Akira Kurosawa is a titan in cinema. Any serious student of film is quite familiar with Kurosawa’s filmography and the influence his films have had on the craft. Numerous filmmakers (George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese being a few) have cited him as a key influence in their careers. He has been cited as “One of the five people who contributed most to the betterment of Asia in the past 100 years.” With heavy praise like that, the only thing left to do is stick a gun in your mouth and blow your brains out as there isn’t much else left to accomplish in life by that point (actually he did try committing suicide in 1971, but he failed in killing himself). RHAPSODY IN AUGUST is not considered to be one of his finest films and it was in fact not well received upon its release. The film was made during the director’s final years and it was met with a lot of criticism for being naïvely anti-American and imperialist.

RHAPSODY IN AUGUST is about an elderly Japanese survivor of the atomic attack on Nagasaki in World War II. The old woman discovers that she has an older brother who lives in Hawaii and who is on his deathbed. The brother has invited the woman to Hawaii so that he can see her before he dies and so that she can meet his family. The woman is reluctant to go mainly because of the animosity she harbors against the U.S. for dropping the bomb that killed her husband. She resents the fact that her brother is now a Japanese-American who married an American. However, she is forced to face her prejudices when her brother’s son (played by Richard Gere) pays her a personal visit so that he can convince her to go to Hawaii and see his father/her brother.

This movie is a slow, beautifully told story that is moving and powerful at times. I don’t know of any other movie that deals with the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima (I suppose there is the movie FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY, but I never saw it so I can’t attest to what its really about), especially a film that deals with the bombings from the Japanese perspective. For that, I appreciate the movie more because its not a perspective any American director or studio would likely want to address (apparently no Japanese studio would either as Kurosawa also faced rebuke from Japanese critics for his film’s message). Admittedly, I don’t really understand all the fuss over Kurosawa’s message for his movie. True, Japan was the instigator of its war with the United States based on its attack on Pearl Harbor. Its also true that the Japanese killed many U.S. soldiers during the war and they did not observe the Geneva Convention in how they treated U.S. P.O.W.s. Its as well true that Japan committed atrocities against the Chinese when it invaded their country. However, it does not necessarily follow that any criticism of the U.S.’s decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan is unwarranted. Kurosawa is not saying that what Japan did against the U.S. was justifiable. All he is saying with this movie is that the measures taken by the U.S. to end its war with Japan were unnecessary and extreme. It was unreasonable for critics to expect Kurosawa to at once apologize for all the wrong things Japan committed against the U.S. and China. Criticizing U.S. foreign policy doesn’t and shouldn’t entail that you balance your argument by also addressing what your country did wrong. A film is the vision of one filmmaker. Its not a history lesson that’s meant to explore the sides of every issue.

Do I agree with Kurosawa’s assessment? I have always struggled to come up with a definitive conclusion as to whether what the U.S. did was right or wrong. I appreciate the arguments on both sides of the debate and I am content in maintaining a neutral position about this issue. However, regardless of what your thoughts are on the matter, there is no denying that the results of the bombing were devastating and horrific. You cannot help but be moved by the scenes where the old woman’s grandkids visit a monument erected in Nagasaki to commemorate the schoolchildren who perished in the atomic blast or the various monuments presented by countries from around the world. RHAPSODY IN AUGUST is less of a fictional narrative than it is a documentary portraying the lives of the survivors of those bombs.

I don’t mean to shortchange the narrative of the movie because there is one and it is involving. I have seen a number of movies where the character is portrayed as being racist towards Japanese because of their actions in World War II. However, this was the first time I saw the reverse of that with a character who is prejudiced towards Americans for dropping the bomb on them. Here, however, the animosity the old woman bears towards Americans is not completely tempered. Although Richard Gere effectively apologizes to her for his country’s actions and she accepts his apologizes, I don’t think she extends her forgiveness toward all Americans. The film climaxes with Richard Gere finally visiting the woman in Japan so that he can meet her and convince her to come to Hawaii to meet her dying brother. These scenes do get a little melodramatic at times, but watching Gere see first-hand how the Japanese have remembered the bombings is fascinating because I felt like Gere wasn’t really acting, but actually feeling what his character was supposed to feel. Again, the movie has a documentary sense to it and I almost saw Gere as basically playing himself.

I was captivated by the old woman’s performance. You completely forget that this woman is an actress. Her performance is so authentic that, again, you feel like you’re watching a real survivor of the bombing recount what it was like to go through it. The actress was born in 1905 according to IMDB so she may very well have been channeling her personal experiences of the bombing. The slow pace of the movie is enlivened by her acting and she brings a powerful presence to the role. The child actors who play her grandchildren make up the remainder of the major roles in the film and they are all wonderful. Like the old woman, the children’s bickering and playfulness is so natural that you forget they are actors.

RHAPSODY IN AUGUST is not your conventional narrative, but it is one worth watching nonetheless. It may not be one of Akira Kurosawa’s best films and if you’ve never seen any of his movies, I would not recommend this to be your first one to see. However, it holds up as a touching story about the healing of long-lasting emotional scars.