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Film Club: Rhapsody in August (1991)

Rhapsody in August
This March, our film club continues with the theme of nuclear bombing, as we watch Kurosawa’s penultimate directorial work, the 1991 film Rhapsody in August. The film follows four children who are spending a summer holidays with their grandmother in a small town near Nagasaki. During their stay, they learn about the atomic bomb which was dropped on Nagasaki and also killed their grandfather.

Preparations for Rhapsody in August (八月の狂詩曲 / Hachigatsu no rapusodī) began immediately after the release of Dreams (1990), a change of pace for the now 80-year-old Kurosawa who had for the past 25 years released a film only once every five years. The production was a departure from the past decades’ works also in that it was Kurosawa’s first fully Japanese funded film since the 1970 Dodesukaden, with Shochiku, Kurosawa Production Co and a group of investor companies behind the production.

The screenplay, adapted by Kurosawa alone, was based on the novel In the Stew (Nabe no naka) by Kiyoko Murata and reportedly written in just fifteen days. The film stars Sachiko Murase as a grandmother and bomb survivor Kane in what would be her last feature film appearance, crowning a 70-year acting career which started in theatre and saw Murase appear in close to a hundred films, as well as numerous works for television and radio. Before appearing in Kurosawa’s adaptation of In the Stew, Murata had already acted in the same role in a stage adaptation based on the same novel.

The other main roles are carried by child actors, all of whom have since continued working in the industry, and two of whom had already worked with Kurosawa on Dreams. In other roles, the American film star Richard Gere famously plays Kane’s half-American nephew.

Rhapsody in August was shot during 1990 and was released in Japan on May 25, 1991 to a polite but somewhat muted reception. The film was nevertheless nominated for altogether ten Japanese Academy Awards, winning four of them.

Reception abroad was similarly muted, with the United States an exception. At the time of its release, Rhapsody in August received more negative press in the United States than any other Kurosawa film had, as most American critics and journalists appeared to largely misunderstand the film’s themes and intentions. Rhapsody in August was attacked by them for being an anti-American film that simplified the complex historical and political situation which led to the atomic bombings, and was especially heavily criticised for a scene where Richard Gere’s character apologises to Kane. However, as Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto argues in his chapter on the film, these accusations are absolutely groundless and the result of a total and simplistic misreading of the film and the scene in question.

Rhapsody in August is in fact not all that interested in the atomic bombing itself or the events that led to it, and instead explores the rich and more interesting human element by asking how the bombings have in 45 years affected the society into which they were dropped. Instead of a political work, it is a film about memory, healing process and generational differences. In fact, as Stephen Prince writes, if the film does criticise something, it is the film’s middle generation who were born in the 1940s and witnessed Japan’s post-war economic boom. For them, the film has less sympathy than for the elderly or the young, portraying them largely as what Prince calls “greedy and shallow opportunists”. (318)

While Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain, which we watched last month, depicts the atomic bombing and its immediate reaction, Kurosawa therefore opts to approach the subject from a more detached position. In a 1991 interview quoted in James Goodwin’s essay “Akira Kurosawa and the Atomic Age” (published in Perspectives on Akira Kurosawa), Kurosawa in fact says about the atomic bombing:

It is absolutely unfilmable. That state of destruction and of such terrible human anguish does not belong to the realm of the presentable. … It is better to evoke and nurture the imagination; this is far more terrifying. I have not seen Imamura’s motion picture, but I think it is impossible to film such events. Things reach a point where the people who experienced the events cannot even speak of them. They are unspeakable.

This impossibility of speaking about the bombing is effectively depicted in Rhapsody in August by Kane’s meeting with another elderly bomb survivor with whom she regularly meets to discuss the event. The two women sit in total silence.

Yet, by reminiscing about her siblings, Kane also ends up talking about the bomb and its effects on her family. This is significant, for in the end the film is not so much about the bomb as it is about a family that experienced it, and the three generations of individuals who each have a fairly different understanding of it.

