“People do forget everything, and quickly too” a teenage girl laments preparing to meet her half-American uncle and feeling a little awkward having been admonished by her parents for inadvertently confronting him with the realities of the wartime past. The middle generation in Kurosawa’s tri-generational tale of the legacy of warfare Rhapsody in August (八月の狂詩曲, Hachigatsu no Rhapsody) have it seems an ambivalent attitude they’re in the process of imparting to their children that views talk of the atomic bomb as almost taboo, tiptoeing around it with their newfound American relatives lest they offend them but mostly out of a desire for economic gain that reflects an early post-war mentality almost entirely alien to their Bubble-era teenage kids.
It’s the children who are keenest to learn about their past, staying with their elderly and seemingly frail grandmother Kane (Sachiko Murase) over the summer while their parents have travelled to Hawaii to investigate after receiving a letter from Kane’s long lost younger brother Suzujiro who emigrated in the 1920s and has since become a wealthy man running a pineapple plantation. The problem is that Kane had a large number of siblings, at least 11, and honestly doesn’t remember one called Suzujiro who did after all leave the country 60 years previously and was never seen again. The children, Tadao (Hisashi Igawa) and Yoshie (Toshie Negishi), think her refusal to visit him in Hawaii is partly down to a lingering resentment for the dropping of the atomic bomb which killed her husband, but as she later tells the grandchildren that was 45 years ago and she no longer has any strong feelings either way about the Americans adding only that it was all the fault of the war.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that Kane lives with a sense of loss and the continuing trauma of witnessing the flash that is expressed by the bald spot on the back of her head. As the grandchildren ask her questions she begins to reflect more on the past, remembering a younger brother, Suzukichi, who witnessed the flash with her and later had some kind of breakdown locking himself away endlessly drawing pictures of eyes that she later explains mimicked that of the flash itself. Kurosawa depicts this memory with surrealist imagery, a red sky splitting open just as Kane described exposing an eye which seemed to stare down at them. Youngest grandson Shinjiro (Mitsunori Isaki) draws such an eye on the blackboard in the study room in his grandmother’s house, an eye which continues to observe the children as they contemplate the recent past as well as an older Japan exemplified by their grandmother’s tales of the water imp living in a nearby pool who might once have saved Suzukichi’s life.
In some ways, it’s almost as if the middle generation has been passed over. The grandchildren are very close to their grandmother and resentful of their parents, irritated by their constant references to their American relatives’ wealth with Shinjiro directly asking them why they haven’t asked how Kane has been or bothered to say hello to her before showing off photos of the Hawaiin mansion owned by Suzujiro. Kane also sets them right after deciding she’d like to visit after all, explaining that she couldn’t care less or if he’s rich or not she’d just like to see her brother. Her refusal to accept him was perhaps an expression of her own inability to make peace with the past, having literally forgotten only latterly coming to believe that Suzujiro really is her brother and wanting to reintegrate him into her life as an expression of peace between nations.
Kane had said that Tadao’s conviction that they should avoid mentioning the bomb was illogical and ridiculous, an attitude later borne out by the unexpected arrival of Suzujiro’s half-American son Clark (Richard Gere) who speaks pigeon Japanese and is somewhat mortified by his own ignorance not having realised that his uncle must have died in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki until inadvertently tipped off by eldest grandson Tateo’s (Hidetaka Yoshioka) telegram. Clark bonds with Kane and sadly reflects on his own lack of knowledge after visiting the school where his uncle died and seeing scores of contemporary children flood into the playground where the twisted metal of a melted climbing frame serves as a memorial for the young lives that were lost. The intention is not however to provoke an apology or apportion blame only to mourn the folly of war while trying to put the past aside to ensure it never happens again.
The kids wear jeans and T-shirts with the logos of American universities on, but are determined to fix the out of tune harmonium in their grandmother’s parlour as if literarily setting the past to rights. The song they play sings of a red rose in a field, a rose that Shinjiro later sees near the shrine during the memorial service for the bombing that comes to resemble Kane in the closing frames as she charges through the rain with her blown umbrella while her children and grandchildren chase after her as the ants had trailed the rose. “People will do anything just to win a war,” Kane admonishes her son, “sooner or later it will be the ruin of us all” reminding him that dropping the bomb didn’t stop people killing each other, even 45 years later war continues to ruin people’s lives. Like the rose “blossoming in innocence” she stands for peace and mutual compassion amid an expressionist storm of fear and resentment.
Rhapsody in August screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 19th & 25th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.
Original trailer (no subtitles)