26 August 2007

Rhapsody in August, and storytelling

Yesterday I went with some friends to this month's installment of the Akira Kurosawa festival in Mitaka. Although I missed most of it, every month this festival shows one or two of Kurosawa's movies, in mostly (but not precisely) chronological order.

One of the things that surprised me when I first went to the festival is that, while Kurosawa's name is well-known, he's not a standard reference point of people in the industry, the way he is in the US. In the US, you can pretty safely assume that anyone in the entertainment business has seen Seven Samurai, and Rashomon; and that they have some idea of Kurosawa's ouvre outside that. Before this festival, I had probably seen seven or so of Kurosawa's movies (my favorite, hands-down, is Ikiru).

However, that wasn't the point of this post! Yesterday we watched Ran, his beautifully cinematic remake of King Lear; and Rhapsody in August, which is what this post is about.

Rhapsody is not a bad film, in fact I enjoyed most of it. For one thing, after the hig opera of the jidaiteki (period) films and the out-and-out weirdness of Dou Desu Ka Den, watching Kurosawa direct normal characters in Rhapsody was a great break (the primary characters are a grandma who survived the Nagasaki atomic bomb, and her materialistic grandchildren). The movie definitely is an old man's movie (Kurosawa was 81 when he made it), and it reflects an old man's attitude about the decline of culture. However, it's still a reasonable story about the reconciliation of several generations and despite their differing priorities.

The things that were controversial at the time of the film's release seem like total non-issues to me; the film has a very negative view of the atomic bombing, but it's a film about a family who lost their patriarch to the bomb so that's natural. Some depictions of American were criticized as obsequious, apologizing for the bomb; but in fact Gere's character seemed to me to simply be having a humane response to the loss the characters around him had suffered.

But the story is another thing. Again, most of the film is good, as by small moments the grandchildren and grandma come to grips with each other. The grandma is slowly losing touch, which is portrayed very straightforwardly. But the ending ruined the movie; namely, that there isn't one. At the end of the movie, there's a another "grandma is losing touch" episode, but it has no consequences and no resolution (in fact, we don't even see the end of the episode; the movie cuts abruptly to credits while the families are chasing the determined grandma down a dirt road in a torrential rainstorm).

There simply is no coda, no ending, no meaning assigned to the issues the characters have been dealing with for two hours. Will the families move to Hawaii or not? (this is the central plot question of the film) Don't know. Will grandma go? Can she continue to live alone in this country house near Nagasaki? Don't know. That might all be fine if the final sequence provided some character insight that justified it; but it doesn't.

Making this extra-scary, the group I was this with was happy with the ending. Why? Because it "didn't put an explicit meaning on the movie." Sure, that's like saying you enjoyed the evening because an axe murderer didn't assault you; true, but no defense of the events. No, you don't have to tie everything in the plot up neatly with a ribbon on top, but a story should have a sense of conclusion at the end.

Now, the friends I saw this with are all highly educated, well-versed members of the industry. The reason their reaction scared me is because it made me think, "Will Japan ever be able to make mainstream worldwide entertainment?" If you've been through even the slightest amount of the mainstream story-development thread in America, it's painfully clear what was wrong with the ending: there's nothing the characters have learned and brought back to their lives. Happy ending, sad ending, whatever: audiences want a feeling that the events of the story have come to a stopping place. If you were a live storyteller around a campfire, and you tried to end the way Rhapsody in August does, your audience wouldn't let you go!

Sigh, it's gonna be a hard struggle to get successful content produced here.


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