Ed note: For the next several weeks, composer and film aficionado Lewis Saul has agreed to supply us with in-depth commentary about the films of Akira Kurosawa, now showing in an extended festival at the Film Forum. Even if you're unable to stop by the Forum, we think Lew's insights will deepen your appreciation of these important movies.
PLAYING February 1st at The Film Forum
This is Kurosawa's 29th, penultimate film.
Welcome to Late Kurosawa!
You won't find any samurai in this picture (although look at the photo on the box to the left -- doesn't that look like a sword in her hands!); nor any contemporary corrupt governmental officials, and there is no romance whatsoever.
But what you will find is a thoughtful (frequently completely misunderstood) film about a survivor of the Nagasaki atom bomb, her children and grandchildren and the things (like money from pineapple) that make the world go round.
Forty years had passed since the Idiot fiasco ... perhaps Kurosawa was finally willing to forgive and forget ~ or perhaps he was just desperate for a distributor -- any distributor! So for the first time since 1951, Kurosawa made a film with Shochiku. [That Toho didn't just bite the bullet and take a risk on such a relatively small-scale film ($10M) is a disgrace, in my opinion. But I don't know all the details.]
The film was financed jointly by Shochiku and Film Enterprise No. 2, an investment partnership composed of no fewer than eighteen companies!
The film is based on the Kiyoko Murata novel Nabe no naka (In the Stew) . I almost hesitate to include Galbraith's usual excellent synopsis. It is necessarily long (a complex plot) and definitely contains "spoilers." But with only one showing at 6:30 tonight, I hope to convince you folks who didn't make it down to 209 W. Houston to get the DVD and check out this very interesting film. No one will mistake this for a Kurosawa masterpiece -- but as they say: Kurosawa's worst film is so much better than 99% of the crap out there!
"Kane (Sachiko Murase, 86 years old at the time of filming! She died two years later) is an elderly widow whose husband was killed in Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Her Americanized grandchildren (Tateo [Hidetaka Yoshioka], Tami [Tomoko Ôtakara], Minako [Mieko Suzuki] and Shinjiro [Mitsunori Isaki]) are spending the summer with her in rural Nagasaki. One set of parents (Tadao [Hisashi Igawa] and Yoshie [Toshie Negishi] has flown to Hawaii to visit Clark (Richard Gere), a half-Japanese cousin whose father, Kane's brother, is dying. Kane, however, is reluctant to visit this brother she's not seen in decades. At first the children are annoyed by their grandmother's lack of interest in going to Hawaii, and by her old-style, rural existence: she has no TV, no washing machine, and cooks bland meals they don't like. But they love her and, during the course of their stay, enjoy listening to stories about her family, acquiring her appreciation of such simple pleasures as gazing at the moon. Unlike their parents, the children come to embrace Grandma's old-fashioned ways. Eventually, she agrees to go to Hawaii to visit her ailing brother, but only after attending the memorial services for her husband and other victims of the bomb. The children are ecstatic about the trip and send Clark a telegram announcing their arrival.
Three of the children take a bus over the mountains and visit Nagasaki, where Kane's husband, a teacher, died in the blast along with most of his students. They visit his school and see a set of monkey bars, deformed and blackened by the bomb, that serve as a memorial. It dawns on them that perhaps the reason Kane is reluctant to go to Hawaii is that she hates America for dropping the bomb. But when they return, Kane insist, 'I neither like nor dislike America.' Both Japanese and Americans died, she says. 'The war was to blame.'
The children's parents (Igawa, Negishi, Choichiro Kawarazaki and Narumi Kayashima) return from Hawaii, arriving at Grandma's house with dollar signs in their eyes, and mull over their newly found, wealthy relative and his luxurious lifestyle. They talk excitedly about the possibility of going to work at Clark's enormous pineapple plant. But the children recognize that their parents are using Grandma to win Clark over. Clark writes that he's coming to Nagasaki. The parents assume the children's letter offended him by referring to the memorial service. 'Americans don't like to be reminded of the bomb,' one parent says. They think Clark's coming to Japan to 'call the deal off.'
