You know, I don’t think anyone watches a Shohei Imamura movie to have a good time. This is a really rough one, explaining how Japan dealt with the aftermath of two nuclear bombs dropped on their country and how the hibakusha* — people who were marked and sickened by the blasts — were dealt with.
The hibakusha faced discrimination when it came to prospects of marriage or work, as most people did not know what the consequences of radiation sickness would be, with many believing it to be hereditary or even highly contagious. As a result, even their children were discriminated against.
Based on the book by Masuji Ibuse, the title refers to the literal black rain that fell on Japan in the days after the two blasts, as firestorm-generated, soot-filled rain with high concentrations of fission products and carbon-14 came down on the survivors.
Honestly, when I first started watching this, I was convinced that it was a movie from the 1950’s. That’s how perfectly the era is captured, as we meet Shizuma Shigematsu and hear and see his journal entries about the differences between Hiroshima in 1945 and five years later.
There’s a harrowing moment in the opening as Shigematsu wanders the streets and sees first-hand the damaged people wandering the streets, seeking cool puddles of water to die in. Their skin is literally falling from their bones and one asks, “Do you not recognize me?”
By 1950, some normalcy has returned for people who weren’t in the blast. Shigematsu and his wife Shigeko become the guardians for their niece Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka, who was in the pop group The Candies and appeared in Godzilla vs. Biollante; she sadly died of breast cancer at the age of 55. She won the Best Actress Award at the 14th Hochi Film Award for this movie).
As time goes on, so many of their friends and family die from radiation sickness and Yasuko’s prospects for marriage become more unlikely. In the end, she forms a bond with the poor artist Yuichi, who has been so damaged that he sees cars as American tanks.
This film pretty much swept the 1990 Japanese Academy Awards, winning Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Film, Best Lighting, Best Music Score, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. All of these are well-deserved, as this is a stunning movie that will stick with you forever.
The cast worked hard for these awards, as they were forbidden by Imamura to leave location, as he didn’t want them to have a break from the oppressiveness of the past and begin to enjoy the comforts of modern Tokyo before the film was complete.
In America, we were always taught that the Japanese would never surrender and we had to do this. That may be an easy thought if you haven’t had to watch burned babies as ash in a mother’s arms. This is a brutal, uncompromising movie that even goes further, showing how a struggle for things to get better can exist side by side with a worry that this could all happen again.
You can find Black Rain on the new Survivor Ballads: Three Films By Shohei Imamura set from Arrow Films, which is available from MVD.
*Believe it or not, there were also nijū hibakusha. That name refers to the 165 people who survived both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.