Kuroi ame

(Black Rain, Japan - 1989)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Yoshiko Tanaka, Kazuo Kitamura, Etsuko Ichihara, Shoichi Ozawa, Norihei Miki, Keisuke Ishida
Genre: Drama
Director: Shohei Imamura
Screenplay: Shohei Imamura & Toshiro Ishido based on the novel by Masuji Ibuse
Cinematography: Takashi Kawamata
Composer: Toru Takemitsu
Runtime: 123 minutes

A young graduate travels in the back of a truck, observing such events as a bird walk through the shallowest water on the beach, as she thinks of the goods precious to her entire family she's about to pick up like her great grandmother's silk wedding gown (which she may soon wear). A man strolls unhurried to the train station to go to his factory job, joining many other peaceful workers. It seems like any other morning, but the country is Japan and the day, stamped at the outset of the film, is August 6, 1945. We know what that means, I hope, but that actually adds to the sadness and suspense.

The theory on why director Shohei Imamura shot this 1989 film in black and white is the images - not the least bit gratuitous or sensational - of atomic destruction would be true gruesome to withstand in color. Imamura has not set out to make a film condemning anyone for the war or the decisions that led to its end. America, mentioned directly only once, is alluded to in a newscast about the possibility of our country repeating the nuclear atrocities during the Korean War, but the real point in that is Shigematsu's statement against any type of war. "Human beings learn nothing. They strangle themselves. Unjust peace is better than a war of justice. Why can't they see?" While the film is obviously extremely anti bomb mainly because this weapon has lingering effects like no other that existed in 1945, Imamura and novelist Masuji Ibuse actually do quite the opposite of what you'd expect. They set almost all of the film in 1950 so they can condemn their own country for the way they went about their post bomb "recovery."

"She forgot how Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed. Everyone forgot it. They forget the hell of fire and go to rallies like an annual festival. I'm sick of it," says a man named Katayama (Akiji Kobayashi) who was directly exposed to the bomb's radiation. The complaint is not that people put the event behind them; it's that they blamed themselves for something that wasn't their fault (one can make a strong argument that it was the country's fault, but a civilian cannot be blamed for being exposed to radiation) and tried to deny it ever happened (sadly the country has still have not even admitted their guilt in the war). It's that they internalized their problems in a sad attempt to go back to life as it's always been even though things had greatly changed.

Unlike her Uncle Shigematsu Shimuza (Kazuo Kitamura) and Aunt Shigeko Shimuza (Etsuko Ichihara), Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka) was not in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. However, while returning to Hiroshima that morning she was exposed to the radioactive debris known as black rain that fell over a wider area for about an hour after bomb was dropped. When she arrived in Hiroshima, in order to escape the spreading fire she made a long trek with her Aunt and Uncle across what was left of the city to her Uncle's office. This was the only place they'd be accepted that her Uncle figured would also be safe, but to get there they had to go through a high radiation area and witness things to gruesome to describe.

One of Imamura's criticisms is his country puts too much emphasis on time. Shigematsu complains to Yasuko, "The post office manager came last night to offer you a job. Why now? He should have done it two years ago. You'd have to quite if you got married…Don't accept it." Yasuko was of marrying age when the bomb dropped. Now five years later, at the ripe old age of 25, she's practically an old maid by society's standards. She must get married as soon as possible because traditional view says so. As women were expected to be homemakers, there were few career opportunities for women, and women had to marry young before their looks waned since that was one of the biggest measures of their worth.

The attractive Yasuko also has a generic high value because her family has money. Due to the class system being is followed rather rigidly, she's basically swimming with other financially well off girls that are a few years younger. Her problem is any suitor with half a brain cell would seek the hand of a girl that's definitely healthy. As Shigeko says, "Now we all know it (the black rain) was poisonous. The groom will be convinced that she's ill." Shigematsu does everything he can think of including copying their diaries to prove she wasn't directly exposed to the bomb and getting a doctor to certify her health, but despite his best efforts everyone eventually finds out she was exposed to the black rain.

Suitors come and go. At first the plan was to hide and deny, but slowly Yasuko begins warning them against her potential condition to the point she talks them out of marrying her. The bomb has robbed Yasuko, and most others, of life and personality. All she can think about is the possibility that the radiation inside her will manifest itself. The film exaggerates the amount of people that are suffering from after effects, but that doesn't change it's point that not knowing if and when you will be affected is too hard to deal with. Your healthy days are wasted worrying about the unhealthy ones. Yasuko becomes damaged goods even though she might not be, and constantly apologizes for it like it's her fault.

Shigematsu does his best to take care of Yasuko and set her up, but he's always haunted by the fact he brought her to Hiroshima after his sister died. Shigeko reassures him that it was the right thing to do, "To save her hard labor in a munitions factory," but it's somehow his fault that Hiroshima was targeted. Shigeko bears her own cross. She feels guilty because she's the last of the Shimuzu women and the all-important family name won't carry on because the bomb made her barren. When she doesn't mistake Yasuko for her dead sister-in-law, she tells her "I'm too ashamed of myself to see your mother in heaven. Forgive me."

