A Grandma And Her Grandchildren Are So Different In Their Critical Sensitivity Towards High-tech Weapons And Contamination Of The Earth, Nature And Life In Comparison With The Elegant Or Crude Philistines In Kurosawa’s “Rhapsody in August”

And the boy a rose did see,
a rose standing in the field
blossoming in innocence,
awed by the color it did yield.
A never ending fascination
for the crimson color
of the rose standing in the field.

From Franz Schubert’s song written to the poem of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Kurosawa, human life and the living planet

Kurosawa (to the left) with Hisashi Igawa and Richard Gere (both to the right)

“The most memorable sections of the film are those that remain ‘unexplained’. The most powerful of these occurs during the memorial service for the atom-bomb victims. Clark and the little Shinichiro are listening to the sutras being chanted, when little boy is distracted by the sight of a line of ants purposefully progressing into the woods.” (Donald Richie, “The Films of Akira Kurosawa”, p. 225)

“It is a breathtaking moment…in the film… it is as though a window has been suddenly opened… It was one of Kurosawa’s most difficult to film sequences… We follow the ants deeper and deeper into the forest… (Donald Richie, Ibid, p. 225)

The ants meet the rose – Kurosawa made it part of his visual imagination in “Rhapsody in August”

“We follow the ants into nature itself and then watch them climb higher and higher… It is a wonderful moment…” (Donald Richie, Ibid)

“Any meaning is linked to a central concern, but the approach is entirely indirect and there are no words.” (Donald Richie, Ibid)

“Into the frame comes one crimson petal, then another. It is a rose that the ants are climbing on…” (Donald Richie. Ibid)

“It is a full-blown brilliantly red rose, while on the sound track the sutra still plays out… This moment is not arbitrary. It is linked to one of the major structural themes of the film, namely, Schubert’s song ‘Heidenroselein’. The first music we hear in the film is this melody being picked out on an out-of-tune harmonium.” (Donald Richie, Ibid, p. 225)

Grandma Kane’s independent and full of initiatives grandchildren – goodhearted, kind, but naïve and so far only slightly corrupted

Schubert wrote this short song “Heidenroselein” (“Wild rose”) for Goethe‘s poem and eventually became a German folk song. This poem is a kind of ode to the rose. In this shot with which the film starts we see how grandma Kane’s older grandson Tateo plays Schubert’s song on out-of-tune piano which he intends to repair. Goethe in his poem and Schubert in his song make the rose a metaphoric incarnation of the beauty of life which adds to human survival the disinterested – spiritual meaning. Kurosawa in his film adds to beauty and secular spirituality of disinterested contemplation as a precious asset of human culture the necessity to scrupulously care about not only human life but the living planet, the precious living nature abused by human militancy, pride and megalomania. Kurosawa’s “Rhapsody in August” completes Goethe and Schubert’s inspirations and makes his film the last part of a unique in history trilogy of humanistic (democratic) culture.

Grandchildren are happy because of the prospect of meeting their American relatives for the first time, people who’re rich and positive and ready for passionate friendship.

Here is a photograph of the American relatives of the Japanese leading characters of the film. Clark (Richard Gere) – to the right, son of the grandma Kane’s brother, the owner of a pineapple plantation in Hawaii. Clark has promised to visit soon his old aunt in Japan whom he has never met. In the center we see Tadao (Hisashi Igawa), grandma Kane’s son who with his sister visiting their relatives for the first time. This photo allows us to compare the two groups of relatives, American and Japanese. What are their psychological similarities and differences?

Clark (Richard Gere) during his visit to Japan is enjoying the sea, waterfall and the waves together with his nephews and nieces who were impatiently dreaming about this meeting

The Moment children were waiting for – grandma Kane (Sachiko Murase) and Clark met each other – the Japanese woman suffered through Nagasaki Explosion and her semi-Japanese-semi-American nephew – US and Japan came closer.

Omens and children’s ability to focus on them under grandma’s indirect influence

From grandma (who, because of her new-discovered relatives in US became focused on the memories of the past) her grandchildren started to learn the feelings which contradicted their usual moods oriented on cheerful dreams and promising expectations. Here we see them around their grandma – as if “learning from the moon” contemplative melancholy and meditative silence.

Kurosawa’s drawing of a horrified and horrifying eye of nature, as if, seen by people right after the blast of the nuclear bomb in Nagasaki.

Grandchildren have reproduced in their imagination “the apocalyptic gaze of nature”, which grandma described explaining that many people saw it in the sky as a result of the monstrous light effects right after the nuclear blast. Gaze of nature is a mythological image, but when technical knowledge – “the science of the atomic bomb” produces “destructive effects” of a catastrophic proportions it’s the truth of human soul which deserves to have a moral precedence. Humanistic truth in this situation becomes more important than technical truth. It’s one of the lessons we learn from Kurosawa’s film.

