Black Rain, 1989

On the morning of August 6, 1945, a young woman named Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka) catches a ride with a neighbor who is evacuating from Hiroshima in order to transport her family’s formal clothes and sentimental possessions to a friend’s home for safekeeping on a nearby island in Furu√©. At 8:15, during a tea ceremony, Yasuko and her hosts witness a sudden, blinding flash of light and hurry outside to observe the surreal sight of an ominous mushroom cloud rising from the island. Concerned over the plight of her supportive and compassionate guardians, uncle Shigeko (Etsuko Ichihara) and aunt Shigamatsu (Kazuo Kitamura), Yasuko boards a boat returning to Hiroshima and, along the way, encounters the radioactive fallout from the atomic bomb in the curious form of black rain that discolors her clothing and face. Arriving home, she unsuccessfully attempts to wash the indelible stains from her clothing (which Shigeko innocently surmises must have been caused by the explosion of an oil vessel), but is soon scuttled away by her guardians in order to escape the rampant chaos and continued danger of falling debris and uncontrolled fires raging through the center of town. Yasuko and her family eventually find refuge in Shigeko’s place of employment – a factory on the outskirts of the island. A few years later, as the family struggles to rebuild their life amidst the ruins of Hiroshima in the rural village of Takafuta, Shigeko and Shigamatsu attempt to find a suitable husband for Yasuko in the grim realization that they have begun to exhibit initial symptoms of radiation poisoning. However, despite reaching marrying age and receiving a clean bill of health from the neighborhood doctor, Yasuko’s marital prospects prove bleak, marred by the experience of the atomic bomb that invariably drives suitors away in fear of the unknown long-term effects of the island’s exposure.

Based on the serialized novel by Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain is a somber, visually distilled, and deeply affecting portrait of the human toll and uncalculated tragedy of nuclear holocaust. In contrast to Shohei Imamura’s characteristically unrefined, primitivistic, and subversively bawdy cinema, the film is shot in high contrast black and white, creating a spare and tonally muted chronicle of dignity, survival, community, and human resilience. Through recurring literal and figurative images of regression, Imamura conveys a dual meaning, not only in the community’s noble attempt to rebuild Hiroshima and return to a semblance of normal life after the annihilating bombing but also in their collective gradual and systematic erasure from Japanese society through long-term effects of radiation sickness, infertility, cultural (and geographic) isolation, and social stigmatization: Yasuko’s inability to wash the stains from the black rain that tainted her clothing; her evening chore of resetting the clock; her multiple, unrealized marriage proposals; her grandmother’s senility. The theme of futile cyclicality and repetition is further illustrated in the threatened use of nuclear weapons during the Korean War, an irresponsible comment that causes a dispirited and embittered Shigeko to remark, “Unjust peace is better than a war of justice”. In a memorably sublime and surreal episode, Yasuko and Shigeko observe an oversized carp swimming upstream in the village pond. It is a haunting and transcendent reflection of the community’s own metaphoric struggle as well – a poetic image of tenacity and determination against an inalterable current of recklessness, ignorance, and myopic vision.

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