By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
Late last year I travelled in Japan for a week, and the one must-see on my itinerary was Hiroshima. When I arrived, it was a gorgeous fall day. I found that, like the Killing Fields in Cambodia, places of great past horror can be among the most disarmingly serene today. One need not look far, though, to see solemn plinths or skeletal structures forever bearing witness to what happened there.
No jokes to be made here.
Japanese Master Akira Kurosawa only made one film addressing the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that was quite late in his career. Rhapsody in August is about an elderly survivor of Nagasaki, who lost her husband in the blast, and who receives a letter from a long-lost brother and naturalized U.S. citizen wanting her to visit him on his deathbed. She’s spending the summer with her grandchildren, and they struggle with the decision together as they learn more about her, and their collective, past.
Kurosawa was an absolute master of cinema, and no matter the project, you know you are in for some gorgeous cinematography and thematic complexity. Rhapsody in August certainly delivers on that first front. Grandma’s house is located in the Japanese countryside outside Nagasaki, with a setting like a live-action Miyazaki film. This sets up a throughline of tradition vs. modernity, as her modern grandchildren struggle with her older, “more boring” ways.
Save a car, ride a horse!
The camerawork in this film showed that the 81 year old Kurosawa was full of visual ideas right up to the end. One scene of ants marching up a flower stalk has as much beauty, suspense, and payoff than many filmmakers are able to put into an entire film.
While this film is a typically full of themes and ideas, some are better developed than others, particularly those of nostalgia, forgiveness, and the onward march of life in any circumstance. Sachiko Murase, as Grandma Kane, embodies these and wisdom and sweetness, even though she is clearly still conflicted by her horrible experiences. Her interactions with her visiting American nephew (a charming, respectful Richard Gere) show the better side of human nature, even as other characters show a stranger, sadder state of the Japanese postwar psyche. One last raise of the glass to the obtuse, intriguing, and beautifully sad ending.
Honestly, if anyone but Kurosawa made this, it’d be a four or five beer film. When it comes to the big themes of the film, subtlety is not its strong point. With the exception of Grandma Kane and Richard Gere, everyone is a slackjawed idiot, just so that lessons like, “Respect your elders”, “Don’t be a money-chasing douche”, “Nuclear war is bad!”, and “Americans are people, too!” are rendered blindingly obvious.
Picture box full porn!
Some critics were pissed when it premiered at Cannes because its discussion of Japanese atrocities amount to precisely zilch. I’d argue that’s not the point of the film at all and, as Kurosawa himself said, “Wars are between governments, not people.” However I imagine a WWII vet or Korean or Manchurian Chinese person would have a thing or two to say about all of the events leading up to the bomb, questions the film opens itself up to by being so damn unsubtle so often.
Rhapsody in August can be a bit blunt and obvious, but like all Kurosawa films, still has beauty and ideas to spare.
Take a Drink: for every reference to America or American products
Take a Drink: whenever the grandchildren are disrespectful little shits
Take a Drink: for organ playing
Do a Shot: for somber Nuclear reflection
Do a Shot: Did… Did incest almost happen?