Monday, December 26, 2011

Film Review: Rhapsody in August

This review was originally published on Pol Culture. It was first written as an interpretative paper for a 2000 class on Japanese culture.

Akira Kurosawa's next-to-last film, 1991's Rhapsody in August, lacks the historical settings his films are famous for; it's set in and around present-day Nagasaki. In the opening scene, an elderly woman, Kane (Sachiko Murase), receives word that a brother is sick and would like her to visit him before he dies. She refuses; she voices doubts about whether the man is even her brother. It quickly becomes clear that her reasons go deeper than doubts: the brother lives in Hawaii, and Kane harbors a deep resentment towards the United States. Nagasaki is, of course, where the second of two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan during World War II, and Kane's husband was killed in the blast. The film recounts the efforts of Kane's family to convince her to see her brother, and, along the way, it explores the psychological impact of the bombing on three (arguably four) generations of Japanese.

Kane, despite her feelings about the bombing, has not been one to dwell on it. One gets the sense that her looking back has been restricted to participating in annual memorial ceremonies and receiving visits from a fellow Nagasaki widow. (The two sit together in total silence during these visits.) But the news of her brother leads her to search out her memories. She's trying to place him in her mind, and, in the process, she confronts the full anguish and grief the bombing caused in her life. Her husband's death was not the only tragedy in the family: a younger brother was driven insane. Kane ultimately does put her resentment behind her and go to Hawaii; she only insists on waiting until after the annual Nagasaki memorial ceremony.

Kane's four grandchildren are guests in her home throughout the film. When we first meet them, they are as different from their grandmother as night and day. They're completely enamored with the West, and proud bearers of that great American advertising medium, the T-shirt. When the letter arrives asking Kane to come to Hawaii, they are overjoyed: the letter is from their parents, who are visiting the brother (their uncle), and Kane is asked to bring the kids along with her. The grandchildren are initially resentful of Kane's refusal to take them to Hawaii, but their resentment soon gives way to understanding. Three of them visit the bombing memorials in Nagasaki, and they gain a palpable sense of the horror the bomb brought, feelings that are exacerbated by the stories their grandmother tells about the past. The youngest of the four, a boy of 10 or 11 named Shinjiro (Mitsunori Isaki), is especially disturbed by the stories of his great-uncle's insanity. The grandchildren even come to share Kane's animosity towards the United States. When Kane's half-Caucasian nephew Clark (Richard Gere) comes to Japan, the children are quite wary of him. They even refuse to meet him at the airport.

When the film introduces the grandchildren's parents, one well understands where the grandchildren's ignorance of the bombing comes from. (One intuits that the grandchildren only knew it as a date in a history book.) The parents (who, one assumes, are meant to stand for their generation) see the bombing as an embarrassment: it needs to be kept in the past and forgotten. The parents are disgustingly petty-minded: they are upset over Kane's refusal to go to her brother, but only because they're afraid it will block their efforts to find employment with the brother's successful American business. (When Kane hears this, she denounces the parents as beggars; one wants to applaud.) When the parents hear of Clark's plans to visit Kane, they are fraught with worry. Feeling that Americans do not want to be reminded of the bombings, they are terrified she will offend him.

Clark, though, isn't the sort to be offended. Like many Americans after World War II, he is deeply ambivalent about the bombing and sees it as a horrible tragedy. When the children encounter him at the Nagasaki memorials, they lose their wariness of him; they realize he is just as overwhelmed by the sight as they are. Clark and his cousins then become fast friends. Kane likes him a great deal as well. Clark has a particularly strong rapport with Shinjiro. The two play together in a local spring, help each other learn the other's language, and, in the film's loveliest moment, watch an army of ants climb, single file, up a tall, beautiful red rose. The relationship between Clark and Shinjiro is the way Kurosawa seems to feel things ought to be: Americans and Japanese must always acknowledge--and never forget--the terrible bond the atomic bomb built between them, but they must continue on together--in play, in work, and in discovering and enjoying the beauty and wonder life has to offer.

In the film's final section, Kurosawa cautions about what might happen if the bond is treated as a barrier. The news arrives that Kane's brother has died before she could visit him. She had resolved to see him, but it is now too little, too late. Her shame overwhelms her; she goes insane, imagining she is back in 1945 before the bombing. She runs out into a monsoon-like storm, the wind and rain fighting her every step of the way. In not letting go of anger and pain when one has the chance, one condemns oneself to forever reliving it, all alone. Rhapsody in August is an insightful, resonant, and disquieting work.

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