"I get this nausea sometime. Maybe it's the bomb." Who says this is not important, for it could be anyone that was exposed to the bomb unless they remarkably aren't too ashamed to say it aloud. Short-term effects like bleeding from the gums and purpura (bleeding under the skin) were obviously bomb related, but others like vomiting and diarrhea may not be related at all. Of course, at the time people didn't know much about the effects of the bomb, especially long term since thankfully there was no previous usage to base things on. To make things worse, the Japanese have a long and storied history of lying about health problems. People often had to be taken to the doctor when they got really bad because they claimed nothing was wrong with them, denying their problems because they were ashamed of them. Then again, stories of the much maligned Japanese doctors with their cut first ask questions later methodology make it hard to blame people for not seeing them. Even if the doctor diagnosed the patient was dying, he wouldn't tell them anyway. Even when the friends and family members of the sick person know they were still ill, the sick person would still say they were fine to try to reassure the others that everything was normal.

All aspects of life continue to decline as the Shimizu's friends and neighbors begin to die off. They outlive a neighbor that wasn't exposed, and some that were indirectly exposed like Yasuko, but it only makes them think their fuse is that much closer to reaching its end. This feeling that they are a human timebomb that's about to go off is so deeply afflicting. Signs that it's true begin to crop up, but are they brought on by excess stress or excess radiation? It really only matters for those making a study. Either way it's village on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Shigematsu's repeated assertions that the black rain didn't harm Yasuko become more a method of denial to try to act like she's the same as she was on 8/5/45. Yasuko's decision not to marry in order to keep the family together is just the latest in a long line of methods to preserve things as they were before the bomb.

The only person Yasuko can speak honestly with is Yuichi (Keisuke Ishida), a soldier whose last job was destroying enemy (US) tanks. Yuichi was so ruined by the war that the sound of any engine gives him a flashback to his old job, resulting in him trying to crawl under every automotive that passes by to take it out (luckily he lacks the necessary materials). The people of the village all have to go wild telling the driver to stop their engine because it's the only way to avoid another painful incident. Aside from Yuichi needing to be institutionalized, he is also a peasant, making him very much unworthy of Yasuko unless like the authors you support the opinion that she's fallen so much she's sadly not even worthy of him.

Constant denial becomes so overwhelming that Yasuko falls in love with Yuichi simply because they have nothing to hide from each other. They are both so damaged by the war that they can freely admit it when they are alone together. This might not seem like much, but it's a luxury they don't have anywhere else. Internalizing their problems for so long has messed them up to the point Yasuko almost sounds happy to assert "We (her family) walked around in a city full of radioactivity, so we can get radiation sickness anytime." Finally she's dealing with her problem in some way. It's relieving and it reopens the possibility of marriage because for the first time it would be a totally frank and honest one. The most painful scene in the film, largely because the shoe is now on the other foot, is when Yuichi's mother Tatsu (Masato Yamada) breaks tradition and asks Shigematsu to allow her son to marry Yasuko. "But he's sick isn't he?"

Sometimes a small scope can more effectively portray an enormous horror. By sticking to consolidated if not tight shots, Imamura was able to credibly recreate the bomb's many atrocities despite his minimal budget. Shooting in black and white also made it more doable because it's much easier to fudge the effects.

The most horrifying scene in the film is when a nuked young boy recognizes his seemingly unaffected older brother as they are wandering the city a few hours after the bomb as dropped. The boy, burned beyond recognition with his flesh hanging - particularly from the fingers on his hands which have basically been converted to elongated goo - sadly approaches his brother like a zombie telling him "It's me, your brother" as his brother backs away afraid to touch him. The young boy essentially hangs his head when his older brother asks, "My brother? Your name?" Even after the boy gives his brother all the pertinent information, it takes his brother recognizing his belt to accept the horrific realization that this is what's become of his brother. He embraces him, but it can never be the same.

The beauty of life is only allowed to come to the forefront once in the film. As people exposed to radiation aren't supposed to work to hard and Shigematsu is a rich landowner, much time is spent fishing at the pond they stock. It's not about catching the fish, which they usually just throw back. It's a way to pass the time, a way to deny and forget. Shigematsu always hopes to get the big carp, the king, which he's never seen in all these years but one of his friends saw once. When things are near their worst, Shigematsu & Yasuko go to the pond and finally, in spite of blurry vision, see the king carp jumping in the water. There's such a rush of excitement and joy, even from Yasuko who we've never seen at the pond before. Unfortunately, almost as soon as Shigematsu realizes something he's waited all these years has finally come true, he also realizes something he's feared all these years has come true.

Kuroi ame is more a film you appreciate on many levels than one you enjoy. Most people will prefer the mediocrity of Ridley Scott's stylish yet worthless Yakuza picture from the same year that's more concerned with the look of Osaka (at times excellent enough to distract you from the lameness of the plot) than anyone in it. Imamura's film might not be a great movie either, but it does an excellent job at presenting a very specific perspective on a nation's reaction to an event that forever changed their country as well as the world. It's fictionalized in a way that, while sometimes overacted and occasionally over exaggerated, doesn't take much license with the historical accuracy of the material actually in the film. Obviously one would be better served hitting the history books if they want to learn about the war, but on paper you don't have a clear emotional attachment because every faceless individual is lumped together into one big statistic.

Whether you agree with the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima or not, this film makes you understand what it was like for the civilians in Japan that were forever altered by that decision. I find the film to be fair because it's hard not to feel for these people, but (even though the suicidal tendencies of the country aren't touched upon) it's also hard not to feel that much of their problems were self-inflicted. It presents a worthwhile story that has a different, but no less important interpretation outside of Japan as inside, without being overly manipulative. Obviously some of this story is familiar, but much of it must seem unbelievable to people who aren't familiar with Japan because it presents a side of the nation that most Japanese don't want to admit to, much less make open to the world. Shigematsu asks for a miracle to happen, a beautiful color rainbow to rise and make things better. The film is black and white, but the world isn't.



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