Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rhapsody in August

Akira Kurosawa, 1991, 93m, Japan

This is a movie about the "flash", the single moment when the heavens divided into two over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. While this may not be a cinematic masterpiece, it is an important film about a seminal historical event from the eyes of a great director who experienced them from very close. The movie at times tends to become preachy and sentimental, but it is at it's best as it struggles to "feel" the unholy monstrosity of the event. It has also been criticized for being politically incorrect by not stressing the Japanese atrocities. But this is a movie about the nuclear weapon, and of people fixated to the memory. It's not about Japanese vs Americans, a much worn theme anyway. Finally to blame is war itself.

Since the nuclear explosion and it's immediate aftermath are events so much from another world and impossible to adequately convey, Kurosawa adopts an indirect approach, similar to Alan Resnais in Hiroshima mon Amour. By examining the imprints on the minds of some of the directly affected he hints at the horror, grandeur and unearthliness of the event and it's aftermath..

This is the director's second movie about the atom bombs. The first, "I Live in Fear" (1955), was at a time when the memory had just begun to fade. This one is a retrospective from the point of view of the generation born after Japan's economic recovery. For them the event is a distant fairy tale which has slipped far back in the corridors of time.

Four children of different ages come to spend their holidays with their grandma (Kane is her name, pronounced Kaaney) who lost her husband, a schoolteacher like herself, in the Nagasaki explosion. The grandma is one of a large group of siblings, some of whom were close at hand when it happened. An alleged elder brother is a prosperous agriculturist in Hawaii and grandma obstinately resists this brother's invitation to visit Hawaii, even though the grand children badly want to accompany her on the propose trip.

Grandma is sometimes visited by a friend who like her was widowed by the explosion. The two sit quietly without uttering a word for an entire hour. They are reliving the memory to which they are a pair of mute witnesses. What indeed can be said which will not trivialize the days when the gates of hell must have stood agape? Quietly they sit on the steps for an hour, silently swimming in an identical pool of memory. Words would indeed be desecration. She cannot forgive America, ridiculing the argument that the bomb was to stop wars, since the killings continue.

One of her brothers "lost his mind" after the event. He cut himself from social contacts and spent the rest of his life drawing an eye. This is explained in the course of the film by Kane. At the moment of the explosion  the sky ripped into two and the "flash" has the appearance of a demoniacal eye spread across the sky. The eye is a symbol of the unforgettable unearthly transcendent evil horror of that one instant. It is a surreal moment from an inferno from another universe. It is such a sight that the man cannot see anything else after that, so fixated is he on that otherworldly moment, the origin of a river of death.

At yet another moment, as her two children and their spouses parley on how best to take advantage of their wealthy American relative, Kane sits with the four grand children to admire the beauty of the full moon. This too is a shared experience of the transcendant, enveloping the five in awe and grandeur.

The Japanese version of Schubert's "Heidenroselein" runs through the movie as a refrain of forward looking hope, attesting to the remarkable degree to which Japan has assimilated the best of world culture

Youtube clip from "Hiroshima, mon Amour"(1958)
Nathan Hood Essay


Nathanael Hood said...

It may not be his best film, but I always saw this as one of Kurosawa's most personal. Yesterday, I watched "The Quiet Duel." After finishing it, I gained the distinction of having seen every single one of Kurosawa's films. While only two of them explicitly deal with the bomb ("I Live in Fear" and "Dreams"), there is a constant undercurrent of fear and tension towards the West. It was like the atomic bomb was a rock stuck in his shoe that kept permeating his work.

I see "Rhapsody in August" as Kurosawa finally coming to terms with the devastation that so haunted his mind and career. Fun fact, I'm relatively certain that the only other time that Kurosawa had an American character in one of his films was all the way back in 1945 with "Sanshiro Sugata Part II." The American was a crude stereotype that was depicted as an enemy of Japan and its cultural heritage.

The fact that he was willing to have such a prominent and sympathetic American character reveals just how much Kurosawa had matured.

S. M. Rana said...

Congratulations on doing Kurosawa A to Z--I believe there are thirty of them. Hitchcock is already in your stable. The only director I've seen all of is the seven movies of Tarkovsky, not to mention my nodding acquaintance with all plays of Shakespeare, thirty eight and a fraction of 'em. But that was in greener times.

For all it's shortcomings (the rapprochement between Clark and Kane seemed a bit mushy and not to the point, which is the "flash" and the "eye")it is a movie worth seeing.It is a brave attempt to address the event.

My own feeling is, Kurosawa was quite upset by this, as you also point out, and somehow felt emotionally and artistically inadequate to do justice to it.