First things first. Akira Kurosawa stated that Hachi-gatsu no kyôshikyoku (literally, In the Stew), based on Kiyoko Murata’s novel, was made for a young audience—for Japanese schoolchildren, who knew little or nothing about the Second World War and how it ended in the Pacific with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I mention this because some of the criticism that writer-director Kurosawa’s film has drawn fails to take this intention of his into account.
Her four grandchildren, siblings, the oldest of whom has just graduated high school, are staying with elderly Kane, whose husband died in the atomic blast in Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Kane, who still lives just outside Nagasaki, directs her guests to the playground at the school where their grandfather taught and, on that fateful day, died. The grandchildren see for themselves the jungle gym that stands—warped, mangled, twisted—as a memorial to the blast and to the resulting dead.
Grandma once was bitter toward the U.S., which had dropped the bombs. No more. The real enemy, she has long since decided, is war. There should be no more wars.
The children’s mother is Kane’s daughter. Both parents recently visited Kane’s American brother, who had moved from Japan to Hawaii seventy years earlier. Now dying, he hopes for a visit from Kane. Her grandchildren encourage her to go. She does not, partly out of fear that her husband’s spirit will feel abandoned by her. Clark, her brother’s son (Richard Gere, excellent), therefore visits her. The entire family cried, he tells Kane privately, upon belatedly learning how her husband had died. The two poignantly reconcile. However, Clark’s visit is cut short by the news of his father’s death. Kane’s grief over not having visited her younger brother triggers full-blown dementia. Armed with an inadequate umbrella, Kane ventures into a storm of rain and wind worthy of what Lear endured; as family members pursue her, she passes into spirit—without a cut—before our eyes.
Earlier, at an August 9th commemoration ceremony, Clark and the children watched a train of ants busy at follow-the-leader scurry across the ground, up a stem, all the way up to a vivid rose: what British poet Alfred Tennyson called the “blood-red blossom of war.” Here is the danger always lurking in humanity’s garden, attracting and seducing, and creating a legacy of horror, sorrow, regret. We must remain vigilant; children must learn early on not to submit to it.
Doubtless, this is not one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces; the film is lame and slack for most of its length. With Clark’s arrival, though, it takes off like Superman, achieving a tidal force of profound emotion.
Sachiko Murase (best actress, Nikkan Sports Film Awards) is magnificent as Kane.
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