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Movie Review: Black Rain (1989)

Friday, August 19, 2005 Posted: 06:03 PM JST

Yesterday I finally got to see "Black Rain" by Shohei Imamura, starring Yoshiko Tanaka, Kazuo Kitamura, Etsuko Ichihara and Shoichi Ozawa. The title refers to the radioactive fallout which fell upon Hiroshima after the dropping of the first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. The story follows Yasuko and her uncle and aunt five years after the blast, with flash-backs to the day itself.

The film is shot in stark black and white that reminds one of the documentaries of the 1950's and 1960s. The total absence of any color draws attention to the characters and the horrors that befall them.

Yasuko and her uncle and aunt are unhurt. But we see them struggle through the devastated city. I have never seen any images that better portray what happened in Hiroshima than the scenes of them escaping the destruction. They are surrounded by horribly disfigured people, totally burnt with their skin hanging in tatters like old rags of clothing. Everywhere lay the black remains of burnt people. When they cross a shallow river, dead people float like the lanterns that are released on rivers during August when Japanese remember their ancestors.

In color this would have been tacky and sensational. In black and white it is disturbing and impressive. You immediately understand why the US government has tried so hard to suppress such images. The message is clear, the use of the atomic bomb is utterly inhuman.

The shocking images of the disfigured survivors is in stark contrast to the portrayal of the quiet mountain village life that anchors the story. The beautiful pastoral valley, without the concrete, highways and power lines that now dominate Japan's landscape, insinuates tranquil peace and a sense of well-being and health. A kind of simple paradise on earth. But the hibakusha's (bomb survivors) reality is far removed from this image.

Yasuko and her uncle and aunt live in constant fear of the radioactivity they were exposed to. Around them their best friends die one by one from this mysterious disease. Outwardly they appear completely fine, but they die nonetheless.

"Black Rain" very keenly displays the terrible societal prejudices that hibakusha endured. Villagers complain about the weak bomb survivors apparent "laziness". Yasuko's friends won't see her, afraid they will make her sick, no man will marry her. Yasuko is now a pariah who is unable to find a husband. When she shows papers from her doctor stating a clean bill of health, suitors end up being even more convinced of her sickness.

But through all this inhumane treatment also flows the thread of a warm humanity. Yasuko's understanding of Yuichi, a former soldier in the imperial Japanese army who finds himself back in the midst of the front whenever he hears an engine, tells of her own invisible suffering. The love that grows between them is rooted in immeasurable pain and therefore all the more sincere.

The film is full of subtle cultural references that tell an enlightening story about what is happing inside the hearts of the characters. As Yasuko's inescapable fate slowly becomes clearer, Yuichi places Jizo statues, he has created himself, in front of her house. Jizo is a Buddhist guardian deity who protects children, travellers, expectant mothers and the weak in general. He is considered the "Savior from the Torments of Hell".

Yasuko's uncle releases carp repeatedly and they become an important symbol. These glorious fish signify endurance to the Japanese. Hiroshima's baseball team is actually named after them.

I can't think of any other film that has so masterfully captured the horrors and cruelty of the atomic bomb, and in such a quiet and dispassionate manner. There is not a grain of sensationalism to be found. Just the depiction of family life filled with warmth that is torn apart. The atomic bomb, "Black Rain" says, tears apart the very fabric of society. A bitter warning.

Adapted from the prize-winning novel Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse.

Movie: Black Rain; by Shohei Imamura, starring Yoshiko Tanaka, Kazuo Kitamura, Etsuko Ichihara and Shoichi Ozawa

Keywords: arts_entertainment

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
Stone Bridge Press

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