Kurosawa Diary, Part 29: Rhapsody in August

Little actually happens in Akira Kurosawa’s 29th and penultimate film, Rhapsody in August, and nothing really bad. Something horrendous happened 45 years earlier (the atom bombing of Nagasaki), but that’s ancient history. It’s time for Japan and America to forgive and, if not forget, then to honor the memory together. Six years after the devastatingly pessimistic Ran, Kurosawa made an optimistic movie that can best be described as “pleasant.”

I first saw Rhapsody during it’s American first run. I saw it for the second time last night at the Pacific Film Archive. Yes, this was another screening in the PFA’s Akira Kurosawa Centennial series, and part of my personal project of watching all of his films in chronological order.

Rhapsody came out in 1991. That’s significant because his previous film, Dreams, came out in 1990. The last time Kurosawa released new films in consecutive years (a once common occurrence)  had been Sanjuro and High and Low in 1962/63.

Perhaps he got this one done quickly because his modest intentions made it easier to finance and shoot the picture. It’s a chamber piece, set in the present day, with a small cast and few settings. The photography—so beautiful in his last four films—here seldom rises above functional. The picture runs only 98 minutes—extremely short for Kurosawa.

But modest intentions bring modest results. Rhapsody in August is a fine motion rhapsodyaugust picture that does everything Kurosawa probably wanted it to do. It makes its points about familial love, healing, forgiveness, and the horrors of war without ever feeling didactic. Watching it is a sweet and enjoyable experience. But no one should mistake it for a masterpiece.

The story focuses on four teenagers—all siblings and first cousins—spending the summer with their grandmother in her rural home near Nagasaki. Long ago, her husband (the kids’ grandfather) had been incinerated in the blast. The kids’ parents are in Hawaii, visiting a uncle who immigrated long ago, made a fortune in the pineapple business, married a Caucasian, and became an American.

The first half simply observes the teenagers and their loving-but-teasing relationships with each other and their grandmother. It includes a tour of important Nagasaki sites—a way to introduce us to a modern city with memorials to one horrific event within living memory.

In the second half, the parents return, bringing generational conflict with them. Their interest in long-lost relatives are mercenary—they hope the connection will lead to better jobs. And they’re terrified of offending their American cousins with any reminder of the war and especially the atom bomb. These attitudes offend both the teenagers and the grandmother.

The parents come as close to villains as does anyone in Rhapsody, which means they’re not villains, at all. They learn from and apologize for their mistakes. One thing I noticed on this second viewing: The parents are dressed in formal business attire when we meet them. They dress more casually as the story progresses, until they end up in tee-shirts and jeans like their kids.

Near the end, the Hawaiian uncle’s half-white son turns up for a visit. He’s played by Richard Gere—the only time Kurosawa ever used an American movie star (if you don’t count Martin Scorsese in Dreams). The make-up department did little or nothing to make Gere look half-Japanese. I think I noticed the slightest alternation in the shape of his eyes. But even in close-ups, and with me in the second row, I can’t be certain. He certainly looked whiter than any of the half-white/half-Asian people I’ve known.

His character, of course, is a very nice guy. Everyone in this movie is very nice.

In his classic period, Kurosawa showed us a world full of cruelty and indifference, and celebrated those who fought it with kindness and charity. In later works, especially Ran, the world is just as bad, but kindness and charity no longer help. But in Rhapsody, bad things happened long ago, but kindness and charity are bringing us together.

Maybe he was getting optimistic in his old age. Or maybe just senile. But at the age of 81, he could still make a good movie.