Directed by: Shohei Imamura
Starring: Yoshiko Tanaka, Kazuo Kitamura, Etsuko Ichihara, Shoichi Ozawa, Norihei Miki
Shohei Imamura’s uncompromising look at the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, Black Rain (1989), is an uncomfortable film to say the least—though not always for the reasons one might suspect. Oh, there’s no denying that Imamura’s depiction of the actual bombing of the city—and its immediate aftermath—is powerful. Indeed, this is perhaps the most horrific recreation of the events I’ve ever seen, despite an obviously constrained budget. It’s not just that Imamura offers a series of startlingly grim and unshakable images—the child with the blistered skin who is unrecognizable to his relative, the mother “comforting” a charred baby, the man wanting to know “where” Hiroshima is—much of it has to do with the way in which no one can actually comprehend what has happened, what could have possibly done this.
Powerful as this is, it’s only a minor portion of the film, which is more about the after effects of the bombing: the slow poisoning by radiation of people not killed in the blast itself. Even the radiation poisoning is less central to the film than the emotional and psychological consequences, and the way the survivors—and those around them—cope. A great deal of Imamura’s point concerns itself with the misplaced sense of guilt suffered by the afflicted. It’s the idea that they are themselves somehow responsible for what has happened to them and that their illness is shameful. In many ways, Black Rain is a critique of Japanese society and the way in which it treats the survivors (if they can be called that) as lepers of sorts—to be shunned at all cost.
The story focuses largely on Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka), whose exposure to the radiation has made her all but unmarriageable. She wasn’t at ground zero—a distinction that keeps being made—and she appears healthy, but the families into which she might marry simply don’t want to take the chance. This, in turn, has made her internalize the bombing, causing it to eat away at her in quite a different way. It has also caused her to avoid medical care that she needs because she’s ashamed of needing it, hiding a problem rather than letting anyone know.
This is grim stuff—don’t think for a moment that it isn’t. But it’s also powerful and powerfully effective, and it addresses the issue of the national scarring of the bombings in a way that no one else ever has. It’s interesting that Imamura shot the film in black-and-white—an extremely rare move in 1989—a decision that Roger Ebert suspects was due to how horrific the bombing scenes would have been in color. Ebert may be correct, but my own suspicion is that the choice was more a matter of capturing the era. Consciously or not, the imagery causes the film to frequently evoke the look of Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954)—even the manner in which people look up in uncomprehending terror at the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima is strikingly like Honda’s film with its literal giant monster. In so doing, Black Rain addresses the underlying meaning behind the Honda film in a way that is hard to ignore.
Classic Cinema From Around the World will present Black Rain at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St., in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.