For further background reading, the typical Kurosawa books found at the (recently updated) Kurosawa books section are recommended as always, as is Kurosawa’s contemporary discussion with Gabriel García Márquez that can be found for instance at Open Culture. For a biographical context, you can check out Part 11 of the Kurosawa biography which I have recently added to Akira Kurosawa info, while information about the film’s home video availability can be found at the DVD section.

Next month, we continue the nuclear theme with the Studio Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies (1988). But that’s next month: the comments and forums are now open for your views on Rhapsody in August!


Discussion

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Longstone

I had a free evening so managed to sit down and watch this again, I’ve had the DVD for some years and viewed the film at least a couple of times in the past.
Personally I like the film especially as it reminds me of my visit to Nagasaki during the scenes when the children tour the city.
Some scenes work a lot better than others for me, one example is the visit to the school yard, the first occasion when the children visit for the first time seems beautifully paced, moving and natural.
However the second visit, when the parents, children and Clark all arrive there at the same time to be surrounded firstly by the current schoolchildren at play and then by the ageing ex pupils that survived the bomb, seems too staged and contrived.
The generation gap theme reminded me a little of Tokyo Story with innocent children who lark about, materialistic and selfish adults and wise elders with many memories.
Both films explore the three generations but Kurosawa’s film gives the children a lot more voice.
I also saw similarities with Black Rain , exploring the lives of bomb survivors living a short distance away from the main city , people who were far enough away to witness the flash and the cloud rather than being hit by the full force but close enough to lose immediate family who were visiting the city and to suffer the effects of radiation.
Rhapsody being set at a later time explores memory of the ageing survivors set against the children discovering the past from their interaction with their grandmother and from the environment .
I particularly enjoy the performance of Sachiko Murase as the grandmother but Richard Gere always throws me a little he’s not around long enough for me to forget he’s Richard Gere and accept his character.
A favorite scene for me is where a friend visits Kane and they sit in silence together which we experience as the children see it and then find out more as Kane gives her explanation to the children.
The film certainly doesn’t come across as anti American to me and I’ve never thought Clark was apologising for the bomb itself. I always assumed he was apologising for not knowing about his aunt and not visiting previously, with these feelings being amplified by newly discovering his uncle was killed in the explosion. The feeling of guilt is then reversed as Kane learns the brother she didn’t visit in Hawaii has now died.

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Vili Maunula

I too think that Rhapsody in August is a much better film than it is given credit for. It has suffered from people misinterpreting its intentions, being automatically compared to Ran and the other late period films which preceded it, as well as the Richard Gere factor which for some reason demands, or at least in the 1990s seemed to demand, that any serious fan of cinema cannot like anything that has Richard Gere in it.

The home video releases haven’t really helped either with their washed-out colours and comparatively poor subtitles. Rhapsody in August has some absolutely beautiful images, and while watching it I once again got almost angry at the inadequate DVD transfer. But then it actually made me happy instead because it reminded me what it was like to watch Kurosawa’s films in the 1990s, and how good we have it now. Well, for the most part anyway.

I love the eye motif, which is introduced as the surreal floating eye and immediately visually equated with the from then on ever present moon, and of course also with the eye drawn on the chalkboard, which watches everyone inside the house and is positioned on the board right next to Kane’s family. It is a scary eye but not a menacing one. When Kurosawa was commissioned to design a wristwatch for Swatch a few years later, an eye again made an appearance.

However, what interested me most in my most recent viewing of the film was the acting. There seems to be a marked difference between the performances of the children and those of the other actors. Whereas the adults give comparatively natural performances (for a Kurosawa film, anyway), the movements of the children are in many if not most scenes very formal. There is a really good example at about 55 minutes into the film. Follow the trajectory that the younger girl Minako takes, sitting down no less than four times in the space of that one minute scene.

