April 21, 2009

Rhapsody in August

1991 film
written & directed by Akira Kurosawa
based on the novel by Kiyoko Murata

While their parents are off visiting rediscovered relatives in Hawaii, a group of four young siblings and cousins (Tomoko Otakara, Mitsunori Isaki, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Mieko Suzuki) find themselves shacked up with their Grandmother, Kane (Sachiko Murase), in a small country home in the mountains outside Nagasaki. Like most kids of the 90s, they find themselves bored out of their minds at the lack of TV and video games, and start wandering through the nearby city and countryside, finding little monuments to the stories told by their grandmother.

Kane, you see, was a widow of the atomic bomb. Her husband, a teacher, was at his school in Nagasaki on that fateful day and fell alongside his students to the ensuing fires. Though the pain still stings, she holds no grudge, despite some worries from others that this might be the reason she held off on joining the trip to Hawaii, where a dying man who may be her older brother (she had about a dozen siblings and isn't sure) married an American woman and started a successful pineapple farm.

Murase is magnificent in the role, perfectly balancing Kane's stubborn grip of the past with a little grin of wonder at the world her grandchildren now find themselves in. It's these sequences that explore the bridging of the generations, how ideas and memories can pass from one to the other even though they may not share the same context, that really paints the heart of this film and, having spent a few years living with a grandparent myself, I felt totally at home. And I've really got to give Kurosawa props for not painting either group as starkly as he did in RAN or I LIVE IN FEAR. These are people who, while colored by their time, can still reflect upon, learn about, and appreciate the things that divide the generations rather than further that gap.

No, it's that middle group, the ones who grew up in the years immediately following the war, that Kurosawa still seams to have a bit of anger toward. Kane's middle aged son (Hisashi Igawa) and daughter (Toshie Negishi) seem far more interested in the wealthy Hawaiian estate than they are in familial bonds and any mention of Nagasaki's past has them tightening their sphincters in the fear that the newfound American relatives might feel awkward and sever ties.

Which brings us to Richard Gere. I know, Gere suddenly popping up in the second half of a Kurosawa film is a strange sight, but he shines nonetheless. He plays Clark, the half-American son of Kane's brother, who first learns of his family's connection to Nagasaki through a letter from the grandchildren. They didn't know such details were supposed to be kept a secret, and their parents start bristling at the possibility they might be cut out of potential prosperity, but Clark doesn't awkwardly pull away like they feared. No, he immediately flies out to Japan to meet Kane and see the school where her husband died, in an effort to fill the gaps of his family's history.

What a beautiful, delicate, powerful movie.

I have a confession to make. I first saw this film at age 14. I knew about the bombs and had a general sense of Japanese culture both during Wartime and in the modern day, but much of the country's history was still alien to me and I didn't know about Kurosawa beyond a few mere mentions of SEVEN SAMUARI, which I wouldn't see for a couple more years. In the interest of complete honesty, I have to admit that RHAPSODY IN AUGUST bored me senseless. The still, silent camera, the frequent conversations about things long dead and gone, none of it did anything for me. But I was young at the time and it would be a few more years before I started growing very close to my grandmother. Watching the film again over a decade later, I feel I was originally like the kids were at the beginning of the movie, jaded and sarcastic, unable to accept something outside their bubble of the present.

I now hold this up to be my favorite of Kurosawa's films. Not only is the exploration of the family beautiful and inspiring, but the way he layers in the realities of history, warts and all, without judging or breaking into lectures, gives the picture the texture and depth we've all come to love from the Master. And the honesty of the ending, the fragile, heartbreaking finale, where Kurosawa acknowledges that every generation must eventually pass on, no matter how tightly its descendants hold to it, once again shows that the skills I prematurely dismissed as fading in my review to RAN are still there in all their glory, ready and waiting to be witness by generations to come.


(internet movie database)

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