Rhapsody in August (1991)

A Film Review

by Edwin Jahiel


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.

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 fiction features 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 Suzujiro 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 youngsters.

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 Suzujiro, 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]


Two aspects of the film were especially inflammatory. One occurs during the extended scene in which the grandchildren visit the Nagasaki memorials to the bombing victims. . .A montage shows the memorials contributed by other nations, and a substantial number of these are from former Eastern Bloc and communist countries: Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, China, Cuba and the Former USSR. Shinichiro, the youngest grandchild, points out that there is no memorial from the United States, and his elder suster, Tami, replies, "Of course not, they're the ones who dropped the bombs." The politcal evasions here are quite severe. . .

The second offending incident in the film involves Clark (Richard Gere) ['s visit to Japan where] he learns of the death of his uncle in the Nagasaki bombing, whereupon he visits the site and expresses remorse remorse over the bombing. American critics tended to construe this an an apology for the bombing. In fact, though, Clark is exhibiting a humane response to the evident destruction and loss of life, not a political judgment about the use of the bomb. In a subsequent scene, he apologizes to Kane for not knowing of his uncle's death. Many critics found this,too, to be offensive.

Stephen Prince, The Warrior's Camera, pp. 320-321.

Since this sense that somehow Rhapsody in August operates as a critique of the U.S. decision to drop the bomb is fairly widespread, it may be fruitful to look at just what Clark does say in the film. See my transcription below where I look at two scenes in particular:

1. A scene at the school when the older community people come to maintain the memorial to bomb victims:

Shinjiro: These people. . .they scare me!
Tateo: Because these people witnessed something terrifying.
Clark: Seeing these people. . .Nagasaki. . .on that day. . .I can feel it.
(Kono hitotachi miru, ano hi no Nagasaki. ..yoku wakaru!)
Literally: Seeing these people, I can really understand Nagasaki on that day.)


2. Clark speaking with his aunt Kane whom he calls "Obasan":

Clark: I am sorry that we did not know about (what happened to) Uncle.
(Ojisan no koto o shiranakute, hontou ni sumimasen deshita.)

Kane: That’s all right (Yokatta wa).

Clark: You were born and lived in Nagasaki, yet we did not think of Uncle. That was wrong. We should have thought of him.

(Obasan wa Nagasaki no hito. Sore nan no ni, watashitachi wa ki ga tsukanatta. Warui desu. Watashitachi wa warukatta desu.)

Kane: That’s alright.(Yokatta desu yo.)

Clark: My father told me, "Clark, you go and do whatever you can for your aunt."
(Chichi, watashi ni iimashita: Clark, itte, Obasan no koto, dekirudake shi nasai.)

Kane: That’s all right. (Yokatta desu yo). That’s just fine. Sank you bery much. [Broken English]

She takes Clark’s hand and they stand up, facing one another, with a full moon behind them.

Clark says in English:

No, thank you very much. You have made me very happy. Very, very happy.

Shinjiro runs to tell the rest of the children what he saw. He describes the handshake and says:

Shinjiro: "I feel like I saw something really nice."
(Nandaka totemo ii mon mita to ki ga suru.)


There is one scene in which Kane, the Grandma, does vent her frustration and anger toward the US. She observes:

I don't see what is wrong with writing the truth. They did drop the atom bomb, and now they resent being reminded of it? If they don't like it, they don't have to remember it! But I can't have them pretending ignorance. They claim they dropped the "pika" to stop the war. It's already been 45 years now but the flash hasn't stopped war. They're still kiling people.

But you know war is to blame. People will do anything just to win a war. Sooner or later it will be the ruin if us all.

The frustration over America's refusal to come to terms with the decison that they made--even after all this time--may be related to the debacle that would occur a few years later over the Smithsonian's planned exhibition on the Enola Gay that was sabotaged by conservatives. Conservatives, veterans groups, etc. were outraged that picutes of the damage and the human cost of dropping the bombs would be put on display at a national museum in the US capitol. They wanted no part of it. The Smithsonian Director was summoned to the hill and threatened with budget cuts if he did not act. The result was a very limited exhibition featuring the refurbished aircraft itself and very little about thedecision to frop the bomb and the impact the bomb had on human beings. The controversy sparked a defense of the Smithsonian by a number of distinguished historians but politics ruled the day.