You could put this down to the child actors not being able to relax under Kurosawa’s direction, but I suspect that there is more to it. This type of “stop and go acting”, whereby characters move, then stop to say things, then move again, constantly repositioning themselves within a scene, is similar to what Kurosawa uses in the first act of High and Low, and I would say to a great success. I can’t think of another Kurosawa film with similar group direction — and I actually spent my Monday evening fast forwarding through the latter half of Kurosawa’s career looking for parallels. What is more typical of Kurosawa is that as one or two characters move, the camera moves with them, reframing the scene and the other actors as the camera finds new positions. In Rhapsody in August, the camera is usually fairly stationary and the movement is generated by the repositioning of the actors.

This “stop and go” rhythm permeates also the film’s larger structure, with one fairly stationary scene usually leading to the next through either visual (e.g. children running) or auditory (e.g. playing the scales on the piano) movement. That it is the children’s rhythm that the film adopts is of course not surprising, given that the film is narrated by (and largely also seen through the eyes of?) the older girl, Tami.

Which is, I think, another important point to make. This is the children’s story, and I suspect that they are also the characters closest to the film’s intended primary audience, Japanese teenagers. To approach the film as some kind of a global political statement seems very mistaken.

The rhythm is of course also referred to in the film’s title. It is a rhapsody, after all.

The Tokyo Story comparison is a good one, Longstone. I suppose we have three generations in the film which are all unable to speak about the bomb. The grandmother’s generation simply cannot, the adults’ generation has decided not to, and the children’s generation is already too far removed to know about it first or second hand due to their elders not talking about it. When the children do try to explore the subject, they have to draw their own conclusions and those turn out to be too simplistic. As the grandmother tells them, it is not as straightforward as one side being at fault and the other not. For most of his career, Kurosawa confronted Japan’s problems head-on, not turning away from what wasn’t pleasant. Rhapsody in August explores an outcome when this is not done.

While Richard Gere certainly sticks out, I think that he is very much meant to. The scenes which he is part of are all staged that way. The only character with whom he is on an equal footing is the grandmother. This again mirrors the children’s point of view, for whom the foreigner is like something out of a Hollywood film. The way that the children treat him (after they know the true reason of his visit) is probably familiar to many westerners who have been to Japan and met local families. You can be made to feel like a film star.

It’s a wonderful film, and one that always seems to surprise me. Half a year from now, I will probably again mentally file it into the “minor works” pile due to it no longer being fresh in my mind and so many reviewers reacting negatively to it. Which is all right, because the next time I watch it, I will once again be pleasantly surprised. It’s like discovering a new Kurosawa film each time I watch it.

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lawless

Great discussion. I finally got around to watching this for the first time yesterday even though I’ve had the DVD for years after buying it on sale at the local Barnes & Noble for some ridiculously low price. I was saving it for the next time the film club dealt with it.

I liked this film a lot. It’s simple and less layered than many of his other films, but not simplistic. In some ways, it’s a return to the earlier days of movies like One Wonderful Sunday and No Regrets for Our Youth. It is also probably the best indicator of what Kurosawa would have done with the kind of interior domestic drama Ozu specialized in. As demonstrated, the final product would be entirely different from Ozu’s despite the thematic overlap.

Murase is terrific as the grandmother. At first her character seems beset and beaten down by life and ailments, but as the audience and her grandchildren get to know her, she exudes a quiet strength. Her wrinkles, posture, and way of walking remind me of my (100% Korean) father in his final years. (His mother is probably spinning in her grave as I say that, since she hated, and had reason to hate, the Japanese.)

The children are also terrific and make me think of the child-centric Tokyo Chorus and ….And I Was Born as points of comparison in addition to the more obvious Tokyo Story parallels. Kurosawa writes them in a very realistic-feeling way, and in many respects they, their goodwill, and their lack of knowledge of the past are the heart of the film.

I agree that the film’s thematic thrust is not the war or the bombing of Nagasaki, but rather the intersection of family, memory, and healing under difficult circumstances. Look at what Grandma’s justified skepticism about her brother’s identity and her insistence that his memory be tested does: instead of traveling to Hawaii and seeing him once more, he dies before she can make the journey. But in its own way his son Clark’s journey to meet her and pay respects to the uncle he never met is her rapprochement with her brother.

