Rhapsody in August (1991)
Kurosawa’s second-to-last film may be most noticeable for the inclusion of American star Richard Gere in the cast. Certainly, this sets it apart from the rest of his filmography (if we ignore Scorsese’s role as Van Gogh in Dreams).
Its focus on such themes as family, lost siblings, changing generations, and death reflects those topics on Kurosawa’s mind in his golden years. The theme this film deals with most directly, however, is the atomic bombing of Japan at the conclusion of World War II, its implications, and its aftermath (the third time he addressed concerns over the nuclear threat, the first time in the film I Live in Fear and the second time in the “Red Mt. Fuji” segment of Dreams). While Kurosawa does his best to integrate the related sequences into the film seamlessly, the treatment of this theme is sometimes too direct and too heavy handed. To be fair, it is difficult to adequately communicate the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to those who have never been there, and perhaps nothing can capture what it meant to those who lived through it. A certain degree of preachiness is probably unavoidable. (This reviewer has stood at ground zero in Hiroshima twice.)
While this is the dominant theme of the film, the story deals with three generations of a family, some living in Japan and some in Hawaii. The elder brother is dying in Hawaii and wishes his sister to come from Japan to see him one last time. Thus the story deals with building bridges between cultures and generations.
The youngest generation noticeably wears T-shirts with logos of various American schools, sports teams, and companies throughout the film. The eldest generation represents Japanese tradition. The intermediate generation is the one with most of the problems and conflicts, and ultimately this is the generation that must learn to build bridges.
There is the recurring symbolism of the broken organ playing out of tune, and the eldest of the younger generation repeatedly promising to repair it. Most likely, this symbolizes the need or desire to reconnect with one’s own family past. His efforts to repair the organ echo the older generation’s need to build bridges from the past to the present, and finally, like the older generation, he is successful.
While this is not one of Kurosawa’s “big” films, it is satisfying and charming. The intimate feeling of the film is suited to a story that deals with family as much as this. — Dan Tinianow