It's amazing how quickly and thoroughly human beings can push cognisance of horrible events to a distance. Arguably the single most destructive act perpetrated by human beings against other human beings, the dropping of atomic bombs by the United States on civilian Japanese cities, was an event in many ways quickly buried beneath myriad propaganda by both nations. Of course, artists from both nations nevertheless discussed the event in their works of the 1950s but when Akira Kurosawa made his 1991 film Rhapsody In August (八月の狂詩曲) about the continuing legacy of the bombs he made a film that was largely about how the horror was still being buried and trivialised. A much more domestic film than is normally associated with him, it's a fairly quiet, rather simple rumination with some haunting imagery.
Kurosawa had made another film directly about the cultural impact of the bombs, 1955's I Live In Fear (生きものの記録) about an elderly man terrified by the possibility of another nuclear attack on Japan. Considered irrational by his friends and family, he's legally stripped of the power to move his family to Brazil in an effort to escape a perceived immanent destruction. Already the film was about people denying the reality of the bombs, simultaneously making the fear of something that had actually happened seem like insanity. Real life could only be interrupted by many as the dreams of a lunatic.
Rhapsody In August is less about fear and more about an unreachable past, awareness of a continuity that was prematurely cut off.
Four children go to stay in Nagasaki with their grandmother, Kane (Sachiko Murase), while their parents are in Hawaii meeting some American relatives. Wandering town like tourists, they're confronted by memorials to the bomb victims beginning with the especially potent visual of a twisted jungle gym surrounded by flowers.
Kurosawa contrasts the awe and horror felt by the children with casual attitudes of other tourists at the site who seem to regard the artefacts and statues as mildly interesting trivia to be viewed on holiday. The children find themselves more personally affected as their grandmother tells them stories of family and friends she knew before Nagasaki was destroyed.
In my favourite segment of the film, the grandmother tells them the story of her brother who had eloped with a young woman and had gone to live with her on the other side of a hill. According to Kane's story, the young woman had chosen to live next to a pair of strangely twisted trees because she imagined they looked like desperate lovers, clinging to each other. Two of the children go out the next day to see if they can find the trees, venturing through dark woods and finding they prefer to speak in whispers. Then they find the trees and Kurosawa constructs a fantastic image.
The improbably surviving trees look like victims of destruction themselves, like preserved Pompeii victims, the flowers at their feet resemble a pool of blood and the corridor of dark trees both resemble curtains and a diminishing perspective to convey a foreboding distance from the event.
Kurosawa is clearly still indulging in dreamlike imagery he explored more fully in his three previous films. There are a few other potent dream images Kurosawa uses to convey the feelings surrounding the issue. Mostly, though, the film reminded me of One Wonderful Sunday or No Regrets for Our Youth, two of Kurosawa's films immediately following World War II he was more or less commissioned to make as part of a propaganda effort to ease the transition into the American occupation. Both were rare films for Kurosawa about relatively normal people and their families.
Contemporary domestic films were never Kurosawa's strong point and for the most part he hadn't seemed to improve much at them in between those two post war films and Rhapsody In August. The latter portion of the film features Richard Gere as the American son of one of Kane's many brothers and he comes to Japan to show his respect for the family and what happened in Nagasaki. Many people new to Kurosawa films are struck by the intentionally broad, artificiality of many of the performances which were influenced by Kabuki. It's interesting, then, to see Gere's typical American movie star performance in this context and to see how absolutely phoney he comes off in comparison.
It's possible in casting the star Kurosawa didn't have a real instinct for American performance styles. But I also wonder if the cheap smarminess of Gere was something intentionally included by Kurosawa in the film to show a shallow, sentimental acknowledgement of the horrific event was no more useful than the trivialising and ignoring of it. The film ends with a rather powerful image that implies that nothing really has been resolved and nothing probably ever will be. The most that might happen is that the horror seeps further into the ground soil of imagination.
Twitter Sonnet #761
Radiation redacts the roots of trees.
Autumn's atomic egg summer removed.
Chips of acrylic laments dust the knees.
The skies of dampened chalk are deemed improved.
Metal cases synchronise nourishment.
Columns limit molecules to the line.
Sycamore malcontents treat banishment.
Curling locks conceal somnambulist’s brine.
Copper cheekbone burnished green by sandstorm.
Absent syllable liquor cascades burn.
Branches of peace wither with shade and form.
Scissors silence the magnet's threaded turn.
Ratt'ling lumbar broken balance beam heads.
Violent verdure shakes off vertical reds.