With Black Rain (1989), which was based on Masuji Ibuse’s novel, Shohei Imamura sets out to explore, just like in his The Ballad of Narayama (1983), the tension between death and life that marks life, biological life as well as societal life (General-note 1). Yet, both narratives are radically different. Instead of investigating this tension via a symbolic practice like in The Ballad of Narayama, Imamura explores, in Black Rain (1989), this tension via the impact of the atom bomb on subjective and societal life.
This film was released by Arrow Video in the boxed set Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shohei Imamura (Extra-note 1).
Hiroshima, August 6, 1945. Just when Shizuma Shigematsu (Kazuo Kitamura), the uncle of Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka), boards the train at Yokogawa station, a sudden flash happens. A few seconds later, the whole station is blown away. Shizuma, now surrounded, by death and suffering, returns home to his wife Shigeko Shizuma (Etsuko Ichihara). Upon seeing the mushroom cloud from Furue, Yasuko decides to return to Hiroshima to find her uncle and aunt. Upon finding them at their home, they depart together to a safer place, seeing a lot of suffering along the way.
Five years later, the three of them are living in Kobatake, a village in Hiroshima prefecture. Shizuma is trying to arrange a marriage for Yasuko, but this proves to be more difficult than expected. To heighten the marriage chances of his niece, he decides to make clean copies of his and Yasuko’s dairies.
Black Rain is a slice-of-life drama that explores, in a rather gentle manner, the variety of effects the atom bomb has on the physical body as well as on the societal body. By virtue of the narrative’s structure, an alternation between the past and the ‘present’, Imamura does not only succeed in showing the immediate effects of this devastating flash of real, but also explore how this destructive real keeps on disturbing the lives of the survivors, the Hibakusha.
What concerns the immediate effects of the atom bomb, Imamura succeeds, with well-chosen sequences, to poignantly highlight the fact that what the bomb burns is not only the real flesh of human subjects but also the symbolic ‘flesh’ that binds subjects together and the imaginary sense of belonging. This destructive flash of real is not only traumatizing on a personal level (e.g. mothers losing their newborn children) and a relational level (e.g. a brother not recognizing his younger brother), but also on a community level (i.e. the destruction of the city demolishing the symbolic coordinates by which daily life in Hiroshima found its organization.)
Shizuma, Shigeko, and Yasuko succeed, by mere chance, to escape immediate death but also avoid any personal or relational trauma or suffering. While they escape the instant effects of the flash of the real, they are not able to escape the delayed effects of the atom bomb.
It quickly becomes apparent, in Black Rain, that the Hibakusha fall victim to a certain kind of exclusion in the symbolic/society, caused by the widespread imaginary prejudices that are born from the continued presence of this invisible but destructive real (i.e. radiation poisoning) that slowly eats away the health of many survivor. The aspect of imaginary prejudice – e.g. all survivors are deviled by radiation – and rumours explains why Yasuko, despite receiving a health certificate, struggles to marry and form this symbolic bond that would integrate her fully within Japanese society.
The invisible real of radiation poisoning puts the Hibakusha into a problematic position within the larger society. The hibakusha are – and this is only subtly touched upon – imprisoned by two conflicting imaginary prejudices. While some outsiders may feel that the survivors, who look healthy, are exploiting their position of victim, other outsiders harbour the suspicion – a suspicion sadly with a solid basis – that the survivors who seem healthy are still poisoned by radiation (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2).
What stands out in the composition of Black Rain is the subtle way in which Imamura utilizes the visual dimension to evoke the narrative tension between life and death. The former is visually underlined by focusing on animals (e.g. a bird walking on the beach, a crab walking on the sand, fish swimming against the current, … etc.) and on agricultural acts (e.g. planting rice), the latter by visualizing the immediate impact of the flash and the slow venomous impact of radiation poisoning. By evoking this tension, Imamura succeeds in underlining how the atomic bomb contaminates and disturbs the usual cycle of human life, primarily at the level of their body (Real life) but also at the level of forming community (Symbolic life). Moreover, the evocation of this tension, which leads to a profoundly heightened sense of life’s transiency for many of the Hibakusha, makes this transiency of life a tangible experience for the spectator (Cine-note 1).
