a subject about which he has been ruminating for years, most memorably in the 1955 "I Live in Fear," about a man obsessed by atomic destruction, and the wildly garish end-of-the-world nightmare sequence in "Dreams" last year.
Later, at lunch at the Hotel du Cap in Antibes, sitting on a sun-drenched terrace, looking at the Mediterranean, Mr. Kurosawa expressed satisfaction with the film's reception here. The film maker looks a good 10 to 15 years younger than his age and is ready for a new project.
He noted that his longtime associate, Ishiro Honda (the director of "Godzilla" and other Japanese sci-fi classics), had directed the stunning ant sequence in "Rhapsody in August." Ants, it seems, are more difficult to direct than dogs, cats and children. Mr. Kurosawa doesn't have the patience for it.
Nor did he have patience for several grimly insistent autograph hunters who suddenly turned up on the closely guarded hotel terrace. He signed the first sheet of a paper shoved in front of him, then erupted in the formidable style of the man who is called "sensei" ("master") on the set. It was a ferocious but short outburst, after which the appetite, the charm and the concentration returned.
Rhapsody in August
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Sachiko Murase, Hisaski Igawa, Narumi Kayashima, Tomoko Otakara, Mitsunori Isaki, Toshie Negishi, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Mie Suzuki, Richard Gere
Story: Aging matriarch Kane finds herself reliving painful memories after receiving news from the death bed of her long lost brother. She sends her grown children off to Hawaii to determine the validity of this supposed relative while taking care of her grandchildren for the summer. Focus shifts to the grandchildren as Kurosawa uses them as tools for expressing his feelings on World War II and the damage it ravaged on Japan and the lives of its people.
maes·tro (m s tr )n. pl. maes·tros or maes·tri (-tr ): A master in an art, especially a composer, conductor, or music teacher.
I think that manages to describe Akira Kurosawa to the letter.
Over his lifetime the man managed to succeeded in gracing us with some of the most epic visions ever to be committed to celluloid while still possessing the ability to craft and deliver films so intimately personal that they touch the hearts and minds of all those who experience them, regardless of race or creed. RHAPSODY IN AUGUST comfortably falls into that latter category, bringing us something so intrinsically human and familiar, yet delivered in a strikingly original manner. Like fine wine, Kurosawa only grew better with age. In RHAPSODY IN AUGUST we find a craftsman capable of juggling multiple themes, never neglecting a single aspect of his narrative over another. Not only do we find a tale of family reconciliation, but one of modern Japan discovering and embracing its roots. We’re also given a glimpse of Kurosawa’s timeless child-like approach to the world around him. Each frame of film and plot point is delivered with a firm sense of honesty and innocence while flawlessly managing to deal with a subject matter as dark as war.
Our protagonist the children, lead by the eldest Tateo, manage to set the film into motion, gradually growing from the ignorant sons and daughters of a westernized Japan into conscious descendants the likes of which their ancestors would be proud. Through a visit to a schoolyard memorial, these kids find themselves overcome with an understanding of what the majority of the world has managed to forget. A powerful revelation is had and the viewer is left with a similar sense of understanding and a reassuring feeling that a wrong has been made right. Richard Gere should also be mentioned within this group as he enters the story at first as the distant American relative acting as both the youthful nephew and representative for his father, Kane’s long lost brother, but grows into an individual with his own quest for knowledge and sense of historical identity. I’m not normally very appreciative of Richard Gere or his typically hammy performances, but in this case I felt he managed to fulfill the requirements of the character. This is perhaps more so an attribute to our director than anything else.
Through the dynamic of the relationship between the children and their grandmother we are shown yet another layer in this cinematic blossom. The theme of bridging gaps between generations. This film teaches us that middle aged people are evil and the only people one should trust are those who are either too young to matter or too old to do anything about it. In all seriousness though, the adults in this film are pretty unsympathetic, with the majority of their on screen time spent getting worked up over the thought of potential riches through their new association with their wealthy American relatives. Fear not though, as in most Kurosawa films the characters either realize the full extent of “character arch” or die.
The visual aspect of this film should also not go unmentioned. Baring a striking resemblance to other works in this phase of his career, this film, with its closely framed presentation and particular editing, reveals to us a director who has learned to utilize simplicity and avoid the hazard of over complication. When handling a film of this nature it’s quite necessary to maintain focus on the characters and not get caught up in “Hey, look what my camera can do!” Even with that said Kurosawa still manages to show all the great detail and beauty of the world in which his characters exist.