I also agree with your assessment of the similarities between this and Tokyo Story, especially with respect to the middle generation, their materialism, and their wildly incorrect assumptions about what Clark’s visit really means. It’s interesting that they’re the ones who have the hardest time predicting what their American relatives will think and do about points of potential conflict, mostly because they interpret Americans in light of Japanese, not American, culture. Unlike Tokyo Story, they seem to regret their assumptions by the end. They’re also the ones with the least interest in learning about or memorializing the past. It’s the grandchildren, not the children, who go on a pilgrimage to sites important to their deceased relatives; the movie seems to tell us the children were never told, and never cared to know, what happened.

The use of what I assume are actual locations of memorials in Nagasaki (if not, they did a terrific job of set dressing) was very moving; I cried a lot during the parts of the movie dedicated to remembering their lost relatives. The observation about speaking silently also resonated a great deal. I appreciated the way Kurosawa tied the repeating motif of the organ and its repair to the greater knowledge of the past and healing of rifts, culminating in a full rendition of a song that becomes the theme for the movie. He is not only good at visual movement and structure; he is good at narrative and thematic flow and structure.

Even though they’re sometime awkward looking in contrast to what comes before and after it, I also can’t praise his special effects (like the eye) enough. Kurosawa might not have known enough about or liked CGI enough to use it (or had the budget for it), but its absence is a help, not a hindrance. The effects Kurosawa coaxes are that much more impressive and powerful for not originating with computer manipulation.

Finally, Richard Gere. This is the first movie of his I’ve seen where I knew who I was watching (he was in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, but that was in a supporting role before he became famous), and I think he does a creditable job. But what I want to raise here is: Was casting an actor who wasn’t Asian at all in a biracial role a good decision at the time? And if it was, would it still be now? I’m willing to cut Kurosawa some slack; he probably saw casting an A-list actor as a way to get financing and more box office outside of Japan. But what he did is whitewashing, which would be decried today.

Should we cut that much slack, though? Back then, it might have been difficult to find an actor who looked believably half-Japanese who was the right age and well-enough known to cast in the role. Whether it would have been hard to find an actor of Asian descent who looked believably half-Japanese and was the right age but wasn’t well-known is difficult to say.

Also, can anyone comment on Gere’s pronunciation of Japanese? To my untrained ear, it sounds like he did a good job both with making the speech identifiable yet clearly non-native (i.e., speaking with an American accent).

Finally, I was a little puzzled at the meaning of the last few frames of the movie. I understand that her grandchildren and children are chasing after her and that she’s regressed to the days of the war, but why does Grandma begin smiling just as her umbrella turns completely inside out? Is it symbolic of her death? Regression to younger and happier days? Her acceptance of whatever happens? I sometimes have problems interpreting ambiguous endings like this, so any help would be appreciated.

Anyway, I would place this with Sanjuro, The Bad Sleep Well, One Wonderful Sunday, Dodesukaden, and No Regrets for Our Youth and a little ahead of such flawed movies as Scandal, The Idiot (which nevertheless has some powerful scenes), The Hidden Fortress, Record of a Living Being, Red Beard (yes, sorry, not one of my faves), and Dersu Uzala.

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Longstone

Lawless,
as far as I could tell the memorials were the real thing , it was very recognisable from my own visit.
I didn’t see the school playground but I assume that is also a real location. I saw the film a while before I visited Japan but didn’t make the connection when I visited Nagasaki, I was too wrapped up in the moment so wasn’t looking for Kurosawa locations. When I got home I had been so impressed/moved by a visit to Nagasaki I searched around for books, films and photography about the city ( not just bomb related although that’s mostly what exists in English friendly formats ) and remembered Rhapsody. I was surprised by how much of Nagasaki was in the film when I re-watched it.
I posted a few photos from my visit on my blog at the time
blog photos

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Vili Maunula

As Longstone already pointed out, the Nagasaki footage is indeed actual Nagasaki, although I don’t know if they dressed up things. In fact, even the grandmother’s house wasn’t a studio set but an actual house that they built on location in Chichibu, which is actually fairly near to Tokyo.

