Akira Kurosawa’s penultimate film, Rhapsody In August (1991), was the director’s first Japanese production since 1965’s Red Beard, an occasion he marked by reflecting upon the tragedy which had closed the first chapter of his career – the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. Framed around a frail matriarch (Kane, embodied by Sachiko Murase) and her four grandchildren, Tami, Shinjiro, Tateo and Minako, the film takes place on Kyushu island, to which the kids have been packed off for summer while their parents visit relatives in Hawaii. Learning of the horrors of August 9th, the children travel into Nagasaki to visit the site where their grandfather died.
For the first eighty-five minutes of Rhapsody In August, there is no rain. In central Nagasaki, the grandkids find a memorial fountain and marble tablet, dedicated to those who died of thirst on the day of the bombings. Overwhelmed with sadness, they splash the parched tablet with water, as if restoring it to life; water becomes a symbol of renewal, and its plentiful supply a marker of recovery.
Traveling farther into the city, the children find statues donated to Nagasaki by friendly nations, works of stone and steel which testify to the bravery of a devastated nation (several depict mothers holding children above their heads for protection). The most memorable sculpture is from Bulgaria, in which an anguished woman reaches skyward. To face her maker, we wonder, or her destroyer?
In the second half of the film, Kane’s American nephew, Clark (Richard Gere), appears to make a gesture of peace, not having realised that the U.S. bombs killed his uncle. Clark plays with the kids in a mountain pool where one of Kane’s brothers used to swim at night, believing that the water’s essence may restore the hair he lost to radiation. Once again suggesting renewal, the water here also becomes an element of unification; Clark’s guilt is alleviated, and he discovers a sense of pride in his half-Japanese identity.
Finally, as the week’s events stir Kane’s memory and the weight of her losses, she temporarily loses her mind and rushes into the first torrential rain of the season. In a moment of metaphysical poetry, the water renews her fragile body so that she may outpace her grandchildren, and as she rushes into the fields, the final still-frame suggests her as a monument to endurance like one of the memorial statuettes at the film’s beginning.
Kurosawa’s films have always been attuned to the rhythms of nature, but in Rhapsody In August he found in them a sense of serenity and regeneration, true to a filmmaker returning to his roots and sensing the changing, healing tides of home.