But when Clark arrives, he surprises everyone with his genuine concern for Grandma's feelings, and his deeply felt empathy for the victims of Nagasaki. This impresses the children, and the parents feel foolish. But then Clark's father dies, and suddenly he returns to America for the funeral. Learning of her brother's death, Kane feels tremendous guilt for not visiting him earlier. As the 45th anniversay of the bombing approaches, she begins reliving the emotional horror of that terrible day, which her children diagnose as episodic senility. Then, during a cloudburst, Kane runs off. As she stands against the fierce wind and pounding rain, her children and grandchildren race after her" [pp. 612-3].
- Note the similarities to Ikimono no kiroku (I Live in Fear/Record of a Living Being) . "An elderly protagonist haunted by images of the atomic bomb, materialistic children, innocent, impressionable grandchildren, and a visitor from abroad!" [p. 612].
- Kane's farmhouse was constructed specially for the film in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture. Filming took place in the spring and summer of 1991.
- Almost all the American critics accused Kurosawa of making a film that was "didactic, anti-American, if not fascist, sentimental, and dull." Wrong on all counts, imho.
- The film is filled with weird, ambiguous images that are sometimes difficult to pin down, plot-wise! For example, the scene of the ants climbing up and down the rose. (Those who pay really close attention might realize at that point that the Schubert "Heidenröselein" -- which has been a major musical source throughout the film -- ties in with this scene.)
- The ending is, of course, equally ambiguous: Galbraith: "The lyrics (to the Schubert) are about the glory of a single rose found in a field that, though it is never explicitly stated, is likened to Kane. Thus, when her umbrella snaps inside out as she stands almost frozen amid the fierce wind and drenching rain, the song bursts from the soundtrack in a chorus of children's voices and full orchestration. All this suggests that her indomitable spirit, like a rose in an empty field, like the ants ascending its stem, will endure insofar as her lessons will be remembered, if not by her own children, then by her grandchildren" [p. 618].
- The shots of clouds under the credits is a mix of regular and axial cuts (the camera is pointed at a cloud formation and then moves in closer on the same formation).
- Tami is the narrator at two separate points in the film. At the very beginning and later at the first scene on the playground.
- As she narrates, Tateo plays an out-of-tune C Major scale on the broken-down old pump organ. (Brand name of organ? "ORGAN")!
- There are no wipes in this film. However, notice how Kurosawa uses this out-of-tune scale as a substitute for the wipe! It functions just as a wipe would.
- "Absolutely" Tateo keeps repeating about fixing the organ. His cousin, Tami, teases him about it. But ultimately, Tateo does indeed "absolutely" fix the organ.
- In addition to the C Major scale, Tateo can play the first eight notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The first time he does this, the phrase serves as a "musical wipe" to the kids' first trip to Nagasaki.
- Notice Kurosawa's usual parallelism: The kids go to Nagasaki twice, the waterfall twice, the playground three times, there are three separate "sutra chanting" scenes, etc.
- It is interesting to note that Kurosawa -- in his 29th film -- seems to have (finally) realized that using an established composer's music as is can be much more effective than just telling your composer to mimic a certain piece, AK's MO for many many earlier films!
- In that regard, the Vivaldi Stabat Mater is used just perfectly, at several different key moments, including the final credits. Gorgeous.
- Of course, the other piece is the Schubert, which is almost a character in and of itself in this film!
- The second scene at the waterfall: note how Kurosawa brings up the sound of the roar of the waterfall when Clark learns his father has died.
- The shots of the strange clouds at the end is a bizarre CGI shot -- I truly wonder if Kurosawa was satisfied with that. It looks sort of hokey.
- As Kane runs through the storm with her umbrella, she is followed by her grandchildren and children. The cuts remind one of Seven Samurai, as Kurosawa breaks down the running into separate cuts of each person.
- For me, it's one of the most powerful moments in cinema: when Kane's umbrella snaps and the Schubert bursts forth ... stunning!