This slightly revised review and guide appeared in the September 1994 Visual Parables.
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 38 min.
Our content rating (0 – 10):Violence 1: Language 0; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.
Forgive as the Lord forgave you
Many critics dismissed this film when it was released here in America in 1992, but as you can discover below, I was very taken with it—and still am after having watched it numerous times. For one thing, it reminds us that there were two cities devastated by the atomic bomb, and that the effects lingered on long after the blast faded away and the dead were buried.
Akira Kurosawa is like Titian, Michelangelo or Verdi in that his creativity has not dwindled with age (despite what some critics claimed in reviews of this film), but continually finds fresh nuances on old themes. He can create thrilling spectacles sweeping across the wide screen, such as RAN; and he can explore the inner person or family relationships, as in this film. At 82 he has blessed us with a film filled with so many tender and beautiful moments that I felt a momentary sadness because most Americans prefer the likes of Batman to a true work of art, primarily because we are so uncomfortable with subtitles.
The story revolves around Grandmother Kane (Sachiko Murase) who is watching her four grand children while her son and his wife are visiting her youngest brother who is deathly ill. One of ten siblings, he had emigrated to Hawaii almost sixty years earlier, so she cannot remember him, and thus had refused to go along to meet him. She is not even certain that he is her brother. Knowing that he has done well with a pineapple plantation and wants to open an office in Japan, her grown children are hoping to profit from the renewal of their relationship. He had married an American woman and sired a son.
It is August in Nagasaki, and Grandmother is filled with memories of that terrible day when an atom bomb vaporized the school where her husband taught. These are memories that include resentment toward Americans because of the bomb that had obliterated her husband and other family members and friends—and she considers her brother’s son as American.
The grandchildren visit the site of ground zero, now memorial park. They are especially affected by the blackened, twisted jungle gym that has been left in the school playground as a memorial. The four young people love the old woman and try to understand and consider her feelings as they listen to her. They hope at first that they can talk her into accepting their father’s pleas to come to Hawaii, for this means a trip for them, too, but they wi11 accept gracefully her decision out of their respect and love.
The film is a wonderful study of that special relationship that can exist between the very young and the elderly, one that the in-between generation, so filled with ambition and self-importance, fails to understand. The teenager’s father is upset when he returns because the boy had written to Hawaii and told the dying relative there about their loss in the atomic bomb blast. The father had kept it secret for fear that the relative’s grown son Clark, played by Richard Gere, would be upset by it and break off their relationship.
The theme of remembering and forgiving, thus coming to terms with the past and not being ruled by it, is well played out in the drama that follows when Clark does come to Japan to restore the broken family ties. It is a bit of a sad shock for him, as the children take him around to see where their common grandfather had died, that although many nations had placed plaques with messages of peace or sympathy in the school yard, there had been nothing from the United States. The moment when the survivors of that school arrive and place flowers at the memorial is very moving.
The materialism of the in-between generation is deftly handled also, Kurosawa never becoming preachy or heavy handed. He just lets the characters reveal themselves by their words and gestures. And he does not become cynical about human foibles and culpability. This is a director who has lived long and seen much, yet who still is filled with a love of life and people. He is well served by a wonderful cast, from the children on, and especially the veteran actress who plays Grandmother. The scenes of the growing affection and respect between Kane and her nephew Clark are a joy to watch.
Other than the mention of the failure of the US to contribute anything to the memorial park, Kurosawa does not pursue a political agenda. It is war that is the enemy for this pacifist filmmaker, not a particular government. He has Kane say in one scene, “People do anything just to win war. Sooner or later it will destroy us all.” This great filmmaker’s agenda was to pursue the kind of cross-cultural reconciliation that occurs between the still grieving war widow and the young American-Japanese nephew visiting her country.
Treat yourself to a wonderful two hours of what good cinema is about. The ending is a bit puzzling, perhaps suggesting that we must be like the old woman, persistent and courageous in the face forces that threaten to overwhelm us. I would welcome anyone’s interpretation of this last scene.
- What is the meaning of “August” in the title of the film? Compare the way in which Grandmother deals with her memories of August 1945, with her son and daughter-in-law’s way.
- How do the children relate to their Grandmother? Why is it that grandchildren and grandparents often have more in common than parents and their children? Fred Rogers has often pointed out the special role that grandparents can have in our complex society; has this been true for you?
- Compare the different ways in which the three generations react to the news of their long lost relative in Hawaii. What do the parents hope to gain by going to visit him? What do the grandchildren hope to acquire? How do they change in their attitude?
- Why is Father so upset with his son for sending the telegram to their American cousin?
- What do you think of the playground jungle gym as a memorial? Does it suggest images in your mind as you see it? How did you feel as people came to pay their respects before it?
- What nation was absent from those that had contributed memorials? What do you think of this lack? Is the feeling that the Japanese at Nagasaki and Hiroshima received what they deserved still strong in our country? Do you think that there is any guilt on our part for the War and its results? Americans point to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but what about the way Asians were treated in this country in the 19th and early 20th centuries?
- How is their American visitor different from what each had expected? What does Grandmother apparently think of Clark? How is the jungle gym memorial a key factor in the family coming together?
- What has to happen for real forgiveness to take place? What do you think of the old saying, “Forgive and forget”? What role does memory play in this? Some events/occasions when memory is important: Holocaust Week; Memorial Day; Veterans Day; Passover; The Eucharist.
- Kurosawa uses many visual symbols. What is the meaning of:
-The shot in which the camera follows a line of ants, finally resting on the rose? The rose?
-How does the song of the children apply to Grandma as well as the children?
-The two dead trees surrounded by the beautiful flowers?
– The huge eye that Grandma and her brother saw in the sky during the atomic blast?
-The shot of the birds flying away as Grandma says, “People are likely to forget the most dreadful things?
-Tateo’s announcement that the organ is now fixed?
10. What is happening at the end of the film? Why is Grandmother heading into the storm?
You might also want to see the review of Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes found in the August 2015 issue of Visual Parables.