Looking Back: Rhapsody in August (1991)

There’s a tendency for film buffs to greet the final works of master filmmakers with condescension. It seriously annoys me. Why is it when a legendary filmmaker, near the end of their long career, makes a film not on the scope of their earlier works, the result is almost always categorized as a “lesser” work? John Huston’s “The Dead” got the respect it deserved but not Ingmar Bergman’s “Saraband.” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Family Plot” is tossed aside by most as a “small” final film by The Master of Suspense and Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” has yet to receive the sort of respect lavished upon his earlier works. When Akira Kurosawa’s “Rhapsody in August” received its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, the response was loud but not universally positive. Most deemed it a “minor” work and the film’s attitude towards forgiving the sins of war made it controversial.

“Rhapsody in August” is that rare modern day Kurosawa film, set in late 20th century Japan. Four Japanese teens spend a summer with their grandmother and learn how the bombing of Nagasaki directly affected their family. Later, an extended member of the family, played by Richard Gere, pays a visit and makes the young teen’s understanding of history even more complex.

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While not on the level with larger scaled Kurosawa epics like “Kagemusha,” “The Seven Samurai” or “Ran” and not entirely focused in its psychology as “Rashomon” or “High and Low,” Kurosawa’s second-to-last film deserves the attention and admiration of his other films. By scaling down the pageantry and finesse of his prior works, Kurosawa ably tapped into matters of great, personal concern. While messier (actually more emotionally complex) than some of his great epics, it is no less worthy and beautiful in its artistry.

Casting four young children to carry the film may not have been the wisest idea. They seem more inexperienced than entirely natural in front of the camera. Yet, the young actors convey Kurosawa’s themes of the need for generational understanding and ably provide an in for the audience. On the other hand, casting Richard Gere turns out to be an inspired touch. Gere is delightful, giving his role an unforced immediacy and likability. His last scene and the gorgeous shot of his exit are just a few examples of the casually poetic imagery on hand.

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This inviting, patient film from one of cinema’s grand masters offers a handful of pleasingly surreal sequences. They could only have come from a visionary like Kurosawa. Among these visions are an eye that appears in a mushroom cloud, the stunning closing shot and, most splendid and strange, a trail of ants heading up a rose. I took this latter image to be an allegory for religious ascension, but I could be wrong.

As a meditation for the sad aftermath of the bomb and the lessons it left us with, this is heavy handed and on the nose. It’s also not foolish or ever simplistic. I admire that Kurosawa is making a social and universal commentary on the aftermath of a horrific tragedy. The conclusions he comes to, that forgiveness is a necessity and that we never repeat the mistakes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, aren’t easy for all to digest.

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The biggest problem with “Rhapsody in August” is that, for all the tough points it makes and all the striking imagery it contains, it feels unfinished and lacks a third act. That said, when you consider how the film is about the ongoing struggle to fathom the harm done by the Hiroshima bombing, Kurosawa’s open-endedness is likely intentional and even appropriate.

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