Black Rain1989

Director: Shohei Imamura

Stars: Yoshiko Tanaka, Etsuko Ichihara, Keisuke Ishida

Release Company: Fox Lorber Home Video

MPAA Rating: NR

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My closest experience with the atomic bomb was back in grade school, diving under my desk for our Duck and Cover drills; we also had Civil Defense signs posted around town identifying shelters just in case the Russians attacked. Fear of atomic bombs was widely promoted throughout the U.S. the decade after WWII—never mind the devastation that the U.S. had inflicted on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Such things were never discussed in U.S. elementary classrooms. Not much was made of this in my high school or collegiate history classes either.

Most of my exposure to the Japanese perspective came from Japanese films, but they either dealt symbolically (like the Godzilla movies) or dealt more with Japan's post-war recovery period. Not so with Shohei Imamura's wonderful black and white rendition of Black Rain (Kuroi ame), based on Masuji Ibuse's novel. Beginning on the day of the Hiroshima bombing, the film follows the lives of some of its survivors who were contaminated by radioactive fallout. They live in continual fear of radiation sickness and cancer, yet ironically outlive many of their contemporaries who never directly experienced the "flash"—some of whom were born after that horrific day.

Primarily, the film focuses on Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka), who was a young girl at the time of the bomb. Although not physically damaged, she and a number of companions feel the "black rain" of the radiation fall out immediately and is among the many searching among the contaminated ruins. As time marches on, Yasuko and her fellow survivors all feel like ticking time bombs themselves—expecting tell tale signs of their sickness and impending deaths.

Yasuko moves in with her surviving uncle Shigeko (Etsuko Ichihara) and his wife, who all have survived the "flash" but now continue to live under the mushroom cloud of doom. Still they strive to continue with their traditional ways, so they ardently seek to find an eligible husband for Yasuko. Her uncle gets a doctor to certify Yasuko’s health but nearly all eligible men remove themselves as candidates. Given the uncertainties about radiation sickness and how it could affect child-bearing, the caution is understandable. When one man of the proper economic class lusts too eagerly, Yasuko turns him down. Later, she comes to love a poor suitor, but now additional dilemmas arise. Exactly how these are resolves depends on which ending you see (now that the DVD edition makes available the Technicolor ending that the director originally considered but ultimately left on the cutting room floor). Both endings have merit.

So many sequences are filled with potency. The scene near the beginning is especially riveting as we follow various Hiroshima citizens in their daily routine. We are aboard a train when suddenly a bright light flashes and an extraordinary blast pulverizes the interior, and we are able to experience their disorientation—their entire world has been torn asunder… in one blinding instant.

Nothing remains as it was; melting skin makes relatives unrecognizable. Fire and total devastation throw survivors into chaos. Hiroshima and its thousands of inhabitants have essentially been obliterated—totally blowing away assertions in those 1950's Duck and Cover films about how knowing this simple drill would have saved thousands of lives. Imamura's camera pans on enough rubble and charred bodies to graphically illustrate the immediate devastation without over sentimentalizing. His characters frequently daydream about bomb's aftermath and relive the horror, but in the context of this beautifully constructed film this feels completely natural. Sobering and very, very real.

Despite its source material, Black Rain doesn't fall into auto-mode and focus on an anti-war theme, Yosuko's uncle more than once reflects that "an unjust peace is better than a just war." Ironically the three survivors we follow outlive many of their contemporaries, and numerous signs indicate how their society is destined to forget the horror and continue on as before. Humanity may be resilient, but it can also be very short-sighted and ignorant—all the more reason that Imamura's artfully rendered film deserves more play.

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