‘Black Rain’ or — Interesting Ways to Survive?

Hiroshima, 1945. Shizuma Shigemastu and his family survive the blast, although their orphaned niece, Yasuko (of whom they are the guardians of), is caught in the radioactive “black rain” that falls after.

As the years go by Shizuma makes several attempts to find a husband for Yasuko yet each potential suitor rejects her because everyone knows she, plus her family, is a “hibakusha” — a person affected by the nuclear bomb. Just because she looks pretty doesn’t mean to say she isn’t carrying something unseen.

So Shizuma struggles not just to find a husband for his niece but how to adjust to a Japanese society that is viewing his family differently now through no fault of their own. Yet has this invisible sickness permeated Japanese society too? The trauma of the attack lingering potently like background radiation down through the years?

What’s striking, although in no way surprising, about Shōhei Imamura’s ‘Black Rain’ (1989) is the restraint and respect the director brings to it all, two words usually not associated with this filmmaker. The film is shot in black and white which serves two purposes: it roots the film visually in the cinema of the time (40s/50s); it helps to distance us from the horrors we are witnessing onscreen.

Not that Imamura excessively lingers on scenes of devastation or suffering. They are certainly here with the attack and the aftermath being truly harrowing (a young boy has his skin and clothing hanging, dripping, off him to the point his own brother can’t, and won’t through shock, even recognise him) and there are a couple of flashbacks that don’t shy away from the horror of what must have happened. But Imamura is not interested in the voyeuristic “spectacle” of the nightmare but in the survivor’s lives afterwards, how they can live it and what lingers on both in the body and society.

This focus on society and its hypocrisy allows Imamura to inject some of his typical dark humour into ‘Black Rain’, something you wouldn’t usually expect in a movie about Hiroshima. His sensitive handling of the central characters and their situation allows him to contrast their plight with the judgmental nature of those not affected. At one point Shizuma and some of his fellow survivors are fishing at the local pond when a passing woman tells them they’re not really sick and are just lazy and pretending, simply using the bomb as an excuse not to work. It’s a funny, yet frightening, example of how denial can function in a country’s consciousness, even if we can sense that the entire nation has already been traumatised even if it isn’t acknowledged by some.

This helps stop ‘Black Rain’ from becoming an unbearably depressing experience, one where we are simply watching victims succumb to the inevitable. Plus, about halfway through, there’s a startling, and heat-breaking, statement made by Yasuko, the niece, which immediately dispels any aura of pity we might be projecting onto her. It flips the entire film emotionally and, from here on, both Yasuko and Shizuma cease to be victims in our eyes but, instead, almost inadvertent interrogators of Japanese society; their ownership of their predicament reflecting back onto the community the prejudices towards the survivors of the bombs.

There’s also some sly humour regarding Japanese cinema itself hidden away here, too, specifically in relation to Yasujirō Ozu under whom Imamura trained. For example — the Shigemastu’s grandmother, a stoic figure, listens to her family talk, sometimes nodding in approval. Yet notice the way she is framed — it’s very much in the Ozu style, something Imamura never really indulged in, preferring a more documentary approach for his films. She’s then almost pushed off to one side of the camera, a sign not just of the neglect of the elderly but possibly of Japanese cinema history too? I could be reaching but something is occurring along those lines here.

‘Black Rain’ is an incredible and intensely moving film. It’s not the full on horror show some might dread (or even crave) with Imamura bringing an insightful humanity to it all along with just enough humour to balance out the darkness. It’s about the survivors and their fate but it’s possibly more about how Japan reacted to these people and the lies and tricks society can use to justify forms of ostracisation.

The climax is emotionally shattering but the journey there is far from unremittingly bleak; there’s too much dignity and intelligence at play here for that. This is a film that, thankfully, emits more light than heat.

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.