22 April 2009

Emperor's Twilight Years: DREAMS and RHAPSODY IN AUGUST

There is a very interesting series going on at BAM entitled "The Late Film." The focus is on late films of certain directors -- Ozu, Bresson, and Kubrick among several others -- which are marked by certain stylistic or thematic departures from the earlier work of their artistic peaks. Here is their description:

A great director often reaches a point towards the end of a long career when he works completely at his own pace. The work made in this period can be ddeceptively casual or slightly feverish, but is made with absolute assurance, often in defiance of stylistic and structural norms. These films can be among the most complex and interesting in a body of work, often approaching signature themes from new angles, as illustrated in this series of late films by master directors.

This was followed up by A.O. Scott of the NYTimes in an interesting article called "Directors in their Magic Hour" in which he cites the contradictory energies of these films -- "the work of accomplished artists past their prime and full of promise... Late work is both familiar and strange, characteristic of the artist and yet markedly at odds with everything that preceded it."

Though he's not represented in this series, I thought it would be interesting to look at the late works of Akira Kurosawa, particularly Dreams (1990) and Rhapsody in August (1991).

Kurosawa (1910-1998) has a body of work that reaches into several different genres and styles -- from samurai pictures (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo), to detective films (Stray Dog, High and Low), to moral dramas (Drunken Angel, Ikiru), to literary adaptations (The Idiot, The Lower Depths) -- each marked by a commanding artistry through visual style and narrative construction that has come to be recognized as Kurosawa's auteurist stamp. Though arguable, I would say Kurosawa's artistic peak begins with Rashomon in 1950 and ends with Red Beard in 1965, which is quite a long peak, highlighted by several internationally-recognized masterpieces of cinema.

Red Beard is significant not only because it is Kurosawa's last film in black and white, but it also marks the end of his professional relationship with Toshiro Mifune. He apparantly spent longer on the production of this film (over two years) than any other project he undertook up to that point in his career. The story focuses on the humanist and existential themes Kurosawa had investigated throughout his entire career, making it almost a type of summation of all of his work up to that point.

After Red Beard Kurosawa went through a series of disasters: he was fired from the production of Tora! Tora! Tora!; Japanese film studios were shutting down; his first color feature, Dodeskaden, the first and only production from his newly-founded production company Club of the Four Knights, was a commercial failure; a year later after the failure of Dodeskaden he attempted suicide.

Nearly a decade after his suicide attempt Kurosawa managed to make two samurai epics (Kagemusha, Ran) which saw a return to form in a powerful way. (I personally think Ran is among his best work, if not his masterpiece; I still have not seen Kagemusha.) These films can perhaps be seen as the lion's last roar before he lies down; a final exertion of strength and power in the twilight of his life. After Ran (1985), Kurosawa made three films -- Dreams (1990), Rhapsody in August (1991), and Madadayo (1993) -- before dying of stroke at age 88 in 1998.

Dreams (or, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams) features a series of vignettes in which a surrogate Kurosawa of different ages are the subjects of various dream worlds. The dreams range from the whimsical (surrogate Kurosawa entering a Van Gogh painting to meet the tortured artist) to the horrifying (nuclear holocaust). Each of these dreams is characterized by a reflective tone in which the world of the dreams is as mystifying to the protagonist as it is for us as viewers. Most of the time there is a strange awe evoked by these dreams, a mixture of wonder and of fright. Death is a somewhat dominant theme throughout, but it is often paired by a desire to take claim of ones life despite it. But not always -- sometimes life is just hell, as in the dreams about nuclear holocaust and its effects, which are more like nightmares.

The visual style in Dreams is distinguished by the expressionistic use of color. Having the leeway to disregard realism in his use of color Kurosawa seems to enjoy using bold, bright colors to accentuate the lush dream worlds -- certainly the influence of his life-long flirtation with painting. The painting-like quality of the film is accentuated by its slow pace. It seems Kurosawa wants to encourage us to look around the frame and take in all the color and wonder of the dreams, to slow down and think about the conversations unhurriedly unfolding. This meditative tone culminates in the last dream in which surrogate Kurosawa talks with an old man who lives in a village completely devoid of modern technology. He slowly explains why their lifestyle suits them best as he mends a watermill wheel, only to be interrupted by a funeral parade which celebrates death with joy and dancing in the acknowledgment that life was well-spent. Perhaps that is how Kurosawa wishes to see his life, perhaps he can only do so in dreams (or on film).

Made a year later, Rhapsody in August brings back the contemplative tone and slow pace of Dreams, this time within an attempt at realism. The story focuses on a grandmother living in Nagasaki. She is visited by her grandchildren during their summer vacation and spends her days telling them stories about the nuclear bomb dropped at the end of WWII and her family. The stories range from sad (her husband dying) to magical (a water spirit saving her brother), somewhat matching the different moods created by the dreams in the previous film. The four grandchildren in turn investigate the different sites their grandmother mentions, become a quartet of travelers in the present in search of the ghosts of the past.

The children are left as surface characters, denied any depth or any real interest, merely serving as surrogates for our own investigation into the meaning of the bomb and its effects. Kurosawa speaks very directly here, making no real attempt to deal with the grander meaning of the war as a whole. He instead focuses on the lives of this one grandmother and those she knew and how they were effected as victims to an absurd moment in history. The film caused some American resentment in its failure to address anything except the victimization of the Japanese during the war, though it seems a little silly to me to accuse Kurosawa of being prejudiced -- he is not so concerned with the politics and history of that war in particular it seems, but of the larger implications of wars started by governments and sacrificing people, in some way reiterating ideas from Ran; it is about human suffering, not politics.

As far as camera movement, Rhapsody in August maintains a calm, meditative tone by making the most of the still shot. There are some very beautifully-composed shots in which two characters stare at the sky or into the woods and seem to just take it all in, as Kurosawa encourages us to do. The colors are not as loud as they were in Dreams, but there is certainly splashes of beautiful color every now and then, especially when filming the natural world. There is a particularly effective scene of a line of ants climbing a long rose stem to reach the bright pink flower (apparently directed by Ishiro Honda, of Godzilla fame).

While the grandchildren try to understand the bomb the grandmother's half-American nephew (played by Richard Gere) visits the family and seeks forgiveness and understanding for the bomb on behalf of Americans. It is a touching gesture that attempts to bridge understanding between generations, cultures, and nations. Even so, the grandmother cannot shake the "eye" of the bomb and the memories that plague her. All that's left to do is for her family to try to take care of her and to empathize.

In view of Kurosawa's entire ouevre these two films (I have not yet seen Madadayo) seem to reflect a certain contentment that Kurosawa has in looking back over his career and his life as an artist. He is still seeking, still asking questions, but the explorations are done in a way that lacks the urgency inherent in those earlier films. There is a certain peace which make these two films somewhat endearing for those who love Kurosawa or are familiar with his career. Though as artistic achievements they do not have the scope and depth of earlier masterpieces, they are still good films within a more self-contained world and are perfect for what they are.

1 comment:

Joshua said...

Rhapsody in August is a beautiful film (as is Madadayo, if you get the chance) and I think its meditative pacing is paramount to its success. My favorite moment is when the children are investigating and looking at all of the different cultures' artistic apologies for the nuclear bomb. That is as close to saccharine as Kurosawa gets yet he never lets it ring false.

Also, Kagemusha is probably my favorite of Kurosawa's post-1970 films. While Ran has a much grander scale, Kagemusha utilizes an expanded intimacy, so that even when he's dealing with these intensely epic battles he allows us an entry point. That's not to slight Ran, which is one of his many masterpieces (as you say, it is among his best work), just that I have a preference.