That the narrative attains a certain level of realism is surprisingly not function of the formal features of the visual composition, but due to two other elements. The first element concerns the fact that the narrative deals with a historical event, the atom-bomb. That this historical event forms the center of Black Rain ensures that Imamura’s fictionalized narrative attains a certain reality as such – the narrative is, in other words, constructed around a certain kernel of truth, the traumatic truth of a Real called the atomic bomb.
While some might say the traumatic ‘truth’ of this event is further strengthened by Imamura’s visualization of this event, this is, in our view, not really the case. While Imamura does not fail to visually confront us with some aspects of the destructive impact of this Real (e.g. burned faces, charred bodies, melted fingers, …), his visualization remains humane and, above all, serene – this is further accentuated by the serene musical accompaniment (Cine-note 2). He thus succeeds in delivering a visualization of the impact of the atomic bomb that, while confronting us with its destructive and deadly impact, avoids enjoying the destruction it depicts. In other words, the true focus of Imamura’s serene and humane depiction is not showing destruction as such but evoking the personal and relational suffering caused by this destructive flash of Real – this focus and nothing else makes the depiction of the ravage the atom-bomb caused in this film so unforgettable.
The second element concerns the (non-diegetic) vocalization of fragments of Shizuma and Yasuko’s journal entries. These vocalizations, which retain their form of journal entries, give the fictional existence of these characters a certain reality for the spectator. In other words, their narratives, by being delivered in a non-fictional form, gives her trajectory, a trajectory profoundly marked by this event of the Real, a certain dimension of experiential truth.
With Black Rain, Imamura delivers a serene and deeply humanistic narrative that not only succeeds in exploring the contradictory position of the hibakusha in a moving way, but also confronts the spectator with the way in which the atomic bomb contaminates and disturbs the real of body and the societal body. Imamura’s Black Rain is, without a doubt, one of the most important films about the atomic bomb ever made and should be mandatory viewing for anyone who holds the promise of world peace dear.
General-note 1: We should nevertheless not forget to mention that Masuji Ibuse used diaries of survivors to construct the narrative of his novel Black Rain. In our view, the reason why his novel became so successful, winning him international acclaim and various awards, is because he succeeded to echo the experiential truth of the survivors through his fictional characters in a profound way.
Extra-Note 1: The in-depth appreciation of the three films by Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns, Jasper Sharp’s audio commentary, and the two interviews – one with Yoshiko Tanaka and one with Takashi Miike – are really enlightening and recommended for anyone who wants to know more about Shohei Imamura’s trajectory as director as well as his directorial style. The inclusion of the ‘alternate’ ending is great. While this new ending resolves the open-end structure of the theatrical release, this alternate end adds a bitter ironical and cynical twist to the narrative by underlining how easily the suffering of those who survived the atom bomb is forgotten.
Narra-note 1: In other words, the imaginary level of prejudices is based on the knowledge of the visible impact has radiation poisoning has on the body of the victims. The element of prejudice is thus underpinned by the destructive truth of the flash of the real.
Narra-note 2: Besides exploring the psychical and mental impact of the atomic bomb, Black Rain also touches upon the mental impact of war as such, by exploring the situation of Yuichi (Keisuke Ishida), a former soldier part of the suicide squad attacking tanks, who now suffers from PTSD.
Cine-note 1: The transiency of life is also underlined more directly via the sound of singing cicadae.
Cine-note 2: The reason why the depiction of the destructive impact of the atomic bomb is humane (and indirect) is only because Imamura refuses to focus on the destruction as such. The exploration of the cruel effects of the bomb is mediated by the subjective position and experience of our main characters as well as the subjective position of the depicted victims.