However, when Kane says that if the Americans don't want to remember it, they don't have to, she is referring to a choice that maybe Americans have the luxury to make but Japanese do not. At lrast not without consequinces. But that is one of the themes of this film, I think: how do/will younger generations in Japan remember the bomb? What do they know about it? How much can they even talk about it? Is discourse possible on this topic? Probably Kuosawa was discouraged about proposects for these kinds of conversations taking place either in Japan or in the US so he wanted to make a film that might spur Japanese to think about the situation. As Rogert Ebrt opines below, Rhapsody in August may not be "one of his great films, but [it] shows him thoughtfully trying to come to peace with the central event of his times." (see review below)

After her little outburst, Kane equivocates somewhat when she says that is really war that is to blame. While this may sound like a bit of a cop-out, we should realize that it is also a subtle reminder to Japanese viewers that they, too, have issues about war responsibility that they need to address. But, in the film, Kurosawa is not afraid to have Kane say that it is an historical fact that the US dropped two atomic weapons on Japan and for anyone, including the US, to try to avoid coming to terms with that fact is absurd. Perhapos this is why many American critics did not care for this film.


Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto also has a very clear "take" on these scenes in andon the controversies sparked byRhapsody. Noting that some critics take exception to the scene involving the grandchildren at the memorial park and Tami's remark that of course the US didn't send a memorial because they dropped the bomb, Yoshimoto points out that it wasn't just Eastern Bloc countries like Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, China, Cuba and the USSR that sent monuments, but it was also countries such as Italy, Holland, Brazil and Portugal:

Therefore, there is nothing to acknowledge here, except perhaps the relevant fact that the Occupation, which encouraged democracy, never allowed any reference to the atomic bomb in Japanese films through its strict censorship. . .

As ambiguous as his broken Japanese is, Clark clearly speaks as an extended family member, not as an American. He admits his family's and his own failure to realize what kind of pain the grandmother has been suffering from her husband's death by the atomic blast. They didn't make a connection between the death of Kane's husband and the location of her home, Nagasaki. Instead, they talked only about themselves without paying attention to Kane's circumstances. By urging her to come to Hawaii as soon as possible, they were even unintentionally asking her to miss the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing and memorial services for her dead husband. This is the reason why Clark apologizes to Kane; it is not at all the case that he apologizes for the American attack on Nagasaki with the atomic bomb. Thus the misconstrued description of the apology scene reveal more about the critics' understanding of the dropping of the bomb over Nagasaki as a historical fact than the film's representation of this historical fact. Critics who are surprised by what they perceive as Kurosawa's unjustifiable criticism of the United States in Rhaposdy in August have probably never understood his films, including such postwar masterpeices as Stray Dog, No Regrets for our Youth, and Rashomon. . .(368)

Rhapsody in August is about the possibility of talking about and remembering as much as the fact of the Americans' atomic destruction of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The film does not re-create the scenes of the atomic explosion and its aftermath. Instead, the droping of the bomb is only indirectly represented by a melted jungle gym in the schoolyard where Kane's husband presumably died and some stone statues of angels damaged by the radioactive blast. Human witnesses to the atrocity remain silent about their experiences, which no words can describe adequately. The elderly people who survived the bomb as school children come to the melted jungle gym, which is preserved as a memorial, and silently clean and decorate it with young plants. One of Kane's friends, who also lost her husband to the atomic bomb, comes to see her once a month. According to Kane, the friend comes to talk about her atomic bomb experience, yet the film shows them just sitting on the wood floor without saying a word to each other. To the doubtful grandchildren, Kane says that people can talk to each other silently, too. Without uttering any words, the two elderly women can understand each other's feelings and pain and together mourn for the dead.

