Friday, January 21, 2011

REVIEW: Rhapsody in August

八月の狂詩曲 (Hachigatsu no kyōshikyoku)

Released: 1991

Akira Kurosawa

Sachiko Murase
Hisashi Igawa
Narumi Kayashima
Richard Gere
Mieko Suzuki

Running time: 98 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

"Rhapsody in August" was the second-to-last film Akira Kurosawa directed, made between 1990’s "Dreams" and his 1993 swan song "Madadayo." In this late stage of his career, his beliefs and ideas about war, the environment and man’s harmful role in both became noticeably more pronounced in his work, as if he was suddenly motivated to make the most of his remaining time by imparting the lessons that meant the most to him. In some cases, he managed to get his ideas across in a powerful, highly cinematic way – perhaps the finest example being "Ran." Yet in other films, the results were simply too preachy or insistent to make the same kind of impact. For example, as stunning as its imagery and techniques are, "Dreams" often suffers from its more long-winded dialogue sequences.

"Rhapsody in August," based on a novel by Kiyoko Murata, is very much a small-scale piece in which Kurosawa’s messages are placed at the forefront. It focuses on a group of four children who go to stay with their grandmother (Sachiko Murase) in rural Nagasaki for the summer. They receive letters from Hawaii sent by Tadao (Hisashi Igawa), the father of two of the children, who is visiting their American relatives. Also in America is Suzujiro, the grandmother’s elder brother who is sick and longs to see his sister before it is too late. The correspondence awakens memories of the grandmother’s childhood and the atomic bomb, which killed her husband when it was dropped in 1945. The children take it upon themselves to learn more about the terrible incident and convince the elderly woman to visit her brother.

On the surface, "Rhapsody in August" is a sweetly sentimental coming-of-age film. The children, who lounge around the country house in t-shirts and jeans, devote their energy to small, mundane concerns: the mending of a broken harmonium, finding a solution to the grandmother’s disappointing cooking, speculating about the American members of their family. As the letters continue to arrive and more memories resurface, the children seek out the actual sites of the stories of their grandmother’s youth, including a crashing waterfall where a water imp supposedly appeared and two lightning-struck trees surrounded by red flowers. Yet the main focus of both their and the film’s attention is the bomb. The kids take a trip to downtown Nagasaki, where they find various reminders of the attack. On the grounds of the school where their grandfather was killed, they find a jungle gym twisted by the explosion, a plaque at its base marking the exact time of detonation: 1945 8.9. 11:02. They also see singed and cracked statues and monuments erected by various nations – not including, as one of them observes, the U.S.

There are some who have criticized "Rhapsody in August" for solely focusing on America’s wartime offenses while conveniently overlooking the considerable crimes committed by the Japanese side. Though this is a valid point, such additional concerns would almost definitely be too much extra baggage for the film to haul – especially from the viewpoint of four kids who already undertake an adequately eye-opening exploration of the past. Plus, as mentioned in the film itself numerous times, Kurosawa isn’t interested in assigning blame so much as lamenting the harmful effects of war and man in general. Some may call it a cop-out, yet that goal and the manner in which it is carried out are sincere enough to be justified. One of the film’s strongest themes is reconciliation, implied most directly when Clark, the grandmother’s American nephew played by Richard Gere, arrives in Nagasaki after learning of her husband’s death from the bomb.

"Rhapsody in August" thankfully does a good job of integrating its anti-war sentiments with light-hearted humor and memorable images. It is certainly not of the same caliber as Kurosawa’s earlier classics, but it still holds up as an interesting and reasonably well-made film.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog

No comments: