As his 26th film in 48 years, Akira Kurosawa has created in “Rhapsody in August” (at the Royal) the most intimate drama of his career. A film of the utmost simplicity and serene beauty, it centers on three generations of one family. Yet its gentleness is deceptive, for it is through this family that Kurosawa, in adapting a novel by Kiyoko Murata, touches upon the eternal themes of war and reconciliation.
It is the summer of 1990, a very special summer for Kane (Sachiko Murase), an elderly woman who lives in a fine old traditional-style Japanese farmhouse outside Nagasaki, and for her four grandchildren. Their parents have gone to visit Kane’s older brother in Hawaii, where he is a wealthy pineapple planter. Their visit has given the grandmother and her grandchildren an opportunity to get acquainted. The four adolescent youngsters are normal, likable kids, lively yet respectful of their grandmother, whom they really don’t know that well until she starts telling them stories of their family and her life.
They of course know that an atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki but not much more than that. Then they learn that their grandmother was living in the same farmhouse on Aug. 9, 1945, but that their grandfather, a schoolteacher, was among the thousands killed that day in Nagasaki. Visiting the school, long ago rebuilt, they view a memorial there; for the first time World War II really means something to them.
Meanwhile, Kane’s brother’s son Clark (Richard Gere), whose mother was Caucasian and whom Kane has never met, decides to visit her. Kane’s son (Hisashi Igawa) and daughter-in-law (Narumi Kayashima) have returned from Hawaii full of excited talk about the uncle’s wealth, Clark’s kindness to them and even the promise of Igawa’s employment as a representative of the pineapple concern. But they believe that no one must mention Nagasaki to Clark for fear of somehow offending him.
As a past master in his medium of film, Kurosawa effortlessly evokes the warm feelings that hold families together, the fleetingness and preciousness of life, the importance of ancient religious ritual and the beauty of nature. Lesser directors could have told “Rhapsody in August’s” story--and well--but there is no question that Kurosawa brings to its telling an unparalleled grace and detachment.
From the veteran Murase, he elicits a portrayal of the utmost eloquence--and a sturdy, common-sense earthiness. As for Gere, who blends in the film’s ensemble easily and speaks almost entirely in Japanese, he has been given a rare opportunity to play a thoroughly decent man of intelligence and sensitivity; it’s surprisingly easy to accept him as a Eurasian.
In its expression of anti-war sentiments there are a few moments that verge on the didactic but on the whole “Rhapsody in August” is less heavy-handed in this regard than “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams.” However, for American audiences the film is likely to seem an opportunity missed.
Since the film deals with a Japanese family with relatives who are not only American but specifically Hawaiian , Kurosawa could so easily have made the connection between Pearl Harbor and Nagasaki (and Hiroshima); but disappointingly, he resists this as much as the majority of his countrymen seem to do. He has made a lovely, exalting film likely to be cherished by his admirers. Widely regarded as the world’s greatest living director, he nevertheless has backed away from the chance to make what might have been another great Kurosawa film.
‘Rhapsody in August’
Sachiko Murase: Kane
Richard Gere: Clark
Hisashi Igawa: Tadao
Narumi Kayashima: Machiko
An Orion Classics release of a Shochiku presentation of a Kurosawa production. Director Akira Kurosawa. Producer Hisao Kurosawa. General producer Toru Okuyama. Screenplay Kurosawa, based on the novel “Nabe-no-naka” by Kiyoko Murata. Cinematographers Tako Saito, Masaharu Ueda. Associate director Inoshiro Honda. Music Shinichiro Ikebe. Art director Yoshiro Muraki. Sound Kenichi Benitani. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG (mature themes).