Tateo (Hidetaka Yoshioka) and Tami (Tomoko Ohtakara) who are cousins suddenly remembered their adolescent passion for one another and the legend which came to both of them then – about lovers who under pressure of their families’ moral indignation decided to commit suicide rather than to agree to separate from each other. Some stories were coming from grandma not for the purpose of frightening her grandkids or giving them “sensation of horror” – the entertaining achievement of horror movie, but to remind them about the existence of another side of things and teach them about the seamy side of human life.

Even the youngest grandchild – Shinjiro (Mitsunori Isaki) tried to impersonate the “water imp” – the fairytale creature in order to help his older sister and cousins to overcome their childish fears and also to overcome his own irrational fears in the process.

Grandma Kane as an alternative and a paradoxical role model

Because of grandma’s strange – ambiguous reaction on the kids’ idea to invite their American relatives and later visit them in Hawaii, her four grandkids started to learn to think – not in a sense how to get things they like to have or entertaining items they dreamed about but – independently of what they want or what will amuse them. They started to learn – how to think life- and world-centeredly, without cathecting their empirical presence as the very focus of thinking. And they learned how to look at themselves from the side.

Clark who felt guilty for not even knowing that his aunts’ husband was killed by the A-bomb dropped on Nagasaki, is listening to a collective prayers of those who suffered from the disaster.

Look at grandma’s (surrounded by her grandkids) facial expression. She, as if, belongs to somewhere else. And look how children follow, as if, excluding themselves from everyday life. They already learned of a thinking-centered thinking. They stopped thinking in the categories of everyday life’s interests. Their minds stopped focusing on their future social success or material prosperity. The children are beginning to understand that real courage and prowess is not about how to fight and survive high-tech wars or how to achieve high-tech career, but how to prevent wars and inhumanity to nature, how to develop alternative sensibility which could prevent what hurts life.

Apotheosis: will we be capable of saving ourselves from our very instinct of seeking domination over others?

The family worries about grandma’s sudden disappearance. The house by encircled by the vast fields. She should be somewhere there. All of a sudden storm strikes and the ground is covered by the strong rain.

It must be she, under the crazy rainstorm

Grandma’s family is afraid that she has become senile – why else would she be running right into the storm?

Father and mother jump out running under the rain without knowing the exact direction where to run

Is grandma (Sachiko Murase) going to the storm or to Nagasaki right into the danger of being hit by nuclear bomb?

The youngest – Chinjiro desperately rushing through the gates to save his grandmother

Father Tadao never ran so fast in his life. But he is running ahead faster and faster

The mother is desperately trying not to be behind

Granma Kane keeps her ripped umbrella as a banner

Chinjiro is ahead of everybody else – he feels that it’s still possible to save his grandma from the storm, as if it is to save today’s world from the new nuclear catastrophe

The mother falls but is struggling, she…

… will be able to get back up and continue to reach the old woman

But grandma is victorious in front of the storm and the lightning – she wants to save the world from the new nuclear catastrophe

Tateo is following Chinjiro – he wants to save the world from the menace of advanced high-tech disaster, from high-tech greed, from high-tech megalomania

The old woman still keeps her banner-umbrella, which the storm transformed into an outworn broom. The storm makes her look like a witch with a broom. In her mind the storm around her is a kind of a prelude to new nuclear disaster

And even Chinjiro is losing balance

Is grandma confronting the lightning or is she fearlessly defying new nuclear blast?

Chinjiro is knocked down by the storm, but he’ll be back up on his legs and endure

Grandma Kane is continuing to move on ahead of time, ahead of the world, ahead of human stupidity and cruelty. She wants to help the future of human race

Is “Rhapsody in August” a film about the unspeakable event in Nagasaki which was proudly and confidently made happened on August 9, 1945 or is it about the future nuclear blast or blasts, let’s say in some place and time in the 21st century? Is Kurosawa’s film an elaboration of his opinion about the condition of the human psyche not only in the middle of the 20th, but today, after his death, in the 21st century? Japanese imperial regime attacked Pearl Harbor, but there is some evidence that the American Central command knew about the Japanese intention to do so (American specialists were able to break the Japanese military code).

Of course, Japanese leadership is guilty for planning and executing the attack, but American high Command didn’t use their knowledge about what’s coming to negotiate in order to avoid/prevent the attack or at least to radically prepare our troops in advance and minimize the consequence. The reaction of American leadership is typical for military times when question of winning is prevalent over the issue of saving human life. Caring much about peace during the war can shatter the belligerent psyche’s ontological wholeness – if the fist is clenched it would be a shameful sacrilege to open right in front of your enemy your palm again – the fatal sign of weakness.

