'Rhapsody' gently redraws history


April 16, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Rhapsody in August," which plays for one day only at the Charles, is unlikely to add much luster to the legend of the great Akira Kurosawa, but it's a surprisingly gentle, affecting movie.

It's very much the movie of a man haunted by history -- or rather, a particular moment in history, 11:15 a.m., Aug. 9, 1945, when an American B-29 dropped a nuke on Nagasaki, Japan. If you ask, I'll defend the bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, on the grounds that it probably saved a million American and Japanese lives. But if you ask further about the bombing of Nagasaki, all you'll get is embarrassed silence. I think the lesson didn't have to be repeated, certainly not three days later before the implications of the first bomb had set in.

The story is deceptively simple. Some young Japanese cousins (two sets of two) are spending the summer with their grandmother, a Nagasaki survivor who lost her husband in the blast. The kids -- in jeans and docksiders and MIT T-shirts -- don't really get it. Eventually, they go into the city and begin to understand the horror that unfolded there. One brilliant image: the four of them confront a jungle gym that was half melted by the heat and bent backwards by the blast: it stands there, in perpetual disintegration, recording the instant of detonation.

Later, they wire their parents (in Hawaii, visiting rich relatives) that they won't join them until after Bomb Day. This mention of the bomb humiliates the parents, but the American widower (since remarried) of one of their aunts comes out to ask their forgiveness for not having realized the meaning of the day.

Richard Gere, extremely likable here as he bumbles through phonetic Japanese, caught some heat for apologizing on screen to the grandmother (Sachiko Murase) for the atom bombing, particularly as he received no counter-apology from her. In fact, the movie does make it seem that one day the big bad Americans came from nowhere and dropped a nuke; but the Chinese, the Filipinos, the Malaysians, the Burmese, the Koreans and all the others who suffered under Japanese aggression might recall a little footnote to the century's history called "World War II," which actually began a little bit before Aug. 8, 1945.

But pardon me if I don't get too indignant: the movie is gentle and almost childish in its simplicities and cornball message to remember the past and honor your elders. It's a nice little movie.

'Rhapsody in August'

Starring Richard Gere and Sachiko Murase.

Directed by Akira Kurosawa.

Released by Orion Classics.


** 1/2

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