Thoughtful, charming, whimsical, and endearing, RHAPSODY IN AUGUST does a thorough job of showing the importance of knowing where one comes from. As prime an example as any as to why Akira Kurosawa is revered by many as Japan’s, and perhaps the world’s, finest film maker.
Akira Kurosawa's Rhapsody in August
Akira Kurosawa's Rhapsody in August tells the fictional story of a Japanese family still dealing with issues from the United States decision to detonate a nuclear bomb within the densely populated city of Nagasaki 50 years earlier.
I have a faint memory of viewing Rhapsody in August several years ago. There are definitely other Kurosawa movies I would have chosen to re-watch before this film, but a Japanese friend visiting for a few days likes Richard Gere, so I added this selection to my rental queue to have it on hand for her arrival.
We ended up watching other movies and never got around to this one. I now realize I should have pressed my Japanese friend to watch this movie with me while she was in town. Viewing Rhapsody in August with a native Japanese person could have provoked some interesting discussions that would have likely been much more memorable than this film effort.
From what I have read, Rhapsody in August was not generally well received when it first came out. I have seen a few reviews where people try to spin this as a good and important movie, but after watching the film for a second time, I have to say those positive reviews can come across as being written by people who simply have trouble accepting that Akira Kurosawa could and did indeed make a few mediocre movies.
I admire and appreciate much of Kurosawa's work, but I have to roll my eyes on occasion when I read some reviews of his lesser films. Film reviewers are certainly not immune to the instinctive desire to idolize.
Back to the review
Richard Gere does appear in Rhapsody in August, though his character is not featured in a substantial portion of the story. I imagine Gere's appearance may have greatly assisted the funding and greenlighting of this project, Akira Kurosawa's next to last film. Kurosawa's penchant for going over budget along with notable failures at the box office, made financing a significant hurtle for him in the second half of his career.
Interestingly, with good luck with the weather, Richard Gere's scenes could have been shot in a couple of long days. I assume that a week or so was budgeted for shooting Gere's scenes, but the fact that it would have been theoretically possible to shoot them all in 2 days will give you an idea of how limited Mr. Gere's involvement was and how simple and relatively economical this film was to produce.
There are not too many locations used in Rhapsody in August. Some of the most interesting are the ones used for the few shots that are actually in Nagasaki. I also liked the setting of the grandmother's country home.
Most of the story in this film takes place in and around the grandmother's house where she still lives, miles outside of the city of Nagasaki. It was her distance from the city that enabled her to survive the United States nuclear bomb attack relatively unscathed physically, though she is said to have lost much of her hair because of returning to the city after the bombing to search for her schoolteacher husband.
A real landmark memorial consisting of a mangled children's school playground apparatus (or monkey bars as we called them when I was a kid) makes for a powerful location that is used more than once in the film.
The story relies on the grandchildren as its instrument to guide and teach the audience about the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki. In one segment the children are shown exploring and learning about Nagasaki, and they are used for exposition purposes repeatedly throughout the movie.
Despite this movie's subject matter and the informative scenes shot in and around Nagasaki, this is not a highly educational film. Very little is shared about the actual bombing and events surrounding it. Rhapsody in August is a simple story that seems intended to reflect upon the unnecessary loss and inconsolable grief that comes about as the result of war. There is also a strong message regarding the importance of remembrance, with the film suggesting that Japan itself is forgetting its past as the world's exclusive recipient of nuclear bomb attacks.
Much has been written about the scene where Gere supposedly apologizes on behalf of America for the bombing. I did not perceive that scene as being an apology for the bombing at all. He was apologizing for not being aware of the loss of the grandmother's husband. The scene was a simple sharing and acknowledgement of grief. This movie really doesn't have much to do with apologies and forgiveness. The events presented are a few steps further along in the cycle of life. I am sure the people that might be in a position to offer apologies have mostly passed away in this story that takes place in recent years.
Kurosawa himself has asserted in interviews that a completely different message was intended to be sent with this movie. He has said he wanted to share the viewpoint that governments and not people are responsible for wars, and that idea is indeed presented explicitly in the movie.
But I believe Kurosawa could not have been more wrong with his romantic notion. This sadly misguided viewpoint might be one of the reasons Rhapsody in August seems to self-derail with the director failing to deliver a story that carries any real weight.