Real fighters – conquistadors – chained to their pride have to be tough – not needing compromises, they prefer to winning wars – putting enemies to their knees, not to negotiate peace. If Americans could try to sincerely negotiate before Pearl Harbor everybody on the planet including Australian kangaroos and African Rhinoceros could think they are sissies. For real soldier only victory (which is “unconditional, immediate and total”) can be the way to peace (paraphrasing James Baker talking about the issue of Iraqis troop’s withdrawal from Kuwait). In other words for any country involved into geopolitical calculation, having an interest to organize global configurations of nations according to their taste and interests and oriented on global domination, especially with population with democratic orientation on free speech, which is supposed to be persuaded to go to war, the energetic military action is always preferable to real, on equal negotiations (without blackmail or bribe).

In essence Kurosawa’s film is not only about a concrete city with a civilian population, which was chosen for destruction by nuclear weapon or about a future nuclear war, but also about the feverish tendency in today’s “leading societies” to act to achieve financial and military superiority over other, less technically developed countries. But the potential for serious spiritual concerns able to turn off our need for domination over other countries are shattered by incessant consumerism and entertainment forming our very reflexes from our childhood. The parents of grandma Kane’s grandchildren are so excited by the existence of their rich American relatives and they always were activating in their own kids unconditional orientation on innocent joys from consuming, having fun and being entertained – that in their kids’ perception the sudden appearance of these relatives of high social status meant that their whole life is handled once and forever. This “philistinization” of children’s minds and hearts is unforgivable not only because it indirectly connected with their emotional forgetfulness about Nagasaki terror (on which they became concentrated only because their grandma started to think that something is wrong in their fixation on their “American relatives archetype” itself). But it’s typical for today’s mentality – of putting aside everything except pragmatic interests in growing private prosperity and by this passively supporting their country’s orientation on various combinations of power and money worship.

This concentration of the postmodern mentality on a shattered reality of chicken-shit pleasures, on conformist interest in profit-making and social and international self-empowerment is, it seems, the main critical focus of Kurosawa in “Rhapsody in August”. This mentality is a psychological frame of predatory position towards the world, which philistines of different sizes project into the international posture of their countries.

Consumerist and entertainment gluttony, obesity and addiction create indifference towards everything outside the fixation on and regression to the objects of basic admiration – money, glamour, guns, power and glory. Strict social hierarchy – result of intense process of social stratification is internalized into the human soul, and another human beings are perceived not as equals – as partners in love and friendship, but as seniors or juniors in comparison with the subject, as decision-makers or followers.

It’s in this sense of shattered nature of human sociality, of fragmented meanings of human life Kurosawa’s “Rhapsody in August” is a deeply troubling and a tragic film. Tragedy is not only that civilians were hit with supernaturally strong weapon (so strong that it connotes inequality between strong and weak, superhuman and human or superhuman and subhuman, but that today’s public in masse is not interested in suffering of people they cannot identify with (whom they cannot put under the umbrella of common identity). In Kurosawa’s film only one person – and that is the old woman of deep existential spirituality (triggered in her by the intensity of personal suffering) understands that human race is irrecoverably losing its chance to seriously address the real problems confronting humankind – high-tech militarism and contamination of nature and human bodies and souls. People’s scattered minds of psychological fragments corresponding to our petty everyday obsessions create cognitive chaos pompously defined as democratic pluralism of our life.

In the final part of the film grandma Kane’s (Sachiko Murase) children and grand-children are trying to find her, who suddenly disappeared in the middle of the storm. When they detect her tiny figure at the distance they all started to run after her, but to reach her was not easy because of the storm and stubborn, almost supernatural power of the old woman. At first it looked like the grandchildren were trying to catch up with her to save her from death, but the connotation here is that they’re trying to reach her unique understanding of how we have to live, what we have to do in our lives instead of what we’re doing. Step by step we, the viewers get, that the children are running after their grandmother because they don’t want to be without her, don’t want to be abandoned by her, that the goal of her life becomes what her grandkids want for themselves also. In other words, they‘re running into a new world that their grandma wants to found, a world of other human sensibility and another existential norms and morals, a world without competitions (with inevitable winners or losers), envy, hate, righteous torture, murder and vanity. Kids run towards her because they don’t want to be left behind and don’t want to appear again in a senile meaninglessness of our philistine life.

Will we reach her and save ourselves or will we lose her and lose our lives amidst an ecological ruin of a destroyed natural world and our ravaged humane potentials?

Has the grandmother gone mad to go to the very nucleus of the storm to save the humankind? Probably, in a way, yes. But today it looks like, that the only way to stop the madness of human fight for international, global domination is to become radically different from our mass occupation with our vanity armed with high-tech weaponry and start to live as human beings were meant to – learning how to love, at least – how to respect and be interested in, and at least – how to tolerate human dissimilarity and otherness and how to become more spiritual in a secular sense of the word. We have to be able to talk, to discuss and to negotiate with other people on equal.

We have to treat others like Goethe-the poet, Schubert-the composer and Kurosawa-the film director treat the rose of life.

And the boy a rose did see,
a rose standing in the field
blossoming in innocence,
awed by the color it did yield.
A never ending fascination
for the crimson color
of the rose standing in the field.