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‘Rhapsody in August’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 08, 1992

Akira Kurosawa's "Rhapsody in August" is a delicately nuanced film about remembrance -- so delicate, perhaps, that it's not terribly memorable itself.

Its subject is the bombing of Nagasaki, though not so much the bombing itself as the event as it exists in memory. For Grandmother Kane (the 86-year-old Sachiko Murase), the blast, which caused the death of her husband and other members of her family, is her life's defining moment, never far from her thoughts. The imminent death of her older brother, who emigrated to Hawaii years earlier and whose final wish is to see his long-estranged sister once more before passing, has forced these memories even more into the forefront of her mind.

Her grandchildren -- four precocious students on summer vacation at her farm -- are excited by the invitation from their mysterious American cousins, and urge her to accept. The grandmother, though, has reservations; as one of 10 children, she can barely remember her older brother. And in searching her thoughts, she dredges up painful memories of her other siblings, who were lost or injured by the bomb.

Most of the film consists of these stories, which the grandmother tells her brood of happy-go-lucky chicks to whom the bombing is a distant fact, known but only vaguely significant. They're fascinated by America; they even wear T-shirts from American universities. But through their grandmother they become equally curious about this pivotal moment in their country's -- and their family's -- past.

What's surprising is how lightweight this all seems in the telling. Kurosawa's method here is brisk and unemphatic. He's working easily and gracefully, but though the grandmother's narratives are meant to be moving, he can't seem to make them register with much force. The film's most powerful moment comes when the children make a pilgrimage to the schoolyard where their uncle was killed, and where the twisted metal of a playground jungle gym stands as a memorial. The single image of this tortured structure is the film's most vivid symbol. Its simplicity is overwhelming.

Though the tragedy Kurosawa deals with was an American action, his attitude is without rancor or blame -- that is, except when it's suggested that the bombing is an event that the Americans would prefer to forget. It's addressed as it should be: as a terrible example of human misery, a dark human chapter mourned by Americans and Japanese alike.

When the family's American cousin (played by Richard Gere, who speaks Japanese for the role) arrives, he's embraced with resentment. Beforehand, the family, out of courtesy, had decided not to mention the bombing. But it's the cousin who insists on visiting the memorial, and, moved by the experience, apologizes to the grandmother. Unfortunately, the moment seems altogether too pat, the conflict too easily resolved.

Murase's performance is a gem; she's Kurosawa's reservoir of conscience. Gere's presence, though, has the unfortunate effect of diverting our attention from the issues at hand; though he's not bad, he simply seems not to belong. The prominent role of the children, too, reduces the emotional impact of the story. It's as if Kurosawa were trying to educate a generation of younger Japanese who may not, he feels, be adequately familiar with this crucial scar on their history -- a scar that, with time, may be fading into forgetfulness. But his attempts to keep this from happening seem, if not halfhearted, then tepidly expressed. He's presented his story about the bomb as a history lesson for kiddies. It's his after-school special.

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