One of Kurosawa’s last films, and one of his most personal showing all the skill of a ‘complete director’. Featuring beautiful cinematography and many of the usual Kurosawa traits- wide shots and long takes etc, and many other familiarities- weather as a metaphor, the relations between different ages, discussions while eating etc.
The film tells the story of Kane and her family, and what happens to them over the course of a summer. Kane is an old woman, a survivor of the Nagasaki bomb towards the end of WWII. Her husband, a teacher, was killed in the blast along with many of his young students. She is looking after her 4 inquisitive grandchildren over the summer while her children are in Hawaii- they are visiting a Japanese-American who claims to be an older brother of Kane, and a millionaire business man. He is sick and wishes to see her before he dies. However, Kane had over 10 brothers and sister, some of whom she does not remember. Until she can be sure that the man is being truthful she will not see him. Meanwhile the grandchildren try to do everything to convince her to go, as they want a trip to Hawaii. They learn of what happened to her during the war, and feel that she will not want to go because she hates America for dropping the bomb. She says no, she hates War, and eventually decides to go, sending a telegram explaining that she will come after the anniversary of Nagasaki. When her kids return home they are excited by the though of having rich relatives, but when they hear about the telegram they get anxious- they think the Americans will feel guilty about being reminded of the bomb and that it killed Kane’s husband, and that any relationship will end. Kane feels they should be ashamed of themselves, only thinking of money. Her brother sends his son Clark to meet them, and he apologises for not knowing her husband was killed, and gets to know the family and their past.
The first twenty minutes of the film may put some people off as it is slow and little happens. Once the grandchildren learn of the bomb, the story begins to take shape and gets steadily more powerful until the climax. Many themes are explored, primarily guilt and forgiveness, and we see how even the most terrible of events can be forgotten as if they are just part of a history lesson. Kane has lived with the event all her life, and has learnt to forgive but has never forgotten. This is what makes the final scene so powerful, as Kane’s guilt for not seeing her brother overpowers her. In this scene Kuosawa establishes the three ages of the family, all in their own way trying to chase or find the past. Throughout the film Kurosawa, now an old man shows the various stages of life and the feelings and emotions which can be a primary part of each individual stage- Kane is stubborn, set in her ways which ends up being both a gift and a curse; her children grew up just after the bomb and never really knew what it was about, now adults but trying to set themselves up for a comfortable life, putting money ahead of more important issues. And the grandchildren who have never experienced war, innocent and terrified by the thought that such things could have happened, scared by the behaviour of survivors because they have never seen such grief. They now can see the faults of their seniors and must learn from past mistakes. It is one of the best and most effective examples of human life in all its stages, from childhood to old age.
Kurosawa again gets good performances from the entire cast, mainly from Kane and the grandchildren. We see them change gradually throughout the film, Kane slowly being pulled back into the nightmare of War after being so diplomatic, the grandchildren growing to understand her more, and all the parts of human nature. Richard Gere as Clark does well for a small role, coping with the dialogue and conveying sympathy and sorrow. The music is effective towards the end, but above all it is the story which keeps us watching. We become moved by the events, reminded of or newly informed about the past, and seeing the chaos war causes, its effect still being felt over 40 years later. There are a few funny moments also, adding to the charming and bittersweet quality of the film, and certain scenes will stay with you for a long time. A thoughtful and thought-provoking film by one of the greatest directors ever.
As always, feel free to leave any comments. At this late point in Kurosawa’s career and life, was he still capable of producing powerful cinema?