Saturday, January 31, 2009

Kurosawa Akira's Rhapsody in August (1991)

The thing is, I think this film is only tangentially about the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. I think it's really about families. About the way relatives can know each other and fail to know each other, about what can keep them ignorant of each other's deepest feelings, and what can allow them to understand one another.

Perhaps my favorite scene: The film essentially concerns four teenagers spending summer vacation with their grandmother in the countryside outside Nagasaki. The grandmother has been telling her grandchildren stories about her long-dead brothers and sisters. One of these stories concerned a brother who ran away with his boss's wife. They ended up living in a shack in the woods, because as they were fleeing through the woods they came across two cryptomerias growing close together like lovers, and both had been burned by a lightning strike. The woman says the trees look like they committed a lovers' double suicide.

It sounds like a fairy tale. It supposedly happened only about fifty or so years before the film takes place, but as far as grandkids are concerned it could have been centuries ago. So when the grandmother says the trees are still there, the kids can't believe it. The oldest two decide to go check it out.

The oldest two are cousins, a boy and a girl. We watch them tramp through the forest primeval, dubious until they actually find the trees. When they do, they're too spooked by the sight to do more than just sit on the ground and gaze at them from afar.

The cinematography and editing here is wonderful. This could easily have been overdone, with, you know, epiphany music and everything. Instead we get silence, forest sounds, and kids whispering.

We know it's a mysterious scene because of the way they react. We don't get close enough to the burned-out trees in question to really appreciate the sight, but we see how it affects the teenagers. They're struck silent. And we watch them watching. It's one of those impeccable Kurosawa compositions. We're close to the kids, looking at them from the side. He's sitting in the foreground, she's crouching in the background. The rest of the screen is mostly dark, with her orange t-shirt the only bright color in the shot. The curves of their backs perfectly echo each other. And Kurosawa holds this shot for a full forty seconds.

What makes the scene, though, is how it ends. We've got this perfectly poised moment, with both teenagers soaking in the romance and mystery, the awe, and we're thinking about the unexpected connections they're making with long-dead relatives, the persistence of legend in real life, whatever. Meanwhile, the boy is a teenager. So what does he do?

He turns to his cousin and tries to kiss her. She screams, of course - gross! She jumps up and runs away (that breaks the shot), and he runs after her desperately trying to explain that he just got carried away by the atmosphere. But by the time they get back to the farmhouse they're both laughing, and all is forgotten.

It's delicately handled, and manages to be poetic, ethereal, earthy, and funny all at the same time. This kind of thing is why I'm in awe of Kurosawa.


Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki said...

The scene you mention is my favorite, too, and I felt that it is pivotal in understanding the central theme of the movie. I thought two moments in this scene were particularly important. One is, the part when, on the way to the forest, the boy cousin tells the girl cousin that a burnt tree lives forever. And two, when the two finally find the tree, at which point the protagonists (and the audience, from behind them) see the two white tree trunks, looking almost petrified, growing out of a bed of orange flowers - color very similar to the girl's shirt. For this scene, I thought it was almost as if the tree trunks were emerging out of a sea of fire.

I felt what the boy said about burnt trees, and the subsequent shot of the trees themselves, meant to echo the experience of the atomic bombing. Just like lightening striking cryptomerias, the atomic bomb burned Nagasaki city to a nil in a single blow. But at the same time, for those who survived it (like the grandmother), the memory of the event and the family members they lost because of it, left a deep impression - sort of reminded me of the shadows on the wall of Greenback dome in Hiroshima left by those people who instantaneously burned away by the heat of the bomb. What this means, I think, is that just as the cryptomerias will live forever because they were burned, those who died in the atomic bombing will live in memory of those people who survived, and through those people who try to keep the memory alive.

The cryptomerias were burned together and died together, making them "live forever" together. But what about those people who survived the atomic bombing? In the movie, we learned that the grandmother survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki city because she was at home sheltered by a mountain, but her husband, who went to the city for work that morning, was killed in the event. After the bombing, grandmother went to the elementary school that her husband worked, hoping to find him, but without success. At the end of the movie, grandmother - confusing the sound of thunder to the sound of atomic bomb exploding - runs out into the pouring rain toward the Nagasaki city. As we watch her children and grandchildren run after her, I think we (the audience) were meant to realize that the grandmother's trauma did not come from the bombing itself, but the fact that she could not be with her husband when it happened. She could not save him or die with him.

The sound of thunder in this last scene nicely ties it to the double cryptomerias story with its lightening reference. The cryptomerias were burned down together, and the lovers ran off and lived happily together. But the grandmother is neither dead nor alive with her husband. The key here is the sense of separation. I felt that for the grandmother the cryptomerias story (both the trees and the lovers) represented her wish, to somehow go back in time and be together with her husband when the bomb exploded. I guess we could say that in a more general sense, her wish is the wish of anyone who has lost his/her loved ones - to be together with them - so that they can stop reliving the experience, and can finally be freed from his/her feeling of guilt (regret?) for not being able to save them or die with them.

Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki said...

Note: "Greenback" was "Genbaku" when I last saw it...darn spelling check function!