In Rhapsody in August, the present is haunted by the past. . .Kane is an unpretentious storyteller, who, drawing on her memories, vividly tells strange and gripping tales. The grandchildren are so captivated by her stories that as we have seen, they end up reenacting those stories. Kane maintains a critical distance from her memories until the last sequence when she finally remembers who Suzujiro is. Kane's recognition of her elder brother is traumatic because the missing memory returns to her only when it is too late for her to see him. The untimely recovery of the memory is so shocking that she becomes delusional and mistakes the death of Suzujiro for the death of her husband. As Tateo says, Kane's mental clock starts moving backward to the day when her husband was killed by the atomic bomb. It is not clear whether she suffers from just a temporary mental lapse or from a more permanent illness. What is clear is that the final sequence is conssitent with the rest of the film. Kane's medical status is in the end not important because the film's last scene is not at all a realistic scene. Kane is no longer a character but an allegorical figure (" a painfully tragic poem"), whose quixotic march in the storm looks as if she is fighting against the atomic blast. As Kane forces her way in the heavy rainstorm, a gust of wind turns her umbrella inside out, making it look like a rose. At this point, all realistic sound effects are replaced by a children's choir singing the Schubert song "Heidenroselein," reminding us of Tateo's successful repair of the grandmother's out-of-tune pedal organ, with which he plays the Schubert song several times in the preceding scenes, and a swarm of ants climbing up petals of a brilliantly red rose that captivated Shinjiro and Clark during the memorial service. Kane is now not a mentally confused woman but a brave warrior whose struggle against the rain and wind transforms her into an allegorical icon affirming the dignity and preciousness of life. (369-71, emphasis mine)

Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, Kurosawa, pp. 367-69.

Another Review
By Roger Ebert

Akira Kurosawa is in his early 80s now, and there are those who think he is losing his touch, that the vision that made him one of the greatest of directors is fading at last. In his 70s he gave us late masterpieces like "Ran," but his "Dreams" (1990) was not well-received, and "Rhapsody in August" was considered a disappointment when it premiered at Cannes in May, 1991. It is not one of his great films, but shows him thoughtfully trying to come to peace with the central event of his times.

The movie takes place during one summer in the life of a very old woman (Sachiko Murase) whose husband was killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Her children and grandchildren have come to visit her, and there are reports from the deathbed of her brother, who immigrated to Hawaii many years before, prospered, and took an American wife and American citizenship. Now he is mortally ill, and while the old woman decides whether to answer his call for a last meeting, a reconciliation, he dies.

Not long after, her nephew (Richard Gere), the man's son, comes to Japan to visit. He is half Japanese, half Caucasian, and around him the subject of her husband's death is discussed only gingerly; perhaps he would not like to be reminded that the bomb was dropped by Americans. He speaks Japanese, is polite and interested, and eventually learns the story of his uncle's death. And there is a scene beyond all words in which the old lady and another woman friend, equally old, gather to remember their dead.

There is no dialogue; they need no speech for their memories. Kurosawa has always been a director of great images, and in his old age he has permitted himself more fanciful, less realistic ones. There is a great eye which opens in the sky in this movie, and which symbolizes, I suppose, the light that flowered in the sky when the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. There is a rose, engulfed by ants, which may have something to do with those who fled from the devastation of the bomb. There is the twisted jungle gym of a school playground, left the way it looked after the heat of the bomb melted it into a grotesque sculpture. And there is the image of the old woman, walking in wind and rain, her umbrella defiantly offered against the elements.

These images and the dialogue about the bomb are counterpointed by the daily lives of the grandchildren, who are rather one-dimensional, chattering creatures, used to show how the younger generation does not much remember or care about the great events of the years before they were born. Gere, as the nephew, is more attentive, and eventually he offers his apologies for the death of his uncle, and the old woman forgives him.

This sequence in particular was criticized at Cannes, where one journalist cried out at a press conference, "Why was the bomb dropped in the first place?" and when the film played at the Tokyo Film Festival, critics of Japanese militarism said Kurosawa had ignored the historical facts leading up to the bomb. Kurosawa's response was simple: He wanted his film to say that war was between governments, not people. The use of a Japanese-American character was deliberate. It is as if, at this point in his life, he wants to close this particular set of books - at least as far as his art is concerned.

Another veteran Japanese director, Shohei Imamura, has made a recent film about the bomb which is more disciplined and pointed. His "Black Rain" (1989, not to be confused with the Michael Douglas thriller) is about the social aftermath of the bomb in Japan, where those suspected of radiation poisoning became less attractive marriage prospects. His film has edge and bite. The Kurosawa is more of a sigh, a letting-go, but interesting because of that very quality. Seeing that twisted playground artifact, I was reminded of another playground, in Kurosawa's great "Ikiru" (1952), which is the story of a dying bureaucrat who devotes all of his waning energies to getting a city playground constructed, and then dies there, sitting on a swing in the snow.


See also: http://www.umich.edu/~iinet/cjs/films/reviews/rhapsodyinaugust.html