Thanks for the photos Longstone! They manaaged to make me both hungry and thirsty.

I don’t think that Kurosawa lacked experience with CGI at this point in his career. He had, after all, just finished Dreams which featured plenty of special effects by George Lucas’s industry leading Industrial Light and Magic.

In any case, I totally agree that the eye in the film is more impressive than a fully CGI version could at the time have been. In fact, I would say that Rhapsody‘s eye is far scarier and more impressive than that of Sauron in the more recent Lord of the Rings films.

Kurosawa was interested in having Gere for the role, and the two sort of knew one another having met at various industry events over the years, I think starting with Ran‘s launch party in New York in the mid-80s. In addition to his acting credentials, Kurosawa was impressed by Gere’s knowledge and understanding of Buddhism, which he practices. Gere had just become a major star with the releases of Internal Affairs and Pretty Woman (both in 1990), so he could also function as a global box office draw. Even better, although his standard fee would probably have been way too high for Kurosawa’s production, Gere reportedly offered to do the film free of charge. A nominal fee was ultimately suggested by Kurosawa’s camp and agreed on.

The casting was somewhat controversial, but I think it works. They (and as I understand it particularly Gere’s camp) explored the possibility of altering Gere’s physical appearance — especially his eyes — to look more like a half-Japanese person would, but Kurosawa decided that nothing more than slight makeup trickery was needed, and that’s what we have in the film.

As for Gere’s Japanese, it is perfectly understandable but he speaks fairly slowly and with a heavy American accent. I have heard worse, though. My personal favourite was a gentleman from Texas whom I met in Japan and who spoke with what was in terms of grammar and vocabulary pretty flawless Japanese, but with a very thick Texan accent. It’s impossible to really describe it but it was quite hilarious. And yet, I was deeply impressed by how well he spoke and how little he was bothered by the fact that his pronunciation was so off.

Gere himself speaks no Japanese, so he basically learnt his lines by endlessly repeating tapes that had been prepared for him to rote learn the lines.

As for the ending, I will have to check it again soon. I don’t think that I’ve noticed her smiling before, so you definitely raised my curiosity!

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lawless

Thanks, Longstone and Vili! I could tell they’d filmed in Nagasaki; what I was particularly curious about was the memorial in the schoolyard, which looked like a jungle gym warped by the atomic bomb. The structure could have been built for the movie, but the raised lettering on the sign on the ground with the date and time of the attack looked so authentic that if it had been set dressing, I’d be very impressed. I’m glad to know that it was (as it appeared to be) the real thing.

The use of actual locations in itself probably contributed to the sense that the movie was anti-American, just as the use of the location of the actual events in the movie Fruitvale Station (which I commend to you) about the shooting of Oscar Gant, an unarmed Black man, by BART police officers, underlines that the movie is a commentary on what happened there.

Argh, I forgot about Dreams. But wasn’t most of that blue/green screen? And even in that case, it was sometimes apparent that they were using a backdrop or were in a studio.

It’s been awhile since I saw the LoTR films, but I think you’re right, Vili, about the eye here being more impressive than the Eye of Sauron in those movies.

Thanks for reminding me about Gere’s Buddhism, and accepting a nominal fee would also be of help considering the wider audience his presence could bring. It’d still be interesting to see how that decision would play out if Kurosawa were alive and making the movie today. As for altering his eyes, it’s not necessary; look at Chloe Bennet (nee Wang) of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Her father is Chinese, but her eyes don’t look that different from Westerners’, making her look less than half Asian. Altering one’s appearance like that, aka yellowface, is understandably one of the things activists most decry as part and parcel of offensive and vaguely colonialist appropriation. Is it any better, or less of a problem, when the person doing the appropriation is himself part of the group at issue?

I figured Gere learned his lines phonetically by rote. I think he did a good job!

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